Columbus legislators to push familiar agenda in new term

The 2016 Georgia General Assembly session will have a similar feel to last year when it comes to the legislators who represent Columbus.

For the fourth consecutive year, the seven-lawmaker team that makes up the Muscogee County delegation has not changed.

And some of the issues remain the same, as well.

Sen. Josh McKoon, a Republican, vows to continue his all-out fight to push a religious liberties bill through the General Assembly, despite failed attempts the last two years. One of the top local priorities will be to secure funding to complete renovation and expansion of the Schwob Library on Columbus State University's main campus. A portion of the money was in last year's budget, but a conference committee cut the amount on the final day of the session, leaving a nearly $6 million hole in the funding, which is needed to complete the work.

McKoon's legislation is being met with some of the same opposition that has lined up against it in the past, most notable the large Georgia corporations, including Delta Airlines. The bill's stated purpose is "to provide for the preservation of religious freedom," but opponents fear it could be used as a discrimination tool against the gay, lesbian and transgender community.

"Maybe the third time is in the charm," McKoon said last week. "I feel we have a pretty good chance to get it through. There has been a lot of momentum in our direction."

McKoon said he would be open to compromise.

"I am willing to work through the process, come to the table and have a discussion," he said.

Last year, McKoon's legislation stalled at the end of the last session as the groundswell of discontent about similar legislation in other states, specifically Indiana, became an issue. There was a move to put "anti-discrimination" language in McKoon's bill, but that was rejected.

Rep. Richard Smith, the senior Republican in the Muscogee County delegation, is an ally of House Speaker David Ralston. The speaker has proposed a "pastor protection act" that would not force a church leader to perform same-sex unions against their will.

"I know Josh is going to push it again," Smith said. "He has that right to put it in the form of any legislation he believes is necessary."

Smith said the bill will likely continue to have a difficult time in the House.

"I do not see it getting on the House floor for a vote unless there are assurances it can't be used for discriminatory purposes," he said. "Look at what happened in Arkansas, Arizona and Indiana. They came back and changed it, but it was too late."

At the end of the 2015 session, the General Assembly passed a transportation funding bill that included a $5 per night tax on hotel and motel rooms.

McKoon would like to see lawmakers revisit that tax that was added in the final hours of the final day of the session.

"We need to repeal the $5 hotel tax," McKoon said. "I know that the Columbus Consolidated Government and the Convention and Visitors Bureau would like to see that done. We are going to make a big push on that."

Rep. Debbie Buckner, a Junction City Democrat whose district includes part of east Columbus, said she could support that.

"I think we need to take a look at it and find another way to fund it," she said. "Maybe we could find it someplace else where it is a little less onerous."

Sen. Ed Harbison, a Columbus Democrat, said he was willing to discuss changes to the law, which is expected to generate about $1 billion annually for road and transportation improvements.

"Let me be clear about this," he said, "I am a little reluctant to touch it. Once you open it up to discuss one piece of it, you have put it on the table to discuss all of it. I think at the end of the day, we did the best we could."

Harbison expects, as Georgia looks for additional funding, the General Assembly will be considering legislation that will allow casinos to operate in the state.

"One of the things, as it relates to the budget, that we are going to have to talk about is casinos," Harbison said.

Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat who is the dean of the General Assembly as he enters his 42nd session, agreed.

"I think the preservation of the HOPE Scholarship is a major issue," Smyre said of the lottery-funded program that offers college tuition assistance for academically qualified students. "I think the casinos could be used in HOPE funding much the way the lottery is used. Casinos could be an uphill battle because it's an election year, but it will be on the table."

There will be a number of local issues that will impact the Muscogee County delegation, but the top two appear to be the CSU funding and a proposed ballot measure to phase out Columbus' three-decade old property tax freeze.

The CSU funding is unfinished business.

Last year, the Board of Regents asked for $17.4 million to fund the CSU library project, work on another building on the main campus and demolish Woodall Hall. When the budget was finalized, CSU received $11.87 million.

This year, the university is asking for the balance of that, plus about $2 million for equipment to go in the new laboratory sciences building that was approved last year.

"We were delighted to get $11.87 million of that request and are hopeful we can get some additional funding this year to complete our strategic plan to upgrade the academic core of our main campus," said CSU spokesman John Lester.

The city of Columbus and the Muscogee County School Board, the city's two taxing authorities, are asking the local legislative delegation to sponsor and pass a bill that would put a referendum on the November ballot that would call for a vote that could phase out the county's property tax freeze that has been law since 1983.

Rep. John Pezold, a Columbus Republican, said he would support that.

"I am in favor of giving the people of Columbus the right to vote," he said. "I know that a whole lot of people want the freeze to stay, and I understand they vehemently disagree with me."