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January 31, 2016 – The Telegraph, Maggie Lee

ATLANTA -- Far and away, Robins Air Force Base is the biggest cog in Middle Georgia’s economic engine.

Across the state, bases bring their communities jobs in base-related industries and new residents, including skilled and relatively young military retirees.

With an eye toward preserving and growing base communities, some lawmakers in Atlanta are leaning on the state to become more military friendly.

Democrats in the state House started this year with a 10-point checklist from the U.S. Department of Defense’s USA 4 Military Families Initiative. That effort aims to publicize the kinds of state policies important to military members and their families.

“Our neighbors in South Carolina have met all 10 of these metrics, but we have not,” state Rep. Carolyn Hugley, D-Columbus, said last month as she introduced a package of bills from House Democrats meant to help Georgia catch up.

Most of the things on the Department of Defense list are relatively minor policies. Some have to do with easing the administrative hassles of continually moving from state to state, as well as transferring education credits and a spouses’ professional credentials. Some others have to do with making sure military families can access similar services, such as veterans’ courts, job protections during deployment and child protective services, no matter where they live.

Georgia already can check some of the boxes, like the one that provides for veterans’ courts, which offer special judicial processes to help eligible veterans who have mental health or addiction problems when they land in trouble with the law.

When Hugley introduced the bills, she said part of lawmakers’ jobs is to make sure Georgia is the best place for service members and their families to live, work and ultimately retire.

It doesn’t happen every day that Republicans and Democrats sing from the same page, but a lawmaker from across the aisle said almost the same thing a few days later.

Freshman state Sen. Larry Walker III, R-Perry, said he’s glad Georgia tops business friendliness rankings.

“But my goal is to make Georgia the No. 1 most military-friendly state,” Walker said.

Walker is preparing a bill to answer one of the points on the Defense Department list: the trouble and delay of reapplying for certain medical benefits when a deployment temporarily carries a Georgia military dependent out of state.

Under Walker’s bill, military dependents who get certain benefits such as Medicaid, would not have to wait as long to get their benefits reactivated upon return to Georgia.

Walker said the state Senate Veterans, Military and Homeland Security Committee, of which he is a member, also is looking at that Defense Department list. He expects the committee will return to the question of professional licensing for people who are leaving the military. For several years, there have been some moves to make it easier for veterans, such as medics, to turn their military credentials into Georgia professional licenses.

It’s an issue that has the attention of U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., whose district covers Fort Benning in Columbus, the Marine Logistics Base in Albany and communities outside Robins Air Force Base. He is co-chairman of the Congressional Military Family Caucus, and he has worked with Georgia state legislators and the governor’s office on spouse and service member licensing.

Looking Beyond The List

One thing base communities always watch for in Congress is an activation of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, known as BRAC. If authorized to go to work, BRAC could close some bases and reassign missions elsewhere.

“As a state, we need to look at how can we partner with the defense communities across the state and increase our mission capabilities and put us in a position to not only protect what we have but to receive workload when they close other bases,” said state Rep. Heath Clark, R-Warner Robins.

Clark, a civilian software engineer at Robins, is looking for ways to fill the high-tech help-wanted ads from the base.

For example, he said, he’s looking for ways Middle Georgia State University and its state oversight board could possibly rewrite some course requirements to match the very specific course requirements in civil service job descriptions.

Clark, as well as state Rep. Shaw Blackmon, R-Bonaire, have signed onto House Resolution 1135 by state Rep. Dave Belton, R-Buckhead, to create a BRAC study committee.

Under Belton’s bill, a panel of House members would hold hearings across the state and study questions about BRAC in Georgia. By the end of 2016, they would deliver any recommendations to the Legislature.

Clark said he’s hopeful more ideas will come out of that committee’s work.

And some lawmakers say it’s time to give a state tax break to military retirees.

Military retirement income would be exempt from state income taxes under House Bill 714 by state Rep. Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah.

Those taxes would be worth between $56 million and $96 million by the time the law would go into effect in 2018, according to the official nonpartisan calculation of the bill’s impact. But the bill also would make up for the hit by raising cigarette taxes from 37 cents per pack to 55 cents per pack.

A separate House Bill 167 by state Rep. John Yates, R-Griffin, would make the income tax break without a cigarette tax rise.

Petrea said the tax break is worth doing because on one hand, “it’s the right thing to do for the right group of people,” the relatively small number of people who join the military.

And on the other hand, it’s worth trying to keep military retirees in Georgia or to attract them to the state, he said. Many of them are young enough to take up a second career, he said, and are skilled enough to fill some high-demand jobs in Georgia.

But he also admits raising taxes is a tough sell, and he expects a multi-year fight. Petrea said he hopes to start this year with a hearing in front of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.

Petrea said he will refile a similar bill next year if it doesn’t work out this year.

 

The information above is for general awareness only and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Office of Economic Adjustment or the Department of Defense as a whole.