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Legislator gives view of 2015 session
Legislative update
Ben Watson
Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah, represents Senate District 1, which includes parts of Bryan, Bulloch, Chatham, Effingham and Liberty counties. - photo by File photo

The activity surrounding each legislative session is always a combination of fast action with periods of slow-moving, tedious meetings as legislation is researched, deliberated and reconciled before the actual vote. This session was no different, and each day was used to the fullest as we set our sights on tackling some tough issues for the betterment of our state. The following is a summary of some of the major accomplishments and most-significant legislation passed this session.
Each year, education needs are given careful consideration through the budget process. With this in mind, the budget was passed with $530 million earmarked for kindergarten-through-12th-grade education needs, including providing for the increase in school enrollment along with the construction and renovation of schools. This allocation also allows for a broadband-Internet system to enhance instruction and learning, as well as other needs. Equipping our children to be productive members of society should always be a priority, as this strengthens families and our community.
One of the most pressing concerns of this session addressed the deplorable state of our roads, highways and bridges, particularly as Georgia continues to experience growth in the manufacturing and shipping industries. Therefore, one of the most important pieces of legislation that we considered was the transportation-funding bill, or House Bill 170. The solution that was agreed upon is sound and beneficial for our state. We settled on an excise tax of 26 cents for gas and 29 cents for diesel, which will help us capture tax dollars from long-haul truckers who use our interstates. This will bring in $50 million a year to fund transportation projects. In addition, we eliminated the sales-tax exemption on fuels used by commercial air carriers.  
We also eliminated a $5,000 state income-tax credit for the purchase of an electric vehicle and placed what is essentially a user fee for owners of electric vehicles who use the roads without paying taxes through fuel surcharges. We added an annual user’s fee for very large trucks and 18-wheelers because their usage has such an adverse effect on our roads, and heavy trucks and big rigs will be charged a fee depending on the vehicle’s weight. The bill also creates a new $5-per-night hotel/motel tax to be applied statewide, and it is estimated to fund $200 million a year.
Altogether, the solutions outlined in this bill will raise $900 million annually to pay for our state transportation needs. Ultimately, this legislation takes a balanced approach to a crucial project that will sustain economic growth and quality of life as we keep up with the needs of growing industries in Georgia.
In health-care news, Haleigh’s Hope Act, or HB 1, was legislation that received much attention this session and one that I fully supported after careful research. This legislation will allow the use of low-THC derived from cannabis oil for the treatment of chronic illnesses such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Crohn’s, mitochondrial and sickle-cell diseases. This legislation does not make Georgia a “medical-marijuana state” and because the bill was written carefully, we can rest assured that the use of cannabis oil cannot be exploited for recreational purposes. In addition, to ensure responsibility, the Department of Public Health would oversee patient registration and physician oversight. Families with children who suffer from chronic seizure disorders across Georgia celebrated, as this treatment has proven to greatly alleviate this terrible illness. We heard testimony from parents of children afflicted with 100-200 seizures a day who traveled to other states so that their children could receive this treatment. I believe that this legislation is responsible and one that can help many suffering Georgians.
As the author of Senate Bill 101, I was pleased that the coastal-buffer-zone bill, which will provide a 25-foot buffer along coastal marshlands, passed. This legislation will protect 2,350 miles of marsh interface without wrested vegetation.  At the same time, it also protects and respects private-property rights of coastal landowners. This legislation will protect our seacoast and the important habitat for Georgia shrimp and fish.
Thank you for your support during this legislative session and for communicating your views and concerns. It truly is a privilege to represent you! Although the session has concluded, I always am interested in your thoughts and concerns and can be reached at 404-656-7880 or

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