Georgia Politics, Elections & Campaigns for December 14, 2012

Madonna is a gorgeous brindle hound mix who is good with people and other dogs. She is available for adoption from the CSRA Humane Society in Augusta, Georgia.

Graylyn is a young female lab-beagle mix puppy who is currently kenneled with another puppy and getting along very well. She is learning her housetraining and loves people. She is available for adoption from CSRA Humane Society in Augusta, Georgia.

An Augusta elementary school is using dogs to help students learn to read and it appears to be working.

While Demarion Jarvis read aloud a book about a kitten named Mittens, a 3-year-old Shetland sheepdog named Dakota sat quietly at his feet.

When he stumbled over a word, Dakota didn’t flinch – and, for a change, neither did Demarion.

“It feels different reading to the dogs than reading in class,” said Demarion, 8. “I feel comfortable.”

To help boost literacy and confidence, Wheeless Road Elementary School has launched a program in which pupils read aloud to therapy dogs, taking the pressure and judgment of classmates out of the process. Twice a month, four volunteers from Therapy Dogs Inc. take their dogs to a classroom for one-hour reading sessions.

Ten to 15 pupils from kindergarten to third grade participate in each session and take turns reading short books to the four dogs that regularly attend.

Kindergarten teacher Deborah Welcher said she has already seen an influence on the pupils, including more confidence in the classroom after they leave the animals and improvements on their reading tests.

Teachers are keeping track of the pupils’ reading scores to see whether the program has an impact at the end of the year, Welcher said.

“Kids that have a fear of reading to adults just don’t have any kind of fear when it comes to reading to a pet,” Welcher said. “When they come in, the ones who are shy suddenly aren’t. Say, for example, they miss a word. The dog doesn’t mind.”

George Pace, who spent Thursday at school with his son, said he immediately saw a change in his kindergartner’s demeanor as he read to Big Boy, a 175-pound Great Dane.

While normally shy and reluctant, he was different when he sat next to Big Boy.

“The dog absolutely grabs his attention,” Pace said. “It’s easier for him to read to the dog than it is to read to us.”

Principal Valerie Mc­Gahee said the program is part of a larger effort to bring the community to the school this year. Administrators are working to implement GED and résumé-writing classes for adults and continuing-education classes and community meals.

“Our goal is to make this a community school,” said McGahee, who began leading Wheeless Road last year. More than 90 percent of the school’s pupils receive free or reduced-price lunch.

Georgia Politics, Elections & Campaigns

And then there were five. Eduardo Correia, who qualified as an Independent for the Special Election in State House District 21 does not live in the district and has withdrawn from the election. I checked the address where he is registered and where he qualified for the election and it appears to be in House District 22. The remaining candidates are  Republicans Scot Turner, Brian Laurens, Bill Fincher, Kenneth Ashley Mimbs and Democrat Natalie Bergeron.

Rumor has it there might be another dropout from the race.

Senator Josh McKoon (R-Basement of the Coverdell Legislative Office Building) has pre-filed Senate Resolution 7, which would place a Constitutional Amendment on the ballot to secure permanent funding for the State Ethics Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.

It’s not appropriate in my opinion for those being regulated by an agency to determine how that agency is funded,” McKoon said.

The resolution requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to pass. It does not have the endorsement of Senate leaders, meaning it probably has little chance of becoming law.

Professor Charles Bullock at UGA says the current budget crunch makes it a difficult sell.

“You can fully anticipate that higher education, public education, prisons, the department of health, every [other agency] is going to be coming in and saying, ‘We’ve been on a pretty lean diet for years. If there’s any money available, we think we have a pretty good claim on it’,” he said Thursday.

Bullock says that will give lawmakers a ready excuse to pass on the legislation. He says he thinks it’s much likelier that a gift cap will pass. The Georgia Ethics Alliance, which includes the Tea Party, Common Cause Georgia and other groups, is promoting a proposal to limit lobbyists’ gifts to lawmakers to $100.

Senator McKoon has also pre-filed Senate Resolution 6, which also proposes a Constitutional Amendment that would allow the Attorney General to empanel a statewide grand jury to investigate and issue indictments in cases involving official corruption at any level of government in Georgia.

A rare signature of Button Gwinnett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence from Georgia and namesake of the suburban Atlanta county, will be auctioned off this weekend.

“Button Gwinnett is the ultimate American autograph rarity because there is so few of them,” said Bobby Livingston, the vice president of RR Auction, which is conducting the auction this weekend.

While the entire collection of signers of the Declaration of Independence, owned by New Hampshire man Richard Newell, is expected to fetch around $1.2 million, Gwinnett’s signature is estimated at more than half of the entire value — between $700,000 and $800,000.

“His is so much more important than Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson,” Livingston said. “He is the crown jewel.”

Gwinnett was the second person to sign the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He died a year later — having never set foot in the county that now bears his name — in a duel with a political rival.

The Governor’s Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform recommends that the state establish a two-tiered system for offenders younger than 17.

Currently, 30 different juvenile felonies are all handled the same. The recommendations would allow judges leeway based on the circumstances of the crime.

Judge Michael Boggs, Council co-chair, says they want to give judges leeway for non-violent offenders to keep them from a life of crime.

“About 39 percent of all youth in our secure facilities are categorized as low risk youth. Yet we know that 65 percent of all youth that are released from our youth detention facilities last year were re-adjudicated delinquent within three years.”

Kirsten Widner with the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University says the new system would lock up violent offenders, and send non-violent offenders to community treatment.

“Treatment in the community has been statistically shown to produce better outcomes in terms of public safety and in terms of getting children back on the right path.They can go to school, be home with their families.”

The Council also recommends that a grant incentive be set up to help pay for community treatment.

State Representative Wendell Willard, who serves on the Council, says he is optimistic the recommendations will make it through the General Assembly. He says his bill last year regarding juvenile justice reform passed both the House and Senate unanimously.

Elsewhere in Georgia, judges are implementing their own versions of alternative sentencing, including shaming with signs.

38-year-old Natosha Freeman has spent each morning this week at a bus stop wearing a homemade sandwich board that reads: “I made a fool out [of] myself on a Bibb County School Bus.”

The mother of six pleaded guilty to charges stemming from an incident in April in which she boarded a school bus and had a physical altercation with her 11-year-old cousin, following a disagreement.

Based on comments Freeman made this week to the Telegraph of Macon, it’s unclear if the punishment is having its intended affect.

“If I could have done it differently, the only thing that would have happened is I wouldn’t have gotten on that school bus,” Freeman said. “She [the cousin] still would have gotten that whopping for telling me to kiss her ass.”

So, how effective is punishing someone with court-ordered shame?

There’s no hard data on this, but many legal observers will tell you that kind of alternative sentencing is on the rise. There is pressure from various quarters to keep low-level offenders out of jail. (See Governor Nathan Deal’s Georgia drug court initiative that works to rehabilitate criminals outside prison walls.)

It is worth noting that Freeman’s sentence was handed down by Bibb County Superior Court Judge Howard Simms, a man who very recently endured his own public shaming. According to a sheriff’s report, the judge failed a breathalyzer test at a roadblock in October. Deputies let him go, the media did not.

Another initiative by Governor Deal examined the state’s funding of high education and has resulted in a recommendation to tie funding to graduation rates.

“Right now the formula rewards enrollment,” says, Kristin Bernhardt, the governor’s education policy adviser,  “It says, ‘When we take a count of how many students show up for classes, that is what we prioritize and what we’re going to spend taxpayer dollars on.’”

The new formula would link funding to results, such as the number of degrees or certificates students earn and successful student transfers within the state.   Bernhardt says the plan also accounts for the fact that schools face different challenges.

“We’re going to run one set of metrics for our research universities, one set for our two-year and states, etcetera, so that we’ll be able to better define, ‘Where are those most important outcomes?” Bernhardt explains.

State Senator Renee Unterman (R-Buford) returned from a trip to our nation’s capitol to discuss human sex trafficking and Georgia’s law to combat it.

When Renee Unterman, a Georgia Republican senator, first proposed a law directing police to divert prostitutes under the age of 16 to treatment, she was attacked by conservative groups. One former Senate colleague said Unterman’s proposal would benefit “the very profitable and growing pedophile industry.”

Congressman Hank Johnson (D-Guam) has apologized for using the term “midget”.

During his address, Congressman Johnson remarked:

“What happens when you put a giant in a cage fight against a midget? The midget doesn’t win the fight — I’m going to tell you that he doesn’t carry enough weight to do so. Thirty midgets with that giant and the midgets have a chance.”

And on Thursday, Johnson retracted his statements by making the following remarks:

“But, to my discovery, just within the last 12 hours of so, I have found that the use of midget…the use of the “m-word” is no longer socially acceptable.”

Dennis O’Hayer has a new driver named Chip an interview with MARTA’s new CEO Keith Parker, who says the transit agency’s current business plan is unsustainable and that changing the 50/50 split will help but will not suffice. Serious suggestion: Starbucks franchises in the stations on the northern rail lines.

Cobb County Chairman Tim Lee has been sworn in for a new term.

A former Dawson County prosecutor who left under GBI investigation has been found dead in Florida.

John Wilbanks Jr. was an assistant district attorney who headed the Dawson office for Hall-Dawson District Attorney Lee Darragh until Wednesday, according to the Gainesville Times. A Fernandina Beach Police Department official told the paper that Friday is the earliest any incident reports about Wilbanks’ death could be released.

The GBI did not provide details of its investigation of Wilbanks, saying only that it was requested by a superior court judge earlier this week.

Georgia Regents University has chosen blue and silver-gray for its school colors via survey of students, staff, faculty, and alumni.
A member of the Savannah City Council had her car stolen in front of her house and the Mayor.

Councilwoman Mary Osborne reported her 2000 black over silver Lincoln Town Car Cartier stolen from in front of her Baldwin Park home about 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. She wasn’t sure when it was stolen.

Until she called Mayor Edna Jackson.

Jackson, by coincidence, saw the car heading east on Victory Drive about 11:45 a.m. She waved, thinking it was Osborne, then realized Osborne wasn’t driving. Jackson didn’t recognize the man driving or the passenger. The car was last seen headed north on Bee Road.

The car is distinctive because it has a crack in the windshield that extends around the steering wheel, a missing right front hub cap, a Lincoln “Signature” front license plate and a “city of Savannah” parking sticker on the windshield.

The thieves may be identified by a loud clanking sound when they walk.

Business & Economy

Georgia ranks number 8 on the Forbes magazine list of best states in which to do business.

Forbes compiled the list using six vital categories: costs, labor supply, regulatory environment, current economic climate, growth prospects and quality of life.

Georgia gained the ranking with a gross state product of $419 billion and five-year annual gross state product of -0.2 percent.

The report noted union workers make up only 4.8 percent of Georgia’s employment base, which is the second lowest rate in the country. However, it also drew attention to the Peach State’s high poverty rate — 19 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Among the highlights is that Georgia ranked #2 in the country for our Regulatory Environment.

The National Restaurant Associations predicts that Georgia restaurant sales will increase by 3.8% in 2013.

United Health Foundation says Georgia ranks #36 in health due to “Honey Boo Boo Syndrome,” which combine high rates of diabetes, smoking and obesity.

Claxton, Georgia is claiming the title of “Fruitcake Capital of the World.”

“We actually begin with a blend of golden and natural raisins,” says Dale Parker, vice president of Claxton Bakery, the larger of the town’s two fruitcake companies. “A lot of folks ask us what are the little green things in fruitcake, and that’s simply candied pineapple.”

There are also candied cherries, lemon, orange peel and nuts (almonds, walnuts and Georgia pecans).

The bakery makes the holiday treat in relatively small batches — only 375 pounds at a time.

The bakery goes back more than a century, when an Italian immigrant named Savino Tos moved from New York City to Georgia. Parker’s father, Albert, worked in the bakery as a young boy and eventually bought the business. Back then, fruitcakes were a delicacy at a time when many couldn’t afford to buy fresh fruits and nuts.

Fruitcakes don’t last forever, but they will stay fresh for up to six months at room temperature, and for at least a year in the refrigerator.

Claxton Mayor Luther Royal…. says the cakes have been a good negotiating tool for both him and the former mayor. “He would take a case of fruitcake to Atlanta and come back with a mile of asphalt. And we still do that. We take the Claxton fruitcake to Atlanta every year in December and give to the elected officials,” he says.

The second Claxton bakery is called the Georgia Fruit Cake Company. Its cakes are darker, and some are spiked with bourbon. Owner John Womble says that though the fruitcake market is older, a new generation is interested.

“The younger people that we’ve picked up are generally hikers, bikers, outdoors people who found out that you can take fruitcake with you — you don’t have to worry about it going bad once you open it,” Womble says. He even got a letter from a fan who said they took one of his cakes to the top of Mount Everest.

A federal study may lead to greater exports of liquified natural gas, including from the Elba terminal on the Savannah River.

The study, commissioned by the Department of Energy to inform its decisions on authorizing export, concluded last week that U.S. economic welfare would improve overall as the volume of natural gas exports increases, even in scenarios of unlimited exports. The study follows one released by DOE in January that indicated high LNG exports could lead to a 3 percent to 9 percent increase in natural gas prices and a 1 percent to 3 percent rise in electricity prices compared to a no-export scenario.

“Although there are costs to consumers of higher energy prices and lower consumption and producers incur higher costs to supply the additional natural gas for export, these costs are more than offset by increases in export revenues along with a wealth transfer from overseas received in the form of payments for liquefaction services,” the new report from NERA Economic Consulting says. “The net result is an increase in U.S. households’ real income and welfare.”

Department of Awesome

Whitewater rafting trips are expected to begin on the Chattahoochee River in Columbus on June 1. Count me in.

It’s the first time someone has cited a precise date for the 2.5-mile course to open for business, and Dan Gilbert of Whitewater Express feels comfortable with it. “Both outfitters, I think, will start booking trips for June 1,” he said.

A committee of government and business representatives from Columbus and Phenix City chose the Atlanta-based outfitter along with the Nantahala Outdoor Center of Bryson City, N.C., to run guided rafting trips here.

Richard Bishop, president of the nonprofit Uptown Columbus Inc. that will manage the course, said each commercial outfitter will open a storefront location here, with Whitewater Express in Phenix City and the Nantahala Outdoor Center in downtown Columbus.

Gilbert said his operation will be in the shopping center on Phenix City’s Third Avenue between the 13th Street and 14th Street bridges.

This is the same stretch of water where I saw a Bald Eagle flying on two consecutive mornings in September.

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