On January 11, 1765, Francis Salvador of South Carolina became the first Jewish elected official in America when he took a seat in the South Carolina Provincial Congress. Salvador’s grandfather was one of 42 Jews who emigrated to Georgia in 1733. Salvador later became the first Jewish soldier to die in the American Revolution.
On January 11, 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt declared the Grand Canyon a national monument.
“Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is,” he declared. “You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is keep it for your children, your children’s children, and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see.”
Marvin Griffin of Bainbridge was inaugurated as Governor of Georgia on January 11, 1955.
Georgia Politics, Campaigns, and Elections
Georgia passed the dubious milestone of 10,000 new COVID-19 cases in a day, according to the Statesboro Herald.
Georgia shattered its single-day record with 10,393 new COVID-19 cases reported Friday, 1,600 more than the previous worst day. Meanwhile, Bulloch County topped 50 new cases in one day for the first time since early September.
Georgia recorded 10,393 new cases Friday, and the state’s total number of confirmed cases is now up to 620,247. Prior to Friday, the state’s previous high for new cases in a single day was 8,764 recorded on Jan. 1.
According to the Associated Press, Thursday ranked as one of the deadliest days in U.S. history, with the COVID-19 toll far outstripping the nearly 3,000 killed on 9/11 and exceeding the combined total of nearly 3,900 U.S. lives lost on D-Day and at Pearl Harbor.
COVID cases that require hospitalization continue to increase in Georgia, setting another single-day high on Thursday with 5,782 state residents hospitalized with coronavirus, but it did drop slightly to 5,751 on Friday. Georgia has seen hospitalizations increase almost every day since Nov. 15. In fact, since that day, daily hospitalizations have risen from 1,978 to 5,782 — a 192-percent increase in eight weeks.
The AJC looks at the coming legislative session, which gavels in a 10 AM today.
Senate Republican Leader Mike Dugan of Carrollton said lawmakers, who are being tested twice a week for COVID-19, are expected to meet through Thursday before going home for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.
The annual State of the State address made by Gov. Brian Kemp will take place Thursday, but the typical joint session — where members of the Senate join state representatives in the House chamber — will not happen this year.
“There will be a virtual option, where members can watch from their offices or on a screen in the Senate chamber,” Dugan said.
Lawmakers will also quickly get to work on the state budget, which Kemp is expected to unveil Thursday. Passing a balanced fiscal 2022 budget is the only piece of legislation the General Assembly is required by law to address.
Voting procedures will be a major topic of this year’s Georgia General Assembly session, according to the Capitol Beat News Service via the Augusta Chronicle.
Weeks of protests and legal challenges sparked by President-elect Joe Biden’s razor-thin victory over President Donald Trump in Georgia and other battleground states have prompted a call for changes to voting laws in Georgia, including restrictions on mail-in voting.
The General Assembly also will fulfill the annual legal requirement of passing a balanced state budget, buoyed by healthier-than-expected state revenues but hampered by demands from state agencies to restore at least some of the spending cuts the Legislature imposed last year.
And lawmakers will renew what has become an annual debate over whether to legalize gambling in Georgia in various forms, from online sports betting and pari-mutuel betting on horse racing to casinos.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is calling for tightening state voter ID laws for mail-in ballots and eliminating no-excuse absentee voting, which since 2005 has allowed Georgians to request absentee ballots for any reason, not just because they live out of state or are physically impaired.
“It makes no sense when we have three weeks of in-person early voting available,” he told state lawmakers last month. “It opens the door to potential illegal voting.”
House Speaker David Ralston said another priority will be getting rid of the “jungle primary” law in Georgia, which set the stage for the huge field of 21 candidates in November’s special election for the Senate seat held by Republican Kelly Loeffler.
A House and Senate still struggling to operate amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak will see its members sworn in Monday to two-year terms. In one sign of the gravity of the times, guests will largely be banned from the chambers on a largely ceremonial day that often sees grandchildren wriggling on laps. And all 180 House members won’t be sworn in at once, but rather in four socially distanced waves.
Senators for the first time will be required to wear masks, said Sen. Butch Miller, of Gainesville, the GOP nominee for Senate president pro tem. Masks were optional in the 56-member Senate during the tail end of last year’s sessions and during committee hearings since, even though multiple senators were sickened with the respiratory illness. Masks were mandated in the House last year.
Both chambers are requiring members and staff to take twice-weekly saliva tests to try to slow the spread of the virus. And they’ve also banned legislative pages as well as the usual processions of beauty queens and 4-H members who are normally honored at the legislature.
“I think it’s just going to be a decision that’s going to be made quickly,” Ralston told reporters Thursday. “We may have to make decisions kind of on the fly if the (infection) rate spikes here.”
The rope lines that are the scene of much arm-twisting remain curtained off, and some veteran lobbyists have said they plan to stay away as much as possible. Of course, that could change as the session rises to its midpoint crescendo crossover day when a bill must advance to the opposite chamber, and at the end, when leaders can rewrite bills on the fly, resurrecting proposals that had appeared dead.
Gov. Brian Kemp will give a socially distant State of the State address and release his budget on Thursday. The House and Senate plan joint budget hearings for the following week, when the full chambers are unlikely to meet.
The regular session, beginning Monday, Jan. 11, could be shortened out of concerns over COVID-19, which could mean other items that didn’t make the cut could be added to the list in the later session, in addition to redistricting and reapportionment, said state Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, president pro tempore of the Georgia Senate.
That session would likely take place in late summer or early fall, he said.
Regardless, in the regular session, “we will be preparing for the special session,” added Miller.
During a press conference on Thursday, Jan. 7, Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, acknowledged that the Supreme Court has recognized reapportionment as a “political process,” but he added, “there’s nothing wrong or evil about that.”
An analysis by the Brookings Institution released on Dec. 22 indicates that Georgia should maintain its 14 congressional seats, but that overall in the 2020 census, the U.S. had its lowest annual growth rate since at least 1900.
Among the proposals is elimination of no-excuse absentee balloting, removal of ballot dropboxes, imposing new signature audit and voter verification measures for absentee ballots and making the state’s chief elections official, the secretary of state, a legislative appointee rather than an official elected by the people.
“We have totally lost confidence in our election system this year,” said Sen. Steve Gooch, the Republican whip, in a recent committee hearing without citing evidence of election failures. “I have a duty to let you know that this issue isn’t going to go away unless we make some changes.”
Election-related proposals will face vehement opposition from Democrats as well as moderate Republicans during the session. Many of those legislators feel the voting reforms of recent years didn’t go far enough, that enacting online systems for voter registration and absentee ballot requests, purging voter rolls less frequently and enrolling in a multi-state voter registration database is insufficient to address what they consider a climate of voter suppression.
Attempting to roll back laws meant to expand poll access will be a new flashpoint.
The chairman of the Savannah-area delegation, Republican House Rep. Ron Stephens, said a light touch is needed. For example, he favors additional voter verification requirements on absentee ballots but wants changes to be limited to simple, pragmatic measures, such as mandating that absentee voters list their state-issued ID number on their ballot.
Stephens sees this as a common-sense solution, as would-be absentee voters already provide that info in requesting a mail-in ballot. Those processing absentee ballots could use this number to quickly pull up a voter’s driver’s license via computer and verify the signature, address and photo.
State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur) will introduce legislation for greater transparency in the development of economic development deals by local governments, according to the Gwinnett Daily Post.
“In my central DeKalb County district and across the state, there is conflict and discussion about the financial impact of annexation efforts on school systems and on local governments,” Oliver said. “I want us to have a focused discussion and strengthen the statutes to allow for objections to annexations, review of bond validations with related tax abatement issues and increase transparency for all participants.”
Development authorities often offer property tax breaks or other incentives in exchange for new construction or expansion in their districts. The plans can retract millions of dollars of revenue from schools and public services.
Clint Mueller, legislative director for Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG), said, most times, county governments are not aware of the tax-abatement plans until they are completed. Current law allows local governments to object to the abatement plans in court. Mueller said counties are not looking to have veto power, just more say in the process.
Oliver’s legislative package includes three measures – House Bills 23, 24 and 25. Together, the bills would ensure all those affected by annexation and bond validation with tax incentives would have input into the decision-making process and be allowed to make objections.
“You could have a situation where a single-city development authority could allow an apartment complex not to have to pay any property taxes for 20 years. Yet that apartment complex, once it’s built, would put kids in the school system, and it would create demand on county and city services,” Mueller said.
Watkinsville Mayor [and former State Representative] Bob Smith wants to split Oconee County from the Western Judicial Circuit, which it shares with Clarke County, according to the Athens Banner Herald.
Smith, in his first term as mayor, said Wednesday the idea has a financial component.
Smith for months has maintained that Oconee’s plans to build a new government complex — which would include a new library — on the outskirts of the city is a waste of taxpayer money.
“How can we save Oconee taxpayers money? We can save millions of dollars by not building that big building,” he said, adding that the library’s present building could just be expanded.
Smith has also fielded calls about the election of a new district attorney for the circuit — a Democrat as opposed to most voters in Oconee, which leans heavily Republican.
“There are a number of people I talked to in Oconee County that want to be away from the Athens climate,” he said.
Rome City Commissioners will vote for a Mayor and Mayor Pro Tem in their meeting tonight, according to the Rome News Tribune.
The board’s structure mirrors that of the Floyd County Commission, whose members choose a chair and vice chair each year. However, City Commissioners changed the titles to “mayor” and “mayor pro tem” more than a decade ago, to match those used in most other Georgia cities.
Commissioner Bill Collins, first elected in 1996, became the city’s first black mayor in 2019 and was chosen to serve again in 2020. Prior to that, the gavel was wielded for five straight years by Commissioner Jamie Doss, who has been on the board since 1990.
Macon-Bibb County Mayor Lester Miller signed an Executive Order on COVID, according to the Macon Telegraph.
“While many people are doing their part by wearing a mask, not attending large gatherings, and practicing social distancing, I am seeing too many pictures of people and businesses ignoring the threat we face. We have to take action in order to avoid future, more severe health consequences,” Miller said in the release.
Sheriff David Davis said, for the most part, his deputies will continue doing what they have been when it comes to monitoring places where health precautions are not being followed.
“One of the problems that has been an issue is some of these special-event permits that have (been) approved. There winds up being a lot of people there in close proximity,” Davis said. “So that’s one of the things we will be looking at.”
“Because COVID-19 continues to be a menace to individuals everywhere, we support this action by Mayor Miller,” Davis said in the release. “Deputies will monitor locations – particularly bars, nightclubs, and other public events – where the potential for large gatherings exists. If necessary, citations will be issued for serious and repeated violations.”
The Golden Isles Chamber of Commerce will host a “Unity Breakfast” for local officials, according to The Brunswick News.
Representatives from the Glynn County Commission, Brunswick City Commission and Brunswick-Glynn County Joint Water and Sewer Commissioner are scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the Brunswick Glynn County Library to discuss future collaboration.
“The chamber is putting this on, of course, but it’s just to look forward to what we want to do in the future, what we can do and moving forward to the betterment of Glynn County,” said county commission chairman Wayne Neal.
The Hall County Board of Elections rejected 63 out of nearly 300 provisional runoff ballots, according to the Gainesville Times.
The Hall County Election Board voted Friday, Jan. 8, to reject 63 provisional ballots in the Jan. 5 U.S. Senate runoffs on several grounds, including 40 that were from voters registered in another county.
Voters cast provisional ballots if they are unable to provide photo identification when voting in person or their name is not listed as registered in that precinct when they go to vote.
The board did approve 235 other provisional ballots, including 109 that had been flagged in Dec. 23 voting challenges.
Overall, 78,733 ballots were cast in the runoffs, or 60% of the county’s 131,260 registered voters, according to Hall County’s election website.
Debbie Rauers, a Republican, has resigned from the Chatham County Board of Elections, according to the Savannah Morning News.
Rauers’ term was set to expire in 2022, and the Chatham County Republican Party will be responsible for appointing a replacement to serve the remainder of her term.
Chatham County Commissioners will consider levying a fire service fee to property tax bills for unicorporated portions of the county, according to the Savannah Morning News.
Nearly one-third of properties served by Chatham Fire in unincorporated Chatham County aren’t opting in to the subscription for fire services. That lack of subscribers has not only created budget shortfalls for the department, it also puts property owners at risk for higher insurance premiums.
Chatham Fire covers 34,576 properties in unincorporated Chatham County, but after the department switched billing software, they discovered that nearly 10,000 of those properties weren’t subscribing.
“Herein lies the crux, if those other 10,000 properties were made to pay, it would make up a shortfall in our fire budget, that would make the fire operations self-sustaining,” said Chuck Kearns, CEO of Chatham Emergency Services, which serves as an umbrella for Chatham Fire and Chatham EMS.