Brian Kemp, the Governor-elect of Georgia, was not invited to and did not attend the pre-legislative session held late last year by the Oconee County Board of Commissioners for the county’s delegation to the Georgia General Assembly.But Kemp’s presence at the gathering was strong nonetheless.
In closing the session, Republican Sen. Bill Cowsert said “the most interesting thing about this session” is going to be seeing how the personalities of Kemp, newly elected Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan, and House Speaker David Ralston “mesh” and how their goals “match.”
Houston Gaines from House District 117, said he and Marcus Wiedower in House District 119 defeated the two incumbent Democrats in November in part because of their relationships with Kemp and other state officials.
The 40-minute Oconee County pre-legislative session was more partisan than pre-legislative sessions held by Oconee County commissioners in recent years.
Oconee County Commissioner William “Bubber” Wilkes and Commissioner Mark Saxon thanked Wiedower and Gaines for running against and defeating the two incumbent Democrats.
All of the Oconee County’s commissioners are Republicans.
Oconee County Commission Chair John Daniells opened the Dec. 28 session and asked Wiedower and Gaines to introduce themselves. Cowsert did not join the 40-minute session until 25 minutes later.
|Gaines, Wiedower, Cowsert, Wilkes 12/28/2018|
Gaines and Wiedower will be beginning their first session in the Georgia House of Representatives when the General Assembly meets after swearing-in sessions tomorrow (Monday).
Commissioners Chuck Horton, Saxon and Wilkes were present, as were a dozen other county officials and citizens.
“We’re just excited to go down to Atlanta and work for the community,” Wiedower said. “Anything we can do for the community, obviously, we’re there to do it.”
“Me and Marcus, obviously we’ll be new,” Gaines said. “It’s great that we have Sen. Cowsert, who has been there several years, in the Oconee delegation.
“Obviously a lot of things we’ll be doing over there take teamwork,” Gaines added. “I think we’re excited to have a strong delegation to send to Atlanta.
“Obviously, there is a lot of things that is going to happen during this legislative session,” Gaines said. “We look forward to being a part of those but also putting forward our own agenda.
“And whatever we can to do help Oconee County and other counties we represent as well,” Gaines said. “You know you can always call us.”
Broadband Internet access came up at several points in the Dec. 28 discussion, as it had a year ago when the legislative delegation met with the commissioners.
“It definitely is on the radar,” Wiedower told Commissioner Horton, who said he hoped the legislature can provide some help to Oconee County in guaranteeing that students don’t have to leave their homes to find Internet access to do their homework.
“That is going to get a big emphasis this session,” Cowsert said.
“I have stopped using the word rural broadband. You know, I’m using the phrase broadband expansion. Because what we need is it to be equally accessible statewide as it is in the urban areas.”
Cowsert said highspeed Internet access is important for education, healthcare and economic development.
“Businesses, if they can have a web presence, they can operate out of any part of the state,” Cowsert said. “If they don’t, it just shuts so many doors to them.”
Gaines said his priorities for the upcoming session are continued support for higher education, increased support for technical colleges, lowering the state income tax, economic development and public safety.
He said the pay raise Kemp said he will provide teachers “is a very costly proposal but it is something he talked about on the campaign trail and something that I certainly support.
“We haven’t seen how that is going to look yet, Gaines said. “Certainly his priorities are certainly some that set the agenda in the whole General Assembly.”
“Anything we can do to continue to put more money in classrooms is of high importance,” Wiedower said. “Along with that school safety. I appreciate and will continue to support the legislation that allows local jurisdictions to handle that on their own.”
Wiedower said transportation is a high priority for him, and he mentioned improvements to SR 316, the Bishop Bypass, and possible passing lanes on SR 15 in the south of the county as examples.
“As far as Bishop goes, I think there is a lot of things that are out there floating around,” Wiedower said. “We’ve got to figure out which way that’s going to head.”
The Georgia Department of Transportation is funded by the legislature but administered so as to minimize the influence of the legislature on specific road projects.
Bill Mayberry, one of the citizens present, challenged Wiedower: “You’ll have influence on that?”
“I certainly hope to,” Wiedower said. “It will not lack an effort.”
Cowsert And Healthcare
Cowsert said he had three priorities for the upcoming session: broadband expansion, rural healthcare and education funding.
“We have to be able to have affordable, accessible, healthcare statewide,” Cowsert said.
“That becomes an economic development issue as well,” Cowsert said. “People are not going to locate their big industries in areas that don’t have adequate healthcare and good education.”
Cowsert said the state has provided assistance to rural hospitals by providing tax credits and offering grants, but it should also look at federal Medicaid waivers that would help the state expand medical coverage in rural areas of the state.
“I have always thought that it was equally important to increase the reimbursement to the medical providers as it was to expand the universe of people that were eligible,” Cowsert said.
The state has made progress in increasing the incentives to medical providers, particularly those in general practice and in obstetrics and gynecology, Cowsert said, and now needs to look at other ways to improve rural healthcare.
The legislature has refused to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act, but it could allow the governor to seek waivers of federal requirements as part of future Medicaid expansion.
Saxon And Wilkes
“I’d like to start by saying thank you guys for stepping up and filling those seats back and making us strong here in Oconee County as well,” Commissioner Saxon told Gaines and Wiedower. “And thank you for the effort you put into that for sure.”
Saxon told Gaines and Wiedower to “make yourself familiar with” the priorities of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, which advocates on behalf of county’s before the legislature.
‘Let’s keep home rule strong,” Saxon said.
“I, too, want to thank you all,” Commissioner Wilkes said. “I am so happy to have you all two back in there to serve Oconee County and the other counties.”
“My main thing I’d like to see is, I’d like to see you all support agriculture. It’s still a big part of Oconee County,” Wilkes said. “I mean, it’s not as big as it was, but it still plays a big part, and I want to protect it, help keep farming going. I know I’m an old farmer.”
“We are always going to need farmers,” Wiedower said.
Both Wiedower and Gaines focused on the importance of relationships for the upcoming session.
“We have to get down and earn the respect of people who have been there much longer than we have,” Wiedower said. “We’ll be freshmen. It is a relationship-building situation where we’ll have to earn that respect.”
Wiedower said Kemp “is a home grown guy, and it certainly is going to help to have Brian, that we’ll have Brian, down there.”
“Brian and Geoff Duncan, other candidates for statewide office, they were in this community during the election in part because they knew these two seats were important,” Gaines said. “So we’ve been able to build those relationships.” Duncan is the incoming lieutenant governor.
“Marcus and I have both known Brian a long time, but also other folks in leadership,” Gaines said. “And I think that plays to our advantage in terms of the ability to get things done.”
“It is a relationship thing at the beginning,” Gaines said. “And I think we’re in a really strong place. And I think frankly that is what part of this election was about.”
Justin Kirouac, Oconee County administrator, said the county will be asking the three legislators to help pass legislation that will alter the way the county allocates revenue from the state hotel motel tax.
Kirouac said the requirements of the tax are an “archaic compotent of the state law” and the county will need legislation approved on the county’s behalf.
The county is considering converting its Tourism Department into a Convention and Visitors Bureau and will need to change the way the hotel and motel tax is allocated to achieve that.
None of the legislators responded negatively or positively to Kirouac’s comments.
Sarah Bell, another of the citizens present at the session, asked each of the legislators to indicate “your biggest challenge” for the upcoming session.
“I think the biggest challenge is being brand new,” Gaines said. “The reality is, me and Marcus, we’ve had several days of training.”
“So I think there is going to be a learning curve,” Gaines said. “That’s just a reality. So I think that’s our biggest challenge.”
“I’d have to say that is clearly the biggest challenge we have,” Wiedower agreed. “Got to go there and meet everybody we can meet. Figure out the personalities. Figure out how to work with those personalities and just continue on that, earn the respect.”
“I think probably having a new governor and a new lieutenant governor, both coming in at the same time, is going to be refreshing in many ways to have new personalities, new agendas, new enthusiasm, less baggage, so to speak, or political debts and favors that are owed,” Cowsert said.
Cowsert replaced Kemp in the Senate in 2006 and is married to a sister of Kemp’s wife. He also has served as Senate Majority Leader since 2014.
“It has the possibility to be really great and dynamic and positive and also is going to be a little getting to know each other and positioning that will be challenging I think for everybody,” Cowsert continued.
“So that’s to me going to be the most interesting thing about this session,” Cowsert said, “is to see how those personalities mesh and how their various ambitions and desires and dreams and goals match and how they can work together to accomplish them.”
All three legislators focused on Oconee County in their comments and gave only passing references to the other counties in their districts, reflecting the importance of Oconee County in the districts of the legislators.
Going into the November 2018 elections, only 22 percent of the registered voters in Senate District 46 were from Oconee County, with Walton County contributing 43 percent of the registered voters and Clarke County 35 percent.
Cowsert, an Athens attorney, carried Walton County with 77 percent of the vote and Oconee with 72 percent of the vote, while getting only 31 percent of the vote in Clarke County. All of Oconee County is in Senate District 46, while on parts of Walton and Clarke counties are in the district.
Oconee County made up only 20 percent of the registered voters in House District 117, with Clarke County contributing 53 percent, Jackson County contributing 15 percent, and Barrow County contributing 12 percent.
Gaines, however, got 70 percent of the vote in Oconee County in November, 76 percent in Jackson County, 71 percent in Barrow County, and 38 percent in Clarke County. Gaines lives in Clarke County.
Oconee County made up 46 percent of the registered voters in House District 119 going into the November election, with the remainder in Clarke County.
Wiedower, however, got 71 percent of the Oconee County vote but only 30 percent of the Clarke County vote. Wiedower is an Oconee County builder.
The Dec. 28 meeting with the legislators took place in the Grand Jury Room of the Oconee County Courthouse in Watkinsville.
I could not attend the session, but Sarah Bell did and recorded the video below.