MOULTRIE -- House veteran Rep. Richard Royal, D-Pebble City, views his only opposition in nearly two decades as a maverick who speaks in generalities canned by the Republican Party

"He is not qualified to go to Atlanta. No way," he said of 26-year-old Republican Travis Flanders, a Moultrie city worker from Sale City.

Royal rebuffed Flanders' assertions that he votes down party lines. The congressman said he has strong bipartisan support from his constituents and that he has co-sponsored 15 pieces of legislation with Republicans, including a $25 million property tax relief proposal that Republican Minority Leader Rep. Lynn Westmoreland asked him to handle on the House floor.

"I'm holding one of the most important positions in the State of Georgia. There's a big chance that all of rural Georgia's going to be terribly weakened, because all the growth is going to be in urban areas north of Atlanta. So there's going to be fewer of us left," Royal said.

That's why seniority is so important now, he said.

"I've got all the connections -- and I'm not bragging. I've just earned that right being up there 19 years," he said.

Over the years, Royal has pushed to create new jobs in Southwest Georgia, including locating Farmland National Beef, the state detention center and the state crime lab in Moultrie. Southwest Georgia has a lot to offer: good supply of natural resources, good work ethic, good transportation system.

The stumbling block is an alphabet block: lack of an educated work force. But that is steadily being whittled away, Royal said, with technical colleges working with industry to create the type of employee Georgia needs.

"When an industry wants to come in and relocate, we will train the workers to have the skills the industry needs to locate here," he said. "And it's not just for new industries, it's for existing industries so they won't pick up and move either."

Royal, who chairs the Higher Education Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, predicts the shortage of skilled workforce to abate within five years. The state is allocating more money to technical colleges for staff, HOPE scholarships and facilities, such as the new Moultrie Technical College campus, for which he was instrumental in securing $21 million.

But more has to be done -- and quick, he said.

"We're sitting here at the bottom of the barrel in education. We're putting 54 percent of the total state budget into our public schools and colleges, and we're not getting any results," he said. "I think we need drastic action. Now, it may have been handled in a different manner where it wouldn't have offended teachers. I think that's probably the problem. But we cannot continue to have the performance that we're having out of education. We need to try new things. I'm convinced we have a group of dedicated educators who are working under adverse circumstances."

Parental support is the key to the door of opportunity that slammed shut when parents began expecting teachers to assume their responsibilities, he said. Parents expect teachers to be guardians and disciplinarians on top of being educators.

"Until we get that mentality changed, we've got our work cut out for us," he said.

Already the Department of Families and Children Services and some universities offer parenting classes, but it's a slow and difficult process, he admitted.

Flanders criticized Royal for the slice and dice Democrats did to Colquitt County in the recent redistricting session. The congressman asserts that his hands are clean in the reapportionment issue that Republicans call a mess.

But the Grand Old Party would have done the same thing, Royal said, citing reapportionment 10 years ago when he said Republicans gerrymandered his district. The courts eventually threw it out because it was racially biased, he said

"The Republicans loved that reapportionment 10 years ago when it happened to us," he said. "That doesn't justify it. I don't like what happened in reapportionment."

Royal said he took three different plan

s to the House leadership that would have given Colquitt County two House districts to "remove that aberration over there" but was rejected.

"I tried my best to stop that from happening, and I was told I had to live with it. I didn't like it. ... I don't like what happened all over."

Royal thinks regions of community interests should be made whole and not fragmented, he said.

"It's sort of ironic the courts rule you cannot gerrymander for racial purposes but you can for political purposes, but it still doesn't make it right," he said.

Royal asked to be taken off the reapportionment committee to be on the natural resources committee to help keep South Georgia from going under, he said. Royal wanted to make it clear that he was not vice chairman of the appropriations committee, as Flanders stated.

Royal chairs the state Planning and Community Affairs Committee which administers most state and federal grants in Georgia. He is vice chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and has been responsible for many major tax cuts, including Conservation Use tax reductions for agriculture that saved agricultural landowners $50 million in property taxes in its first decade, he said.

Pork projects are generally needed projects, Royal said, particularly for small communities.

"I've always said the people who call them pork are the ones who don't get any of them," he said. "I'm not ashamed at all for bringing money back into my community for needed projects. ... I've got a proven record, and I'm going on my record. I'm not ashamed of anything I've done."

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