Under the Gold Dome: Legislators prepare for post-Deal Georgia

Kevin C. Hall | The Moultrie ObserverGeorgia Rep. Sam Watson, at left in cap, welcomes gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp to Moultrie Nov. 1. 'He’s no stranger to Moultrie and Colquitt County,' Watson said of Kemp. 'I consider him a friend and I’m proud to call him governor.'

MOULTRIE, Ga. — Morgan County, Georgia, is known for its antebellum homes and its history (its county seat reportedly was spared the torch by Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman due to being the home of pro-Union U.S. Rep. Joshua Hill), but its a telecommunications system also hasn’t caught up to modernity.

State Rep. Sam Watson, R-Moultrie, said his wife’s parents live there and are in one of the dead zones in the state where cell phone and internet service haven’t penetrated.

Watson, vice chair of the House Rural Development Council, and his fellow council members have identified access to the internet and improving health care in rural areas as top priorities.

Legislation to make those goals reality are among those Watson hopes to see make it through what will be a busy 40-day session in 2019.

“We’ll be looking at the hospital tax credit, increasing it to $100 million,” he said. “We’re going to be moving forward with the changes in (health care) CON (Certificate of Need).”

Watson also hopes to see an extension for the council, authorized initially for two years and which has held public hearings across the state, including in Blue Ridge, Brunswick, Dahlonega, Elberton and Statesboro.

“I’ll be doing legislation to renew the RDC for another year,” said Watson, who is chairman of the Small Business Development Committee and whose district includes about half of Colquitt County and portions of Thomas and Tift counties. “We’ll be meeting all over Georgia again. We’re excited about that because we’ve had a lot of good meetings.”

Along with health care and broadband access, the council has looked at economic development and education.

Colquitt County is becoming a hub of sorts for the region on the health care front with the construction under way on a new campus of the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. The first class at the Moultrie campus is expected to begin studies in 2019 and the goal is to train local doctors from the area who in turn will set up practice in rural parts of south Georgia and north Florida.

“We’ve got better opportunities coming here through PCOM,” Watson said. “We’re going to be working next year to see what they need there. (If) you get better health care, you get better economic development. You get better economic development, you get better health care.”

In addition to increasing the tax credit for hospitals and changes in Certificate of Need, the committee also is looking at a communications services tax that would tax internet streaming services, e-book downloads and other digital offerings, proceeds of which would be used to improve internet services in rural areas.

“Those are two big items that I think will take up a lot of our time,” Watson said.

In terms of how much of legislators’ priorities make it through the session, Watson sees a busy year with lots of potential distractions. A new administration is coming in, with new committee assignments, new offices -- and an Atlanta Super Bowl week that will come during the session.

“It will take a while to settle down,” he said. “I think we’re in a great position as a state and got a lot of great things going. We’re just going to move forward.”

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