Monday, January 23, 2023

Oconee Legislators Wiedower, Gaines, Cowsert Get Top Committee Assignments In Georgia General Assembly

***Okefenokee Swamp Issue Impacts Wiedower’s Committee***

Georgia House Speaker Jon Burns last week appointed Oconee County’s state Rep. Marcus Wiedower chair of the General Government subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee when he announced new committee assignments for the current House session.

Burns also appointed Oconee County’s other state representative, Houston Gaines, as vice chair of the subcommittee on Higher Education.

Earlier in the session, House members selected Gaines as House Majority Caucus Vice-Chairman for the 2023-2024 legislative term, where his job is recruiting new Republican candidates to run for the House and helping with fund raising.

In the state Senate, the Senate Committee on Assignments has appointed Sen. Bill Cowsert to chair the Regulated Industries and Utility Committee and as vice chair of the Judiciary Committee.

Cowsert, who represents all of Oconee County in his five-county district, also is an officer on the Finance Committee, the Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee, and the Rules Committee.

Wiedower’s appointment to the 24-person Natural Resources and Environment Committee puts him in the spotlight during the session as many groups are putting pressure on the legislature to prevent Twin Pines Minerals of Alabama from mining near the Okefenokee Swamp.

Wiedower reported receiving a small campaign contribution from Twin Pines early last year, when the Natural Resources and Environment Committee refused to take any action on a similar request of the legislature.

Appropriations Committee

The House Appropriations Committee plays a crucial role in the legislature because it is responsible for the state's amended and general fiscal year budgets for Georgia's state agencies and departments.

Wiedower Official Picture

The Appropriations Committee has eight subcommittees, with Wiedower and Gaines playing leadership roles on two of them.

That certainly can have benefits for Oconee County and other counties in their districts. Wiedower’s 121 District consists of six of Oconee County’s eight precincts and parts of Clarke County.

Gaines’ 120th District includes the Bogart and Marswood Hall precincts of Oconee County plus parts of Clarke, Barrow, and Jackson counties.

In an interview on Jan. 4, WGAU radio personality Tim Bryant asked Gaines about the budget, and “How much of that money is coming back to Athens and the University of Georgia?”

“Certainly if Georgia wins the national championship, it makes the argument easier,” Gaines responded.

The University of Georgia football team did win the national championship convincingly five days later.

Okefenokee Protection

Last year, Darlene Taylor, a Republican from Thomasville, with 17 co-sponsors, filed House Bill 1289 to block mining near the Okefenokee, but the bill never made it out of the Natural Resources and Environment Committee, on which Wiedower sat.

Gaines Official Picture

The bill would have prohibited the Georgia Environmental Protection Division of the Natural Resources Department “from issuing, modifying, or renewing any permit or accepting any bond to conduct surface mining operations on the geological feature known as Trail Ridge between the St. Marys and Satilla Rivers.”

According to Dave Williams of Capitol Beat News Service, Taylor plans to reintroduce similar legislation this session, though the General Assembly web site does not list her having done so to date.

On January 19, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) released Twin Pines Minerals’ draft Mining Land Use Plan for the titanium dioxide surface mine as a prelude to issuing a permit.

The EPD opened the 60-day public commenting period that allows citizens to comment about Twin Pines’ mining proposal.

The proposal has generated a great deal of controversy, and groups such as the Athens-based Georgia Water Coalition are telling citizens to contact their legislators asking them to vote to protect the Swamp.

Wiedower was one of eight Republicans on the Georgia House Natural Resources and Environment Committee last year who reported receiving a campaign contribution before the last legislative session from Twin Pines Minerals.

He also was one of five who reported receiving campaign funds from the Macon-based Georgia Mining Association Committee for Good Government, which supports state legislation for mining in the state.

Other Committee Assignments Wiedower

Wiedower will serve on the Higher Education, Intragovernmental Coordination, Motor Vehicles, Natural Resources and Environment, Technology and Infrastructure Innovation, Urban Affairs, Ways and Means, and Transportation committees in addition to the Appropriations Committee.

Georgia River Network Map Showing Planned Mining Site
(Click To Enlarge)

Wiedower served on the Appropriations Committee last year, as well as on the Higher Education, Motor Vehicle, Natural Resources and Environment, and Ways and Means committees.

He is new to the Intragovernmental Coordination and Transportation committees.

The Technology and Infrastructure and Urban Affairs committees do not appear on the Committee list for last year’s session.

Other Committee Assignments Gaines

Gaines also will serve on the Creative Arts And Entertainment, Ethics, Governmental Affairs, Insurance, Public Health, Urban Affairs, and Ways and Means committees in addition to the Appropriations Committee.

Gaines had served on the Appropriations Committee last year, as well as on the Insurance and Ways and Means committees.

Gaines will be new to the Creative Arts And Entertainment, Ethics, and Government Affairs committees.

The Public Health and Urban Affairs Gaines will be joining do not appear on last year’s list of House Committees.

Cowsert In Senate

Cowsert has served in the state Senate since 2006, but his district changed this year to include parts of Gwinnett and Barrow counties in addition to Clarke, Oconee, and Walton.

Cowsert Official Picture

Oconee is the only county wholly within Cowsert’s 46th Senate District.

In last year’s session, Cowsert also chaired the Regulated Industries Committee and was vice chair of the Judiciary Committee.

Last year and this year he is an ex officio member of the Finance Committee.

Cowsert is serving on the Insurance and Labor Committee this year as a regular member, but he did not serve on the Committee last year.

This year Cowsert serves as secretary of the Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee. Last year he was vice chair of that committee.

Last year Cowsert also was vice chair of the Rules Committee. This year he is secretary.

Gaines On Future

The two Oconee County House Republicans, each now in his third term, have risen quickly in the House.

Both have shown themselves to be very successful fund raisers, with Gaines particularly prodigious at the task.

In the Jan. 4 interview, WGAU’s Bryant asked Gaines about where this leads him.

“There’s a label that gets attached to folks like Houston Gaines after a while, that’s this rising star business,” Bryant said. “I’m sure you’ve heard that in some legislative circles.”

“The question is, as you look down the road in the legislative calendar, the next election cycle, is there something else on your agenda, something else on your radar, something else you want to put on your plate, some other office you might be looking to seek?” Bryant asked.

“Right now, I just recently got elected to the House Leadership,” Gaines answered. “I was elected as vice chair of our Republican caucus.”

“And that’s my top priority right now is making sure we grow and expand our Republican majority in the state House because I truly believe in what we’ve accomplished since I’ve been there the last four years and over the last decade with Republican, conservative leadership under Gov. (Sonny) Perdue, Gov. (Nathan) Deal, and Gov. (Brian) Kemp,” Gaines said.

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