Georgia Politics, Campaigns, and Elections for April 1, 2024

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Georgia Politics, Campaigns, and Elections for April 1, 2024

In perhaps the most fitting historical tidbit ever, the United States House of Representatives first met on April 1, 1789 in New York City. Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania was elected the first Speaker of the House. Georgia’s first Members of Congress were James Jackson, Abraham Baldwin, and George Mathews.

On April 1, 1870, Robert E. Lee, President of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, arrived in Savannah, Georgia. Lee’s career in the United States Army began with his first assignment at Cockspur Island near Savannah. While in Savannah for the 1870 trip, Lee was photographed with former General Joseph E. Johnston, who was in the insurance business there.

Georgia Politics, Campaigns, and Elections

The City of Oakwood has postponed swearing in a new City Council member after questions were raised about the election and voter eligibility, according to AccessWDUN.

Secretary of State’s Office officials confirmed to AccessWDUN Friday morning that an investigation is underway after 200 people who should not have been eligible to vote in the March 12 city council race cast ballots, along with 22 people who should have been eligible to vote in the race who did not have the item included on their ballots.

Rhonda Wood defeated Volley Collins by an 88-vote margin to win the Post 4 seat that was previously held by her husband, Dwight Wood, who passed away in September 2023.

Oakwood City Manager B.R. White said Friday afternoon that the city has canceled Rhonda Wood’s swearing-in ceremony that was scheduled for the Tuesday, April 2 city council meeting.

“The City will wait on the Sec.of State’s office to complete its investigation,” White said in an email Friday.

“The problem Oakwood has is that we didn’t run the election, so we don’t have any control over anything that’s going on. We’re just like everybody else, waiting to see what’s going to happen,” [Oakwood City Attorney Donnie] Hunt said Friday morning.

“I still am a firm believer, and I’m going to stand my ground, that I won the election,” Wood said. “It’s frustrating because I’ve been waiting to start carrying on my husband’s legacy and taking care of the citizens of Oakwood, and I don’t understand how people are getting these off-the-wall numbers regarding the votes.”

The Hall County Board of Elections issued a statement Friday morning saying the county has investigated the incident and determined that the discrepancies were not a result of errors of Hall County election staff. The board asked that any further inquiries into the issue be directed to the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office.

From a later story by AccessWDUN:

Tom Braatz, Hall County Elections Sr. Specialist, said a combination of factors led to the discrepancy. Aside from the 200 voters who should not have been able to vote in the race, it was previously announced that 22 people should have been able to vote and were unable to. Rhonda Wood won that race by an 88-vote margin, defeating opponent Volley Collins. That election was held the same day as the Presidential Preference Primary in Georgia.

Braatz said the Presidential Preference Primary ballots were delivered to Hall County on Jan. 2. Those ballots were reviewed and validated in a process known as proofing, with that process being complete about a week after they were delivered to the county. The election status then became “ballot ready,” following that review process.

A Federal Court-ordered redistricting was then approved on Jan. 4, two days after the ballots were delivered to Hall County.

The election was carried out in the new, post-redistricting data structure, according to Braatz. However, a failure to properly map the new data to the old, pre-redistricting data led to incorrect ballot assignments to voters from the electronic poll books.

Braatz said the court-ordered redistricting started a series of issues, as it was an abnormal event. He said he believed officials would need to look at the election preparation process to determine what additional steps can be taken in the future to ensure that the issue does not occur again.

“It wasn’t really, unfortunately, until it was all over and done with that we could see the extent of it,” Braatz said. “We wouldn’t obviously stop the Presidential Preference Primary for the City of Oakwood election. And they’re co-mingled, they’re all done together. It’s all on the same equipment … so there was really no reasonable opportunity to stop the election.”

It’s unclear if any action will be taken in the days to come, but Georgia House District 30 Representative Derrick McCollum told AccessWDUN Thursday that he believed another election should be held.

“It just bothers me that they’re going to swear [Wood] in without having another election,” McCollum said. “I hate to cost the taxpayers money, but I feel like they could just have another election on the May primary date and it wouldn’t cost taxpayers any more money.”

State legislators passed a $36.1 billion dollar state budget for the coming fiscal year, according to the Capitol Beat News Service via the Savannah Morning News.

The spending plan, which passed the state House 175-1 and the Senate 54-1 in the final hours of this year’s legislative session, represents an increase of $3.7 billion over the fiscal 2024 budget lawmakers adopted last spring.

It includes $4,000 cost-of-living raises for most state workers, with an additional $3,000 for employees in state agencies suffering large turnover rates, including law enforcement officers and welfare workers. Teachers would get increases of $2,500.

The budget also contains substantial increases in funding for various education initiatives, including $243 million to account for student enrollment growth, $200 million to buy more school buses, and $108 million in school safety grants to upgrade security on public school campuses. Every public school in Georgia will get grants of $45,000.

A late-arriving increase of $48.4 million would go to Georgia’s lottery-funded pre-kindergarten program, thanks to brisk lottery ticket sales. Gov. Brian Kemp announced late Wednesday he would revise his revenue estimate upward to make room for the additional funds.

“Ensuring Georgia’s children have the strongest possible start in their educational career continues to be a priority for my administration,” the governor wrote in a letter to the chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations committees. “I am increasing my revenue estimate … to further address class size, teacher pay, and capital and operational needs critical to the continued success of our nationally recognized Pre-Kindergarten program.”

In a departure from the usual policy of borrowing the funds for building projects, the state’s $16 billion budget surplus allowed the legislature to load up the spending plan with $1.2 billion in cash for a variety of projects. Of that amount, $866 million would go toward buildings at public schools, colleges and universities, and at state agencies.

The budget now heads to Kemp’s desk. Governors typically sign annual budgets in early May.

Legislators also passed Senate Bill 189, to revise some voting procedures, according to the Capitol Beat News Service via the Savannah Morning News.

The state House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 189 101-73, with the Senate adopting the bill a short time later 33-22. Both votes fell along party lines.

The legislation cobbled together a series of election-reform bills that were introduced separately earlier in the 2024 session. Some of the provisions were not controversial, including the elimination of QR codes from paper ballots – which tended to confuse voters – and tightening the chain of custody of ballots on Election Day.

But other parts of the bill drew fire from legislative Democrats, who accused Republicans of suppressing the vote by making it easier for citizens to challenge voters’ eligibility. Mass challenges have been filed in some Georgia counties in recent years, gumming up the operations of local elections offices with meritless challenges, the vast majority of which ended up being dismissed.

“I can’t believe we’re still bending over to accommodate election deniers and conspiracy theorists,” said Rep. Saira Draper, D-Atlanta. “There’s a very vocal minority out there who will never be satisfied with our elections if they didn’t win.”

“We’ve taken steps to give Georgians confidence in our elections,” House Speaker Jon Burns, R-Newington, told reporters shortly after lawmakers adjourned the 2024 legislative session just before 1 a.m. Friday.

The bill now goes to GOP Gov. Brian Kemp, who is expected to sign it.

 

 

Two bills by coastal legislators passed in the waning hours of the 2024 Session of the Georgia General Assembly, according to The Brunswick News.

House Bill 181, a bill regulating the sale of kratom in Georgia and introduced by Rep. Rick Townsend, passed Thursday afternoon and House Bill 1207, which carried a substitute measure authored by Rep. Buddy DeLoach on county voting machines, got through in the closing hours of the legislature.

“We passed (it) about 10 p.m. last night,” DeLoach, R-Townsend, said Friday.

DeLoach’s substitute counters legislation passed in the General Assembly in 2021 requiring counties to provide one voting machine for every 250 registered electors during elections. DeLoach’s measure allows the superintendent of elections in each county to decide the number of voting machines needed.

Members of the Glynn County Board of Elections had argued that the 2021 legislation failed to take into account voters who cast ballots early or by absentee. They said the mandate would compel them to acquire more machines that they do not need at a cost of thousands of dollars to taxpayers.

DeLoach’s own bill loosening the voting machine rules failed to pass the House before crossover day, the deadline for a measure to win passage in one chamber in order to be considered in the other. That prompted him to seek approval to attach his legislation to House Bill 1207, which called for increasing the home exemption in the Hall County School District.

For Townsend, passage of a bill regulating the sale of kratom, manufactured from a plant found in Southeast Asia and which is said to relieve pain, was the end of a long journey that began with the 2023 session of the General Assembly. The St. Simons Island Republican had initially sought to have kratom banned in Georgia as it is in other states, but heavy pushback from lobbyists led to the dilution of the bill.

Regulations carried in the adopted version of HB 181 include setting the minimum age to purchase kratom at 21, requiring sales clerks to store products made from it behind the counter and mandating that the manufacturer of its products be properly identified and its contents or strength properly labeled.

“It’s going to be harder for those teenage kids to get a hold of it like they do now,” Townsend told The News earlier this month.

Senate Bill 349 by State Sen. Chuck Hufstetler (R-Rome) passed and will allow voters to cap increases in their home value assessment to the Consumer Price Index, according to the Rome News Tribune.

“This will be the largest property tax overall cut in history,” said Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, in presenting his bill for a final vote shortly after 10 p.m. Thursday. Less than an hour later, the House gave final passage to the resolution setting the enabling vote in November to amend the state constitution.

If approved by voters, the cap would go into effect Jan. 1, 2025. It would create a statewide homestead exemption that limits increases in assessed value to no more than the Consumer Price Index from year to year.

Jurisdictions that don’t opt out of the cap would be able to vote on a second 1-cent local option sales tax “to be used for one thing, and one thing only: Property tax relief,” Hufstetler said. Right now, only one LOST is allowed under state law.

Calculations done hurriedly on Good Friday indicate a second LOST could reduce Floyd County property taxes by 41%, Hufstetler said, and Bartow County’s by 71%. School taxes would not be affected.

Bigger reductions are likely in city taxes. Hufstetler said Rome could see a drop of about 82% with a second LOST. Cave Spring already uses its existing LOST revenue to eliminate city taxes. That money could go to other government projects if a second LOST is enacted, he said.

House Bill 353 by State Rep. Alan Powell (R-Hartwell) passed and will change the Coin-Operated Amusement Machine industry in Georgia, according to the Capitol Beat News Service via the Gwinnett Daily Post.

Senators passed House Bill 353 Tuesday night 29-24, the minimum number of votes needed to pass legislation in the 56-member chamber.

The House followed suit later by a much larger margin of 148-18.

The bill would award non-cash redemption gift cards to winners that could be redeemed anywhere in Georgia for any legal product.

Current law allows COAM winners to redeem their prizes only for merchandise sold in the store where the machine they played is located.

Supporters have argued gift cards would take away the temptation to illegally pay out cash prizes, contributing to a crime problem long associated with the COAM industry.

Senators amended the bill Tuesday night to increase the state’s share of the revenue generated from COAM proceeds from 10% to 13%. The additional 3% would produce an estimated $40 million a year for Georgia’s HOPE Scholarships and pre-kindergarten programs, said Sen. Clint Dixon, R-Buford, who carried the bill in the Senate.

But Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, said the COAM machines provide a form of entertainment to people without the means to travel to Las Vegas.

House Bill 1146 by State Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Savannah) passed and will allow private water companies to apply for water permits from GA EPD without approval from local government, according to WTOC.

The bill allows private utility companies to get water service permits from Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division without local government approval.

It only applies to companies that tap into coastal aquifers in areas where a city or county water service would take longer than 18 months to be ready.

“There’s private water systems and public water systems and they’re going to have to work together,” said Sen. Ben Watson, District 1.

State Senator Ben Watson co-sponsored the bill.

He says the change is needed to spur workforce housing development near Hyundai’s Bryan County electric vehicle plant…which is expected to bring more than eight thousand jobs to the area.

“Bryan County needs to go ahead and move on this because if not the developers will be building deep wells for every home and doing septic tanks for every home,” said Watson.

The Georgia Association of Water Professionals and the Georgia Municipal Association also opposed the bill…saying it undermines local government’s authority.

The changes under House Bill 1146 would expire in 2029.

It now awaits Governor Brian Kemp’s signature.

 

Gwinnett County Board of Education members heard a proposed $3.18 billion dollar budget for FY 2025, according to the Gwinnett Daily Post.

Gwinnett County’s school board got its first look at what district officials are putting in GCPS’ proposed $3.18 billion fiscal year 2025 budget on Thursday night during the board’s first of two budget work sessions.

The district expects total enrollment for the 2025-2026 school year will be 182,707 students, up by nearly 500 students from this year.

A big part of GCPS’ efforts in preparing the proposed budget was trying to determine how to make up for ESSR funding ending in September.

The funding was made available to school districts to help them deal with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that ESSR is ending, however, systems must decide whether to keep programs they supported with that money or discontinue them.

One big part of the proposed budget that will likely catch the eyes of district employees are proposed salary increases in the budget.

All eligible GCPS employees will get a longevity step increase. Teachers will also get a $3,000 raise — this includes a $2,500 raise Gov. Brian Kemp had put in the state’s fiscal year 2025 budget. There will also be a 4% cost-of-living increase for district employees who are not paid on the teacher salary scale.

The district’s “blue book” that goes into more detail about what will be included in the proposed budget is expected to be released when the school board holds its second budget work session on April 18. That is when the school board is scheduled to vote on tentative adoption of the budget.

Two public hearings will then be held on May 16 and June 20, with final adoption of the budget slated to take place on the same day as the second hearing.

The district plans to keep its millage rate, which is the rate used to determine property taxes, at 20.65 mills for the upcoming fiscal year.

United States District Court Judge Roger Hugh Lawson, Jr. (MD-GA) has died, according to WALB.

A Middle District of Georgia judge passed away on Friday, March 29, at the age of 82.

Roger Hugh Lawson, Jr. was born in Hawkinsonville, Georgia. In 1995, Lawson was nominated by Senator Sam Nunn, and appointed by former President Bill Clinton to the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia. He serrved as the Chief Judge of the Middle District, president of the Eleventh Circuit District Judges Association, and a director of the Federal Judges’ Association, according to his obituary.

Two candidates for Superior Court in the Southern Judicial Circuit met in a public forum, according to the Valdosta Daily Times.

Judge Richard M. Cowart announced in January that he would not seek re-election, and two Valdosta attorneys have qualified for his seat: Jeremy Baker, the Valdosta Municipal Court judge, and William Whitesell, an attorney and owner of the William Long Whitesell, LLC law firm in Valdosta.

The forum was sponsored by the Democratic Party of Colquitt County, although the judgeship race is nonpartisan.

The judge’s post will be on the nonpartisan ballot for the May 21 election. People who are not registered to vote but wish to vote in this election can register until April 22. Voters can already request an absentee ballot, but the registrar can’t send them out until April 6. In-person early voting will start April 29.

The Southern Judicial Circuit comprises Brooks, Colquitt, Echols, Lowndes, and Thomas Counties.

Rincon City Councilman Kevin Exley has assumed the role of Mayor Pro Tem after former Mayor Ken Lee resigned, according to the Savannah Morning News.

Exley, who is Mayor Pro Tem, resumed mayoral tasks after former Mayor Ken Lee announced his resignation last month after 18 years at the helm. His spot on city council will remain open and he will be allowed to vote since they are without one councilmember.

The abrupt move surprised staff members who thought Lee would finish his term. Lee cited family as his reason for stepping away, saying they need his “complete and undivided attention” in a letter he submitted to the city.

“It happened fast,” said Exley. “He turned his stuff in and walked out. I do feel like the pace we were moving at was much faster than prior. My biggest thing is I didn’t want any of the citizens to think that we had any drop in our ability to lead the city. I thought about the things we needed to do. We had a plan the whole time.”

Exley agreed the move will bolster his campaign when he runs for the position in 2025.

“I feel like I can complete the things that we started off talking about and then people will see that not only can I lead the city through meetings but we can do the things that we were not getting done,” said Exley.

13WMAZ profiles Republican candidate for Houston County Sheriff Jimmy Dunn.

Chatham Area Transit is launching a ride share service for people with disabilities called “CAT SMART,” according to WSAV.

In April of 2023, US Senators Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock secured a $1.2 Million USDOT SMART grant to reduce barriers to mobility and transportation. Today, that vision has become a reality for residents of Savannah.

Chatham Area Transit is taking its service to a new level with the launch their new “microtransit” pilot project called “CAT SMART” which stands for Strengthening Mobility And Revolutionizing Transportation, and that’s exactly what this will do for riders who struggle with mobility.

It will operate in a similar fashion to ride-share services like Uber or Lyft. Passengers will now be able to use an app to arrange transportation from their location to their destination.

The interface will use state-of-the-art technology developed at Georgia Southern University to allow people to request rides and track their driver right on their phone or laptop.

Pooler City Council will not move forward at this time with a short term rental ordinance, according to the Savannah Morning News.

According to Pooler Mayor Karen Williams, the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) notified elected leaders that language could be added to a bill that would be voted on this week before the session ends on March 28. The alert included that the language would likely contain a grandfather clause for properties operating as STRs and make enforcement of STR ordinances impossible over time. Local governments were urged to adopt an STR ordinance if they didn’t have one, which Pooler does not.

Williams called the special meeting to urge council to get an ordinance on the books, in case HB 1121 was passed, which would limit control. By the end of the hour-long meeting Wednesday morning, the gathered councilmembers agreed that they may have been rushing into passing an ordinance.

Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Higgins motioned to postpone the second reading and adoption, which passed unanimously. Williams said she supports the decision to postpone, but also stands by her decision to call a special meeting.

Macon-Bibb County Mayor Lester Miller is looking at a referendum to extend the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST), according to 13WMAZ.

Now, the county’s nearing its collections cap and it’s almost time for a new SPLOST. Mayor Lester Miller projects the current $280 million SPLOST will reach that cap next June. Current and incoming Macon-Bibb commissioners will need to act quickly.

“Soon as the election is over, whether it’s May 21, or maybe there’s a runoff, whoever’s got a seat at the table at that time will have some input on the next SPLOST,” Mayor Lester Miller said.

His second point first came up in October as Miller announced support for building a new jail as one of the next SPLOST projects.
Miller hopes voters will also get behind new entertainment spaces. He says the county may look to demolish the 55-year-old Macon Coliseum and build a new venue in its place.

“If you’re going to maintain your status in tourism and attraction, you’re going to have to keep up with that and facilities too. What better way to do that is through using some of the SPLOST dollars. I would look for input from the private sector, and I think we’ll get that, to help build those facilities,” Miller explained.

Miller says they’ll have public input sessions for Maconites to discuss what’s important to them. Once those finish up, commissioners will vote on a list to go on the ballot. Miller says voters should get to decide in March 2025. If approved, the SPLOST would continue as normal in June.

Mayoral candidate Shekita Maxwell says she’ll discuss her plans for the SPLOST at a meet and greet this weekend. She declined further comment.

Chatham County Assistant District Attorney Andre Pretorius is running for the big office currently occupied by his boss, according to the Savannah Morning News.

Andre Pretorius, an assistant Chatham County attorney, is kicking it up a notch, so to speak, and running for Chatham County District Attorney.

Pretorius, a Republican, will face the winner of the May 21 Democratic primary race between current DA Shalena Cook Jones, and former Chatham County ADA Jenny Parker, who announced her candidacy for the top job on June 30, 2023.

Initially, Pretorius didn’t seem to be the likely Republican candidate. More than two years ago, former Chatham County Assistant District Attorney (ADA) Anthony Burton announced he would run for Chatham County DA, but on March 8 of this year, he made a Facebook post announcing that he was dropping out of the DA race, and instead will run for Chatham County Probate Judge. In the Facebook post, Burton pledged support for Pretorius’ campaign.

Why are you running for Chatham County District Attorney?

“The reason I’m running for the District Attorney’s office is because I want to get a voice of victims, making sure that the cases are prosecuted for the victims. Then, on top of that, to build a bridge between the DA’s office and the police department so that the cases are thoroughly investigated, and that we are there to support them if they have questions. And then on top of that, to bring in prosecutors who are good prosecutors, hardworking prosecutors are willing to learn and enjoy the job of being the prosecutor.”

“I’ve always had a passion to work with victims. When I started here, we had a domestic violence docket, and I saw how that was being run. So, what I basically did at that point was make sure that that docket changed so that we had the victims there, we had the treatment provider’s there, and kind of figured out what was going on? Is the treatment working? Put them into a domestic violence program, so if it’s a money issue or an employment issue or an alcohol abuse issue, we get them the help and treatment they need for that. [The goal was to] get to the bottom of the struggles that they’re dealing with.”

Republican Buck Holly is running for Chair of the Bryan County Commission, according to the Savannah Morning News.

Don Montgomery, solicitor general of Bryan County, spoke highly of the veteran, saying, “We need Buck Holly.”

“Bryan County deserves a Chairman of the County Commission that will lead us with honesty and transparency,” said Montgomery. “Buck Holly is a leader who will bring his business background to the table, making county finances transparent. His focus is on managing budgets wisely and cutting down taxpayer burdens. In Buck Holly, we’ve got a candidate who isn’t just talking about hearing everyone out, but actually lives and breathes inclusivity, making sure every single person in our community feels heard and valued.”

“I have been the janitor. I’ve done marketing, accounts payable. I’ve negotiated contracts and I’ve been human resources,” said Holly. “All the things that I do are directly relatable to the job of a politician. If you compare my experience to my competitors’ experience, if you put it on paper, I’d be willing to bet that I have more experience than he does, but he can claim that he has political experience.”

Holly’s [opponent] is incumbent Carter Infinger, who has held the seat since 2016.

County Commissioner Patrick Kisgen is president of C&H Precision, but Holly said he does not think there is a conflict of interest there since the commission chairman is not allowed to vote.

“I cannot influence him,” said Holly. “I’ve known him for 15 years. He is one of the most admirable and respectable men I know. There is not enough money in the world to get him to change his vote.”

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