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Hitchens anxious to see port work start

POSTED: June 2, 2014 7:14 p.m.
Photo by Pat Donahue/

State Rep. Bill Hitchens (R-Rincon) talked about his time with the Georgia State Patrol and about issues facing the General Assembly.

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Even with both houses of Congress signing off on funding for the Savannah harbor deepening, work on the more than $700 million project still could be several months away, state Rep. Bill Hitchens said.

Hitchens, the District 161 representative, told members of the Rotary Club of Effingham County on Thursday that he has been a proponent of the project, which will take the depth in the main shipping channel from 42 feet to 47 feet. In the recently-adopted fiscal year 2015 state budget, an additional $35 million in funding was included for the port deepening, bringing the state’s share of the money needed to $266 million.

“I’ve traveled this whole state and everybody in this state supports the port,” he said. “It’s the economic engine that drives this state.”

The U.S. House and Senate have each passed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, and it now awaits President Obama’s signature. The legislation calls for $706 million in spending on the harbor deepening. Hitchens said Gov. Nathan Deal had been trying to get the federal government to allow the state to use its own money to start the project, but his efforts were rebuffed.

Once the president signs the bill into law, Hitchens said it will be another four to six months before the dredging work will be let for bid.

Taking the main channel to 47 feet deep will allow the larger ships that will transit an expanded Panama Canal to berth at Savannah’s port. Those ships, Hitchens said, will be nearly 1,000 feet long and have double the capacity of current container vessels. Now, ships with larger drafts, meaning the distance between the waterline and its bottom, have to wait until high tide to enter the channel.

Hitchens noted that the project has its opponents, particularly environmental groups and some in South Carolina.

“When Oglethorpe got here, it was about 20 feet deep,” he said of Gen. James Oglethorpe’s February 1733 landing in Georgia. “So this won’t be the first time they’ve been digging in it.”

He also defended the passage of a parts inventory exemption targeted for Gulfstream. The company has the largest aircraft maintenance facility in the U.S., Hitchens said, and a temporary exemption on airplane parts stored in warehouses was made permanent.

“They pay a significant amount on parts in inventory,” he said. “When you need to get your plane fixed, do you want to come to Savannah or do you want to go to South Carolina or some other state where they don’t have that tax?”

As important as the ports are to the state, Gulfstream is also a vital cog in the Coastal Empire’s economy, Hitchens added. The company employs more than 9,000 workers in southeast Georgia.

Hitchens said he was glad to be able to include funding for Armstrong Atlantic State University’s Liberty Center, a 21,000 square foot facility in downtown Hinesville.

“As an old military person, I thought it was the right thing to do,” he said. “Gov. Deal said in his inauguration speech, ‘I believe in helping those who help themselves.’ I went to college on the VA bill. It’s not fun when you’re a little bit older and you’re married and you’re trying to go to school full-time."

The city of Hinesville has put $3 million into the project, and the state has chipped in $4.7 million more. But it took some finagling to get the state funding secured, Hitchens explained, after state Rep. Al Williams (D-Midway) made a speech on the House floor that excoriated Republicans. That led to the funding for the Liberty Center to be stripped out of the bill in committee.

“He said, ‘Bill, I thought that was a done deal,’” Hitchens recalled.

So Hitchens went to see friend and Senate Appropriations chairman Sen. Jack Hill and made his case, adding the Liberty Center in Hinesville could serve people in Hill’s home county of Tattnall, too.

“We got it put back in,” Hitchens said of the Liberty Center money.

The state’s budget for the coming fiscal year grew from $19.9 billion to $20.8 billion, and nearly all of the additional money is directed toward education and health and human services. About 72 percent of the new money, $660 million, is dedicated to K-12 education, and another $203 million is geared toward such programs as Medicaid and PeachCare.

“We didn’t go wild,” Hitchens said of the increased budget.

Hitchens said some counties were in desperate situations as funding, including education, had been cut across the state.

“Some counties were about to go out of business,” he said. “They were cutting school days. They didn’t have fuel for the buses. They were laying off teachers. I thought that was a great use of money.”

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