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Lawmaker leans toward public vote on casinos

POSTED: April 8, 2017 7:30 p.m.
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Al Williams, D-Midway, represents most of Liberty County in the Georgia House.

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Lawmakers recently passed Georgia’s fiscal 2018 budget of $24.9 billion, the "largest budget we’ve ever passed in Georgia" Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, told local leaders Thursday morning.

Williams discussed the latest legislative session, which ended in March, at a Liberty County Chamber of Commerce’s Eggs and Issues breakfast. He talked about legislation that passed and the ones that did not.

With federal funds added to the budget, the state has a $50 billion budget, Williams said. Part of the budget allocates funds for the foster care program and a 19 percent raise for Division of Family and Children Services.

The 2017 fiscal budget was also amended.

"We had a better year than expected, so we were able to do some things with the mid-term budget, such as $108 million additional for K-12 education and 20 percent pay raise for state law enforcement," Williams said.

One of the things not done during the session was a formal discussion on Georgia sheriffs’ requests for raises for local law enforcement, he said.

"We have some municipalities, and it’s really shocking," Williams said, "where the deputy sheriff has to buy their own bullets. It’s almost like Barney Fife, I keep one bullet in the gun."

Williams and other lawmakers will hold a series of statewide hearings with sheriffs, mayors and others to try to "craft legislation" to correct the problem.

Another issue left undone was casinos in Georgia. Williams said lawmakers dropped the word "casinos" and are instead calling it "resort destinations." He called the topic "a major point of contention in the state."

Legislators want to do a constitutional amendment, Williams said, which requires voters to ultimately decide on whether to allow casinos.

Revenue from casinos will be earmarked for the HOPE Scholarship, similar to revenue from the lottery.

Williams said building casinos has the potential of providing 3,000 construction jobs and millions of dollars in investment. One idea is to put a casino in the Savannah area near the Tanger Outlet and Interstate 95, to attract drivers going to Florida.

"I’m a member of the faith community and there’s strong opposition. I’m going to let the voters decided." Williams said. "There will be a lot of debate and discussion, especially in a year where there will be a governor’s race. My position is first the voters will have to decide what they want to do."

Legislation that passed included House Bill 146 to allow firefighters to get special health insurance plans to cover expenses from work-related cancer. Another passed bill would allow military communities to apply for grants from the state for development projects.

HB 245, authored by Williams, will allow qualified military spouses to get temporary teaching certificates until transition paperwork is complete.

Williams said the temporary certificate will prevent spouses from having "a gap in their career" when moving to the state.

The state’s medical marijuana laws were expanded to add six new conditions that can be treated with cannabis oil. It includes certain stages of Alzheimer’s diseases, AIDS, autism and peripheral neuropathy.

"It’s tightly controlled," Williams said. "Now, I know there are strong feelings and you have to have strong control when you’re talking about marijuana, but you need to have seen what I saw, a little girl who had 100 seizures a day. She went on cannabis oil and it went to two (seizures) a day."

Williams wanted to make it clear that he didn’t vote for marijuana and voted for cannabis oil for medical uses only.

Liberty County Commission Chairman Donald Lovette asked if the Hinesville bypass on Highway 84, which the state is calling Highway 119 Freight Connector, can be expedited.

Williams said there were discussions about the project and the transportation bill, HB 170, that passed last year made funds available for road projects.

"We’re going to get the bypass. It’s coming sooner than we thought," he said. "About five years ago we thought it would be 20 years because we didn’t have any money."

The breakfast was sponsored by Hargray.

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