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Belton: Hurricane Michael devistated Georgia farmers
Dave Belton

As you know, Gov. Nathan Deal called an unexpected special session to deal with the devastation of Hurricane Michael. The worst hurricane to ever hit the Florida gulf coast, this category 5 monster crippled Tyndall Air Force Base to the point that the Air Force has decided to relocate its F22 fighter jets away from there. It also destroyed many, many farms with an estimated $2.5 billion in losses to Georgia’s agricultural sector alone.

The timing could not have been worse. This year was going to be a bumper crop for our farmers. They spent a lot of money watering and fertilizing these lucrative fields. Many were literally in the middle of harvesting when Michael struck.

In one cruel night, the quick-moving storm wiped out millions of acres in a matter of minutes. Particularly hard hit is the pecan crop – Georgia is the number one producer in the nation – where whole trees were plucked from the ground and cannot be replaced for a entire generation. Pecan losses are estimated at $560 million alone. Cotton losses are at $600 million and poultry around $28 million. 

So, for the first time in Georgia’s history, the General Assembly decided to help farmers ravaged by a storm to start replanting for the future. 

Almost $270 million was allocated by the House. $55 million of these monies will match a federal grant for emergency disaster relief. $55 million will be used for farmers, and another $25 million will be used for forestry. Georgia is the number one state in the nation for forestry, a $35 billion industry to our state. $9 million will be used to cover property loss claims, and another $7 million will be used to replace damaged firefighting equipment.  The bill passed by an almost unanimous margin. 

Another bill that was introduced was a 100 percent tax credit for tree farmers for lost timber. More than 1.3 million acres of Georgian trees are laying on the ground and cannot be harvested. The amount of reimbursement is capped at $400 per acre and cannot exceed a sum of $200 million overall for the state. The bill passed by an almost unanimous margin. 

The third bill was the elimination of the Jet Fuel tax. Like the first time this issue was introduced, I recused myself from the vote as I am a Captain for Delta Air Lines. Often mislabeled as the “The Delta Tax” it is actually a cessation of the 2015 jet fuel tax for all airlines and all corporate jets that made Georgia the fourth highest gas tax state in the nation. Believe it or not, jet fuel costs less in New York City than Atlanta because of this tax. Because Governor Deal rescinded the tax in an Executive Order, the House had to take it up during this Special Session. The bill passed in a 141 to 18 bipartisan vote.

By law, all budget bills start in the House. If the Senate approves these bills, then the Special Session will be over. If the Senate changes these bills, then the House will have to go back to work to come up with a compromise solution. 

Agriculture is America. Easily the number one business for Georgia – it dwarfs all other industries – Ag has an economic impact of $75 billion every year to our state. Even though only 1 percent of people are actual farmers, Ag is an economic multiplier, creating a whopping 17 percent of all jobs in America. 

Ag is one of the few places where America is a leader in exports. Our national security – and our prosperity – depend on a safe and constant food supply. Therefore, I firmly believe we’ve done the right thing by helping our farmers. 

Belton is a Republican from District 112, serving in the Georgia House of Representatives.