— Three dozen civic leaders in training got to meet with senior state officials Tuesday during a visit to the statehouse on a recess after one of the General Assembly’s busiest days.
“We so anticipated your visit that we closed,” joked House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. “You’ve got this whole playhouse to yourself.”
While the legislature wasn’t in session after Monday’s Crossover Day marathon – 50 bills passed the House in 11 hours – the group did get to see members of the local delegation.
And they heard praise for two retiring veteran lawmakers, Rep. Barbara Sims and Sen. Bill Jackson, both Republicans.
“I’m going to miss her very, very much,” Ralston said of Sims. “She is such a great advocate for your community. She’s so respected.”
The highest-ranking member of the Senate, President Pro Tempore David Shafer, R-Duluth, lauded Jackson.
“I salute him. He was a giant,” Shafer said, telling the class that Jackson’s personality is “legendary.”
The group also talked about current issues facing the state. One member asked Ralston about bills pending that seek to guarantee the right of individuals to refuse services to people if doing so conflicts with their religious beliefs.
Ralston bristled as he recalled critics who questioned his own faith, but he said passing any of those bills could jeopardize the state’s ranking among the most welcoming for businesses.
After he and the other speakers left, the three-hour class concluded with a discussion of the religious-liberty legislation that Ralston opposed.
Shafer talked about his efforts to make one-eighth of the state budget subject to zero-based budgeting each year.
One member of the class asked if more of the budget couldn’t be examined as closely, but Shafer said there is a limit to how much a part-time Legislature can accomplish in a 40-day session.
Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry told the group the orange road-construction barrels around the region are going to multiply.
“I don’t have to tell you that you live in an enviable section of the state with regards to transportation,” he said, referring to the one-percent sales tax region voters approved three years ago.
As funds begin rolling in from a statewide tax increase the Legislature passed last year, the Augusta region will keep getting its share of the region’s sales-tax match along with the new funds, he promised.
“You guys have the first ‘yes.’ We can use your dollars to leverage state dollars,” he said.