On Oct. 10, 2018, a category 3 hurricane moved across southwest Georgia, one of the most important areas of our state for agriculture and forestry. As we know, this storm devastated a part of our state in ways we have never seen before, and some have called it “the largest timber catastrophe in our nation’s history.”
Thousands of acres of pine, pecan and hardwood trees were destroyed and ready-to-harvest cotton, peanut and produce yields were damaged. Overall, this hurricane has cost our state billions and left people feeling disheartened and overwhelmed.
But thankfully, with the help of concerned citizens across the state, as well as proactive leaders, southwest Georgia will recover. And that is what this special session is about, helping them on the road to recovery with legislation aimed at helping individuals whose livelihood was destroyed.
Our southwest Georgia farmers, and particularly those who have timber plots (approximately 79,000 acres were destroyed), were impacted in ways that will leave this region’s landscape changed for years to come.
The first bill that passed the Senate with unanimous support will help farmers and citizens recover is House Bill 1EX which amends the Fiscal Year 2019 budget to include $270.8 million in additional appropriations for Hurricane Michael disaster relief. These funds will be utilized in Southwest Georgia where the storm left a path of destruction resulting in an approximate $2.5 billion loss to the timber and agriculture industries.
Below is a breakdown of some of the funding:
• $69.3 million will be appropriated to the Governor's Emergency Fund (GEF) to pay the state match for the federal disaster assistance approved by the President’s Administration.
• $6.8 million so that Georgia can help cover costs local governments sustained for recovery at the local level.
• $55 million for the Georgia Development Authority so they can provide assistance to Georgia farmers in the counties devastated by the storm.
• $69.3 million for the Department of Transportation (GDOT) through state general and motor fuel funds resulting from HB 170 to be used to assist with clean up and recovery efforts. GDOT will also have some costs offset by federal reimbursement.
Secondly, HB 4EX is a bill introduced to help those who owned timber recover. I know many will wonder why we have decided to single out this industry, but there is good reason for that. First, timber is not insured federally, but crops like cotton and peanuts are. Second, trees are not a yearly harvest. Instead, they are harvested every 25 years at best and their return on investment is minimal. Many farmers use unproductive fields for trees as they are a sort of “safety net” in times of poor crop yield. We hope that this bill, which will allow timberland owners whose trees were damaged by Hurricane Michael to apply for an income tax credit, will encourage them to keep their timber tracks. The tax credit will be capped at $200 million overall and at $400 per acre damaged, applies to land with catastrophic or severe damage and cannot be applied until the land owner has replanted trees.
Lastly, as required by the Constitution, the legislature is required to take action on Executive Orders of the Governor since the last session of the General Assembly. Therefore, the Senate and House ratified the Governor’s Appointments and Executive Order that halted the sales and use tax on jet fuel.
Overall, these pieces of legislation will offer farmers the opportunity to get back up on their feet. I know that if north Georgia was in a similar position, our friends from the south would pull out all the stops to help us. Please do not hesitate to reach out to my office with any questions you may have. My staff and I are always here to help.
Sen. Steve Gooch serves as the Senate Majority Whip. He represents the 51st Senate District which includes Dawson, Fannin, Gilmer, Lumpkin, Union and White counties and portions of Forsyth and Pickens counties. He may be reached at (404) 656-9221 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.