Georgia Politics, Campaigns, and Elections for August 8, 2022

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Georgia Politics, Campaigns, and Elections for August 8, 2022

The first printed copy of the Declaration of Independence arrived in Savannah on August 8, 1776 and was read publicly for the first time on August 10, 1776.

On August 8, 1863, General Robert E. Lee offered his resignation in a letter to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, following the Battle of Gettysburg.

On August 8, 1925, Georgia Governor Clifford Walker signed legislation outlawing the brazen act of dancing publicly on Sunday.

On August 8, 1929, Georgia Governor Lamartine Hardman signed legislation placing on the ballot for Fulton and Campbell County voters a merger of the two.

The old Campbell County Courthouse still stands in Fairburn, Georgia.

Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew were nominated for President and Vice President by the Republican National Convention on August 8, 1968.

On August 8, 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned, effective at noon the next day.

Georgia Politics, Campaigns, and Elections

United States District Court Judge Steven Grimberg ruled that Georgia’s scheme for electing Public Service Commissioners is unconstitutional, according to the Associated Press via AccessWDUN.

A federal judge ruled Friday that Georgia’s statewide election of its five public service commissioners illegally dilutes Black voting power, ordering the state to not prepare ballots for two races that had been scheduled in November.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Steven Grimberg, if it stands, would mean that state lawmakers would have to draw single-member districts for the body that regulates Georgia Power Co. and other other utilities, subject to court approval. An election would be held later.

However, higher federal courts have shown significant skepticism about Voting Rights Act litigation in recent years, and the state could appeal. It could also argue that the ruling is too close to the election and seek a delay, an issue that Grimsberg considered and rejected in his opinion.

“Black voters will no longer be ignored and have their concerns about clean energy, pollution, and high power bills drowned out because of unfair archaic laws,” said Brionte McCorkle, executive director of Georgia Conservation Voters. Nico Martinez, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, called it “one of the most important decisions to advance voting rights in a generation.”

At-large voting that preserves white control has long been subject to legal attack, but most cases have focused on at-large voting in local elections. But Grimberg said the same rules apply to statewide elections, rejecting the state’s arguments that commissioners needed to be elected statewide because their decisions apply statewide. He also overruled the state’s arguments that statewide elections couldn’t be challenged under the federal Voting Rights Act and that district elections would impermissibly change Georgia’s form of government.

The judge noted that white Republican Chuck Eaton beat Black Democratic incumbent David Burgess in a 2006 runoff in which Eaton won statewide but Burgess would have won if only voters in the Atlanta-area district had voted. The judge also noted that Eaton would have lost reelection in 2012 and 2018 if only voters in the district had voted.

Grimberg wrote that his ruling would “regrettably cause disruption” to November’s elections, and agreed that Echols and Johnson would remain in office beyond the end of their six-year terms until new districts could be drawn. The order anticipates lawmakers drawing districts in next year’s regular session. If lawmakers don’t act, Grimberg would draw the districts.

From the Capitol Beat News Service:

Under Georgia’s current system, commissioners run statewide but must live in one of five districts.

The General Assembly amended Georgia law in 1998 so that each commissioner had to reside in one of five districts. This year, lawmakers redrew the boundaries of voting districts in Georgia – including the five PSC districts – to reflect new census numbers.

PSC District 3, which includes parts of Fulton, DeKalb, and Clayton counties, was 52.02% Black, but under the redrawn maps the Black population dropped to 48.79%, the ruling stated.

Friday’s ruling prohibits Georgia Secretary of States Brad Raffensperger from preparing ballots for the November election for the PSC District 2 and 3 races.

From the AJC:

The ruling likely will lead to an overhaul of how commissioners are now elected. State law now requires commission members to live in one of five districts but allows voters from across the entire state to cast ballots for all commission seats.

And it could portend major changes to the commission, a somewhat obscure state regulatory body with five GOP members who play a key role in deciding how electricity used in Georgia is generated and how much customers pay for it. The five commissioners serve six-year terms and earn a salary of $126,000.

The statewide voting process to fill commission seats dates back to a 1906 law, but the current system is newer. In 1998, the Democratic-controlled Legislature approved a law that required members to live in one of five geographic districts, though they continued to be elected statewide.

Across the country, Georgia and six other states elect utility regulators statewide, while five states hold elections for geographic districts. In most states, however, members of regulatory bodies are chosen by governors or legislatures.

Governor Brian Kemp‘s office announced state revenues for July increased by 2.5% over the previous July, according to a Press Release:

The State of Georgia’s net tax collections during the first month of FY 2023 totaled nearly $2.21 billion for an increase of $54.2 million, or 2.5 percent, over July 2021 (FY 22), when net tax collections approached $2.16 billion.

The changes within the following tax categories account for July’s overall net tax revenue increase.

Individual Income Tax: Individual Income Tax collections during the month totaled $1.17 billion, up from almost $1.06 billion in July 2021, for an increase of $113.3 million or 10.7 percent.

The following notable components within Individual Income Tax combine for the net increase:
* Individual Income Tax refunds issued (net of voided checks) decreased by $5.6 million or -6.5 percent
* Income Tax Withholding payments for July increased by $103.1 million, or 9.9 percent, from FY 2022
* Individual Income Tax Return payments increased by $20.3 million, or 90.5 percent, over July 2021
* All other Individual Tax categories, including Estimated Tax payments, were down a combined $15.7 million

Sales and Use Tax: Gross Sales and Use Tax collections approached $1.51 billion in July, for an increase of $157.9 million, or 11.7 percent, over FY 2022. Net Sales and Use Tax increased nearly $69.2 million, or 10.1 percent, compared to July 2021, when net Sales Tax revenue totaled $687 million. The adjusted Sales Tax distribution to local governments totaled $748.4 million, for an increase of $87.4 million, or 13.2 percent, over last year. Lastly, Sales Tax refunds increased by $1.3 million, or 55.7 percent, compared to FY 2022.

Corporate Income Tax: Corporate Income Tax collections for July totaled $95 million, which was an increase of $36.5 million, or 62.3 percent, from FY 2022 when net Corporate Tax revenues totaled $58.5 million for July.

The following notable components within Corporate Income Tax make up the net increase:

* Corporate Income Tax refunds issued (net of voids) were down $14.1 million, or -71.3 percent, from FY ‘22
* Corporate Income Tax Return payments increased by $17.5 million, or 131.9 percent, from last year
* All other Corporate payments, including Estimated payments, were up a combined $4.9 million over last year

Motor Fuel Taxes: Motor Fuel Tax collections for the month of July decreased by $157.2 million, or -97.8 percent, compared to FY 2022, as a result of Governor Kemp’s Executive Order to extend the suspension of the Motor Fuel Excise Tax through mid-August.

Motor Vehicle – Tag & Title Fees: Motor Vehicle Tag & Title Fee collections decreased by $4.6 million, or -13.9 percent, from a total of $33.2 million in July 2021, while Title ad Valorem Tax (TAVT) collections fell by $3.9 million, or -5.3 percent, compared to the previous fiscal year.

From the Capitol Beat News Service via the Statesboro Herald:

Motor fuels taxes dropped 97.8% last month compared to July of last year.

The gas tax remains off the table for now. Kemp issued an executive order this week renewing the tax holiday at least through Sept. 12.

Last month’s rise in tax collections followed the closeout of fiscal 2022 the month before, which saw the state take in $33.09 billion in tax receipts for the year, an increase of 23% over fiscal 2021.

A State Senate Study Committee will consider whether local development authorities needs greater transparency and accountability, according to the Capitol Beat News Service via the Albany Herald.

[S]uch huge incentives packages as the $1.8 billion that went to Hyundai and the $1.5 billion doled out to Rivian have given rise to concerns that local governments and schools are losing massive amounts of tax revenue to development authorities without sufficient state oversight or demands for transparency.

A state Senate study committee has begun a series of meetings to look for ways to require more accountability from development authorities without sacrificing the jobs they help create.

“Our objective is to support economic development in this state,” Sen. Max Burns, R-Sylvania, the study committee’s chairman, said. “[But] it’s important that we understand the ramifications of our development authority decisions … and the impact they have on our state.”

About 1,300 local government authorities have cropped up across Georgia since 1995, when the legislature passed a law authorizing cities and counties to form authorities, Kyle Hood, director of the state Department of Community Affairs’ Community Development Division, told members of the study committee late last month. Of those, 575 are development authorities or downtown development authorities, he said.

“Without these authorities, county governments would have to go to taxpayers and put out a referendum,” he said. “It’s the only development tool they have.”

“Abating school taxes without schools being part of the discussion is problematic,” said [State Rep. Mary Margaret] Oliver, [D-DeKalb] who despite being a member of the House is on the Senate study committee.

Oliver’s bill giving local governments and school districts the right to take part in bond validation hearings has the support of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG), which advocates on behalf of counties at the state Capitol.

“My focus is more on the day-to-day [offering] of tax abatements without much discussion or accountability.” [said Oliver]

The Georgia Department of Public Health is again rolling out COVID testing kiosks, according to the Rome News Tribune.

Georgia Department of Public Health has rolled out covid testing kiosks in several communities, including Calhoun. Those kiosks are available 24/7, and allow individuals to quickly test themselves, drop off the kit, and get results back within 48 hours.

Those with COVID symptoms should test immediately. Those with known exposure to someone with the disease should test at least five days after last contact, even without symptoms, according to a DPH release.

CDC also recommends testing for those who are going to indoor events or gatherings, and before and after any travel. Three rounds of rapid tests can be ordered from covidtest.gov, and insurance companies are required to cover up to eight rapid tests per person per month free of charge.

Albany is considering a property tax millage rate rollback while the county millage rate would still yield higher government revenues, according to WALB.

The city is looking to roll back the millage rate from 9.631 mills to 9.597. This means that someone who owns a house worth $100,000, will see a property tax decrease of $1.36.

If approved, this would be the eighth consecutive year the city has rolled back its millage rate.

“The Dougherty County Commission is considering a millage rate increase that will be larger than the city’s rollback,” city officials said in a release. “If approved, city residents will still see an increase in their property taxes.”

The county is proposing a millage rate increase of 15.569 to 19.069. This means that someone who owns a house worth $100,000 will see a $134.86 property tax increase.

“If both proposals are approved, city residents will see an overall property tax increase of approximately $133.50 per $100,000,” city officials said.

The City of Albany and Dougherty County continue to negotiate a split of Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) revenues, according to WALB.

Originally, the city wanted a 70-30 split, while the county wanted it to be 64-36.

The city’s counter-proposal included two new options: Option One being a 67/33 split. Option two would be the 64-36 split the county wanted, but with one major stipulation.

The city’s $15 million dollar sewer project would have be covered with shared SPLOST money before the split is made.

“This is not an option, and this would be remarkably financially devastating to the county, and Frankly I think we’d all end up getting sued,” said Chris Cohilas, Dougherty County Commission Chairman.

Monday is the deadline for the city and county to come to an agreement, but negotiations won’t stop there. City leaders will have to determine LOST funds. Voting for that will happen in December.

Whitfield County Commissioners will meet in their new space for the first time today, according to the Dalton Daily Citizen News.

The board has met at several places the last two years but primarily at the Wink Theatre, owned by Rock Bridge Community Church.

“Rock Bridge has been extremely generous with its facilities, people and time,” said Board of Commissioners Chairman Jevin Jensen. “I can’t thank them enough for hosting the commissioners this past year and a half. Our meetings and attendance (both in-person and streaming) have significantly increased during this period. Also, we appreciate the (county) sheriff’s office for providing security and setting up metal detectors each month at the Wink. By moving into our newly renovated courthouse as a permanent home for Board of Commissioners’ meetings, we believe it will be easier on everyone while still leveraging all the improvements we made to our meetings over the last 18 months.”

The meeting room seats about 110. Several large-screen monitors are mounted on the walls so visitors can see the agenda and any materials that commissioners are looking at. The room has audiovisual equipment to stream the meetings on the county’s Facebook page, and across from the room there is an overflow room with a large-screen monitor to view the meeting that seats about 60-70.

The commissioners met for almost 15 years in Administrative Building No. 2 on King St. In 2019, the Dalton Fire Department fire marshal sent them a letter detailing the ways the building did not meet state fire code. The commissioners decided to close the building and eventually to tear it down. They leased space for county offices in the Wells Fargo Bank building on Hamilton Street and began meeting in a conference room there in August 2019.

The interior of the 1961 portion of the courthouse has been gutted and completely rebuilt to address mold and other issues. The $6 million project is funded by the 2020 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST). Part of those changes was converting the space formerly occupied by the tax commissioner’s office into a meeting room for the commissioners.

Bulloch County Commissioners are considering replacing county employees’ 401k-type retirement program with a pension plan, according to the Statesboro Herald.

A study group of Bulloch County government employees from various departments is asking the county commissioners to adopt a defined benefit retirement plan – in other words a pension – and move away from their current 401(a) defined contribution retirement savings program.

After hearing from the study group Wednesday, two commissioners indicated support for one pension program option. All of the commissioners informally agreed to make a decision after a 60-day “due diligence” period, giving the committee and themselves time to gather feedback from a broader representation of the county workforce.

One advantage of a retirement savings plan like the county provides now is that if an employee dies before using up their retirement nest egg, the remainder becomes an inheritable family asset. But the contrary disadvantage, as [ACCG Retirement Services manager Greg] Gease also noted, is that when retired employees outlive the contents of their 401(a), the plan ceases to provide anything.

In contrast, a pension provides a guaranteed income as long as the retired employee lives, but then ceases when that person dies. An exception is survivor benefits, designated to a spouse or other family member, for which the pension plan could also provide some options.

Glynn County Board of Education members will adopt a property tax millage rate Tuesday, according to The Brunswick News.

The school system recently received the tax digest numbers from the local tax commissioner, and the collection increase was 12%, which is significantly higher than the 4% increase the school system budgeted for, said Chris Griner, assistant superintendent for finances for Glynn County Schools.

The rollback rate this year is 14.938….

The trends are there for an upcoming recession, Griner said, which could force the school board to make difficult funding decisions down the road. CARES Act funding will expire in 2024, and programs being funded with that federal money — like the new Horizons Academy at Risley Annex — will have to be reviewed before that deadline.

School board member Mike Hulsey said he may be in favor of decreasing the millage rate.

“I’ve been saying for a couple of months now that we need to look at a decrease in the millage rate, and now I’m more convinced,” he said at a work session Thursday.

He said he is not suggesting going back to the rollback rate, which would be the millage rate that would keep collections at their 2021 rate.

“But in my opinion we need to seriously look at retro-earning some of this no matter what the economy does,” Hulsey said. “… We knew all along we were going to have to make some decisions about CARES Act funding … We’re going to have to make some tough decisions for sure.”

Whitfield County Commissioners may seek a federal grant to provide relief for a neighborhood whose ingress and egress is frequently blocked by trains, according to the Dalton Daily Citizen News.

The commissioners meet Monday at 6 p.m. in the courthouse, and they are scheduled to vote to apply for a federal reconnecting communities pilot program grant. The meeting will be livestreamed on the county’s Facebook page.

The program aims to help communities cut off from opportunities because of transportation infrastructure problems.

“This pilot grant is really interesting,” said Board of Commissioners Chairman Jevin Jensen. “If you recall, a few months ago, we had a neighborhood come to our meeting that is blocked often by railroads stopped on the tracks. Sometimes for hours. There is only one way into and out of the neighborhood, which is on the southside.”

“Georgia is one of the only states with no legislation to fine railroads for blocking roads over a specific time length,” he said. “They can make up for any reason and not be fined or forced to move. This grant would allow us to develop a solution to this problem by using the funds to buy up the right of way, building a second exit, etc., to solve the problem of neighborhoods cut off by interstate or railroads in our case.”

Rome City Commissioners will vote on a charter revision that would raise commission salaries going forward, according to the Rome News Tribune.

Plans are to raise the annual pay of commissioners to $12,000 from the current $8,400, which has been in place since the late 1990s. The change would take effect in January 2024, the term following the next regularly scheduled city elections in November 2023.

The amendment includes the 10% premium for the commission chair — the mayor — to compensate for extra duties. The pay for that position, elected annually by the board, will rise to $13,200 a year.

Rome Board of Education pay also will be affected, since the city charter sets members’ salaries at half that of the city commission.

Georgia sea turtles beat their previous nesting record, according to CNN via the Albany Herald.

This week, Georgia officially hit its record for sea turtle nests, with 3,966 nests recorded, according to a news release shared with CNN from the Jekyll Island Authority’s Georgia Sea Turtle Center. This surpassed 2019’s record of 3,956 nests.

Loggerhead sea turtles are the most abundant sea turtle species in the United States broadly and in Georgia, according to NOAA Fisheries, although they are still considered endangered. Their population has been threatened by bycatch from commercial fishing operations.

Jekyll Island was a particular hot spot for sea turtle nests this nesting season: There were 236 sea turtle nests recorded on the island, the highest ever recorded, the news release explained. And more than 6,000 baby loggerheads have hatched from those nests.

The high number of nests reflects Georgia’s ongoing conservation successes. The nesting loggerhead sea turtle population in Georgia has increased by around 4% each year since the 90s, says the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. All five species of sea turtles found in the waters along the state are protected by state and federal law, says the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Teams of biologists and volunteers monitor loggerhead nests to help protect them from poaching and habitat destruction during the spring and summer nesting season, the department noted.

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