Georgia Politics, Campaigns, and Elections for January 13, 2020

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Georgia Politics, Campaigns, and Elections for January 13, 2020

On January 13, 1733, the ship Ann (sometimes spelled “Anne”) sailed into Charles Town harbor and was met by South Carolina Governor Robert Johnson and the Speaker of the Commons House of Assembly. Aboard the ship were James Oglethorpe and the first 114 colonists of what would become Georgia. Later that year they would land at a high bluff on the Savannah River and found the city of Savannah.

On January 13, 1959, Ernest Vandiver was inaugurated as Governor of Georgia.

On January 13, 1966, President Lyndon Baines Johnson appointed Robert C. Weaver head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), making Weaver the first African-American cabinet secretary in U.S. History.

On January 13, 1982, Hank Aaron was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

January 13, 1987 saw the inauguration of Governor Joe Frank Harris to his second term in office.

On January 13, 1998, Governor Zell Miller presented his $12.5 billion FY1999 budget to the Georgia General Assembly, including $105,000 to provide CDs of classical music for every baby born in the state. According to the New York Times,

“No one questions that listening to music at a very early age affects the spatial, temporal reasoning that underlies math and engineering and even chess,” the Governor said[]. “Having that infant listen to soothing music helps those trillions of brain connections to develop.”

Mr. Miller said he became intrigued by the connection between music and child development at a series of recent seminars sponsored by the Education Commission of the States. As a great-grandfather and the author of “They Hear Georgia Singing” (Mercer University Press, 1983), an encyclopedia of the state’s musical history, Mr. Miller said his fascination came naturally.

He said that he had a stack of research on the subject, but also that his experiences growing up in the mountains of north Georgia had proved convincing.

“Musicians were folks that not only could play a fiddle but they also were good mechanics,” he said. “They could fix your car.”

Legislators, as is their wont, have ideas of their own.

“I asked about the possibility of some Charlie Daniels or something like that,” said Representative Homer M. (Buddy) DeLoach, a Republican from Hinesville, “but they said they thought the classical music has a greater positive impact.”

“Having never studied those impacts too much,” Mr. DeLoach added, “I guess I’ll just have to take their word for that at the moment.”

In 2003, on January 13 at the Georgia Dome, Sonny Perdue took the oath of office as Georgia’s second Republican Governor, the first since Reconstruction.

Georgia Politics, Campaigns, and Elections

The 155th Georgia General Assembly convenes today in its second session.

Budget issues will drive much of the session, including whether they adjourn before or after the March 24 Presidential Preference Primary. From NewsChannel9:

The state’s flagging revenues are likely to take center stage during the first week, as Republican Gov. Brian Kemp sets an estimate of revenues and a proposal for spending in the 2021 budget year beginning July 1.

Crucially, lawmakers must decide if they’re going ahead with a previously announced plan to further cut Georgia’s top income tax rate to 5.5% from 5.75%. Revenues from income taxes have flagged since a 2019 cut from 6% to the current rate, and a fresh cut could cost state government $550 million in the next budget if lawmakers make it retroactive to Jan. 1 of this year. House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, announced support for going forward with the tax cut last week.

Kemp has also promised teachers a further $2,000 pay increase, after lawmakers provided a $3,000 raise last year at his behest. Expectations among teacher groups for a raise this year have clearly fallen, given the tight budget outlook. But the governor hasn’t said whether he wants to go forward with the tax cuts and pay raise this year. Kemp is likely to clear up those questions when he gives his State of the State speech and releases his budget proposal on Thursday.

From The Brunswick News and Dave Williams of Capitol Beat News Service:

The only constitutional requirement Georgia lawmakers must fulfill each year is passing a state budget.

While the legislature grapples with issues including whether to legalize gambling in Georgia, increase the availability of public transit in rural communities and take control of Atlanta’s airport from the city, the top priority will be reducing spending while protecting vital government programs and services.

“I don’t think you can take a blanket approach,” said Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. “The budget is about more than numbers and percentages. The budget touches people’s lives.”

Gov. Brian Kemp set the stage last summer for what promises to be a budget-cutting legislative session. With tax revenues running well below projections, the first-year governor ordered most state agencies to reduce spending by 4% during the current fiscal year and 6% in fiscal 2021, which starts July 1.

The General Assembly voted in 2018 to reduce Georgia’s income tax rate for the first time since the 1930s from 6% to 5.75%. This year, lawmakers are due to decide whether to cut the tax rate again to 5.5%.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jack Hill said the state can’t afford the revenue hit another tax cut would bring.

“One of the reasons we passed this tax cut is we were told there would be a revenue bump from the federal tax cut,” said Hill, R-Reidsville. “I can’t tell that we ever had that bump. … Nobody’s against a tax cut, but we really need to be cautious.”

From the Associated Press:

Faced with a budget shortfall this year, lawmakers may be more willing than in years past to take a hard look at ways to increase revenue, including allowing sports betting, horse racing, casino gambling or some combination of the three.

Expanding gambling would require a state constitutional amendment. Two-thirds of each chamber of the General Assembly must approve, followed by voters in a referendum. Georgia could also allow each county’s voters a separate referendum on local gambling.

House Speaker David Ralston indicated in a news conference Thursday that he favored putting the question to voters for a referendum.

“We’ve talked about this issue here for years, and one of these days we’re either going to have to say ‘we’re going to quit talking and we’re going to vote it, however it comes out is the way it comes out,” said Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican.

“At some point, I think it is appropriate to let the people of Georgia have the final word,” he said.

From the Gainesville Times:

“Back in 2008, when I was in the Senate, we cut things pretty much to the bone. There’s been some buildup,” State Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, said. “But I can tell you this governor and this legislature are committed to doing cuts, but not cuts where we would reduce services for Georgia citizens.”

One reason behind declining revenues now is the lingering effects of Hurricane Michael, which destroyed crops in south Georgia’s agricultural communities in 2018.

“The cotton crop alone was three quarters of a billion dollars beaten down to the ground. We lost half a billion dollars in vegetables. Over 100 chicken houses were destroyed and 2 million chickens,” Hawkins said. “79,000 acres of timber land was lost. … You don’t plant pecan trees and get pecans the next year. It’s 15 to 20 years.”

State Rep. Matt Dubnik, R-Gainesville, said he thinks it is wiser to make cuts now, when the economy is still doing relatively well.

“The time to really take a look at a budget of any kind is during the good times, not the tough times,” he said. “I’m very much supportive — I’m a fiscal conservative, and I believe in looking anywhere that we can trim fat.”

“The budget cuts are a necessity because revenues aren’t keeping up with expenses,” said state Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville. “We’re going to be cutting fat — not necessary, vital services. In fact, (Georgians) will see an expansion of useful, beneficial, practical government services.”

Budget questions will make it difficult to fund measures recommended by the State House Study Committee on Maternal Mortality, according to the Augusta Chronicle.

As lawmakers gather this week to begin the session, the House Study Committee on Maternal Mortality is providing a number of recommendations to help address the problem in Georgia, which has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the nation.

Georgia currently provides special Medicaid coverage for pregnant women until two months after giving birth for uninsured women with income up to 200% of the federal poverty level. The committee recommended extending that to one year, but the duration of that extension is already being debated in a year when many state agencies are being asked to prepare budget cuts.

“In a year where we are being extra cautious about taxpayer funds, any expansion will be looked at and weighed against any expenditures that are less important or less timely,” said Dr. Mark Newton, R-Augusta, who co-chaired the study committee. “There’s discussions about, is that a step we need to take all at once or can we take incremental steps to try and make some improvements? So I know those are some things that are on the table.”

The Associated Press thinks social issues may be sidelined in this session:

This year, Republican leaders have indicated that there may be less willingness to take on hot-button social issues.

“Last year was a tough session,” House Speaker David Ralston said during a news conference Thursday. “What I would like for us to do is what I think Georgians want us to do, which is to focus on continuing to create the kind of climate where businesses can grow jobs and folks can get up in the morning and send their kids to good schools, that are safe schools, and deal with transportation issues. And so that is where my focus is going to be frankly.”

One possible vehicle for discord could be legislation around adoption reform, which Kemp has identified as a priority this year. A bill seeking to update Georgia’s adoption laws in 2017 died after a Republican senator added an amendment letting private adoption agencies choose not to place children with LGBT parents because of religious concerns. Critics worry similar legislation could be introduced this session.

The Gainesville Times spoke to local legislators about priorities for the 2020 session.

Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, said “the cost of drugs has just skyrocketed,” an issue he hopes to address by regulating pharmacy benefit managers who contract with insurance companies to handle their prescription drug plans.

“They make deals with the drug manufacturers with rebates, with employer groups. We’ve uncovered quite a bit of shenanigans going on,” Hawkins said. “Patients are being charged enormous amounts for a drug that doesn’t cost near what they’re having to pay. That money is being backpedaled to the PBM companies.”

Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gillsville, outlined some other health care issues that he thinks will come up. He sees the mortality rate of mothers at childbirth, rural health care, mental health care and Medicaid expansion as possible issues in the legislature.

One key issue is “balance billing” or “surprise billing,” when patients get a bill from a provider who turns out to be out of network with their insurance company — such as one who performed part of a procedure at a hospital.

Mental health issues also need to be examined, especially in light of the closure of regional hospitals in recent years, Hawkins said.

“You can’t fill a hospital up with the mentally ill and then have nowhere to move them,” Hawkins said. “A lot of these folks, especially young folks … are sitting in jail cells. I’m really sensitive to that.”

The Rome News Tribune also spoke to local legislators headed to the session.

Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, will be part of a noon press conference spelling out his caucus’ priorities for the coming weeks. The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee said two important pieces of legislation will set the stage for budget discussions.

“I don’t think we have a revenue problem. We have a collection problem,” he said.

A bill enabling sales tax collection from third-party sellers such as Amazon, eBay and Etsy — marketplace facilitators — could bring in at least $150 million more a year, he said.

Hufstetler’s also been working with House Rep. Richard Smith, R-Columbus, on addressing so-called surprise medical billing.

Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, said she’s going to focus on three recommendations from the Infant and Toddler Social and Emotional Health study committee she chaired this fall.

Democrat Michael Bloomberg spoke to a summit hosted by Stacey Abrams in Atlanta, according to The Grio.

Those unaware of the history between Bloomberg and Abrams might raise an eyebrow at their alliance. Bloomberg, however, has been a long time and an early financial supporter of Abrams. She shared that history as she introduced him to the attendees. According to Abrahams, when she launched the New Georgia Project in 2014 intending to register 800,000 unregistered voters in the state by 2024, Bloomberg was a generous donor. Then in 2018, when Abrams dared to run for governor of Georgia, a feat that would have made her the first Black woman to hold that position in this country, Bloomberg donated significantly to her campaign.

In December 2019, the former New York City Mayor donated $5 million to her Fair Fight 2020, which the Spelman and Yale Law School alum launched months earlier in August to focus on voter protection in 20 battleground states for the 2020 election cycle. Among those states is Georgia, where voter suppression was alleged in Abrams’s slim loss to Republican Brian Kemp, who also served as Secretary of State monitoring that same election. In closing, she presented Bloomberg as “our friend” and “a friend of America” to the group.

At the podium, Bloomberg initially floundered when he spoke of the Atlanta Falcons while referencing his first Georgia visit with Mayor Hardie Davis, Jr. in December. When he turned the focus on voter suppression, he finally gained traction with the group.

“I think it’s fair to say that we all wish that we didn’t have to have this conference,” he told attendees. “If voter suppression wasn’t such a big problem, Stacey wouldn’t have started Fair Fight; she would be in the governor’s mansion.” Continuing he said, “Unfortunately, voter suppression is one of our most urgent challenges. And the right to vote is a fundamental right that protects all others. And it’s under attack around this country.”

From The Chattanooga Times Free Press:

Abrams has met with several White House hopefuls and given no indication that she will endorse anyone. Bloomberg’s moves nonetheless underscore the unusual path he is hoping to carve out to the White House as he bypasses the four early voting states and uses his vast personal fortune to build out a national campaign in the states that follow.

“Our campaign is going to stay here until November,” Bloomberg promised as he officially launched his operation in the state Friday after meeting with Abrams.

Georgia’s primary is March 24, three weeks after a Super Tuesday slate that Bloomberg hopes establishes him as more than a billionaire spoiler.

He lauded Abrams, who would have been the first black woman to lead a U.S. state, and Democratic Rep. John Lewis, the Atlanta civil rights icon who recently announced a dire cancer diagnosis. Bloomberg told the mostly white audience that he’d just come from lunch at Paschal’s, one of the city’s famous black-owned restaurants where Martin Luther King Jr. and his contemporaries often dined and made plans during the civil rights era.

The Georgia Council on Substance Abuse hosted a Bartow County forum, according to the Cartersville Daily Tribune News.

The event began with introductory remarks from District 15 State Rep. Matthew Gambill (R-Cartersville.)

“It is tremendous work that’s very important to all of us who are here today and to those of us here in Bartow County,” he said. “This is an issue that we continue to hear about at the State level … every community is dealing with this.”

Gambill told the attendees he didn’t have any “silver bullets or quick fixes” to remedy Georgia’s substance abuse crisis.

“This is probably going to be more of a crockpot opportunity than a microwave opportunity,” he said. “But the people that are in this room today are all blessed with the knowledge and the ability that we need to continue to provide and to figure out what we need to be doing here in Bartow County to address this issue.”

For Bartow, the next step is a GCSA recovery symposium.

“Individuals in the community come together, we foster these collaborative relationships, we see so many different great organizations that are supporting people, but sometimes we lack that connection,” he said. “At that symposium, we not only hear stories that are powerful from individuals … we get to ask the community some strategic questions that the planning committee has decided upon that are important for that community.”

The local GCSA symposium is scheduled for Feb. 13 at 6:30 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church of Cartersville, located at 183 West Main St.

The Glynn County Board of Elections is preparing to implement new voting machines, according to The Brunswick News.

According to Gabriel Sterling, chief operations officer for the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, Glynn County’s machines will arrive around Jan. 22.

An increase from the 224 machines the county currently has, the state is supplying a total of 255 touchscreen ballot-marking devices, as well as the associated printers, power supplies, privacy screens and carrying cases.

Another 26 scanners, 52 poll books, a central scanner and mobile ballot printer for absentee and provisional, amounts to several hundred new pieces of equipment, Sterling said.

Glynn County was slated to get less, but the state has made it a mission to make sure every county has at least one voting machine for every 225 registered voters. Every county gets exactly as many new machines as it had old machines, while those with fewer get as many more machines as they need to reach that 1-to-225 ratio, Sterling said.

In total, the state is sending out 32,000 touchscreens and around 110,000 pieces of equipment. As of Friday, Sterling said around 70 percent of it had been delivered.

On the local side, Elections and Registration Supervisor Chris Channell said the elections board is preparing for big changes in security, staffing and equipment storage and transport.

“The fact is we’re dealing with paper ballots now, which have to be secured and brought down (from polling places to the elections office),” said Patty Gibson, board chair.

The Glynn County Board of Education is beginning planning for the FY 2021 budget, according to The Brunswick News.

The Dalton Daily Citizen News profiles new Dalton Board of Education members Jody McClurg and Sam Sanders.

Rome will swear in three new City Commissioners, and then a Mayor will be elected by the commission, according to the Rome News Tribune.

For Ward 1, newcomers Jim Bojo and Mark Cochran will join veteran Sundai Stevenson as they are sworn in by Superior Court Chief Judge Bryant Durham at the start of the meeting.

Durham also will swear in Ward 3 newcomer Bonny Askew and veterans Bill Collins and Craig McDaniel. The terms are for four years.

City Attorney Andy Davis will preside over the election of this year’s mayor and pro tem mayor. One year ago, Bill Collins narrowly won the mayoral seat over sitting mayor Jamie Doss.

An injured baby Right Whale has been spotted off the Georgia coast, according to the Savannah Morning News.

A newborn right whale spotted off the coast of Georgia was suffering from deep cuts on either side of its head, dismaying conservationists who closely monitor the southeast U.S. coast during winter for births among the critically endangered species.

The S-shaped gashes, roughly 2 feet (0.6 meters) apart, were likely inflicted by the propeller of a boat, said Barb Zoodsma, who oversees the right whale recovery program in the U.S. Southeast for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

“If this was a human baby, this calf would be in the NICU right now,” Zoodsma said, referring to a hospital’s intensive care unit for babies. ”… And it’s highly unlikely that we can fix this animal.”

Scientists estimate only about 450 North Atlantic right whales survive. Each winter, female right whales migrate south to the shallow, warmer Atlantic waters off Georgia and Florida to have their babies.

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