Georgia Politics, Campaigns, and Elections for January 27, 2022

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Georgia Politics, Campaigns, and Elections for January 27, 2022

On January 27, 1785, a charter was approved by the Georgia legislature for the first publicly-supported state university in America.

On January 27, 1941, Delta Air Lines announced it would move its headquarters from Monroe, Louisiana to Atlanta, Georgia. It was an interesting case of public-money-fueled economic development.

In 1940, the city of Atlanta and Delta had signed an agreement whereby the city agreed to contribute $50,000 for construction of a new hanger and office building for Delta if it would move its headquarters to Atlanta. In turn, Delta agreed to pay the remaining construction costs and then assume a 20-year lease for the new facilities. On Jan. 16, 1941, Delta had secured a $500,000 loan from Atlanta’s Trust Company of Georgia, thus allowing it to make a public announcement of the move.

On January 27, 1965, the Shelby GT 350 was unveiled.

Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay” was released on January 27, 1965, seven weeks after his death.

Georgia Politics, Campaigns, and Elections

Under the Gold Dome Today

TBD – Senate Rules upon Adjournment – 450 CAP

8:00 AM – HOUSE Appropriations Public Safety Subcommittee – 132 CAP HYBRID

10:00 AM – HOUSE FLOOR SESSION (LD 8) – House Chamber

10:00 AM – Senate State and Local Government Operations Committee – 307 CLOB

1:00 PM – Senate Floor Session – Senate Chamber

2:30 PM – HOUSE Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee – 341 CAP HYBRID

2:30 PM – HOUSE Governmental Affairs- Special Subcommittee: Cityhood – 606 CLOB HYBRID

3:00 PM – HOUSE Appropriations Human Resources Subcommittee – 406 CLOB HYBRID

Georgia State House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) rolled out a mental health legislative package, according to the Capitol Beat News Service via the Albany Herald.

“I am tired of telling desperate and hurting families that we have no treatment options in Georgia,” Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said during a news conference announcing the bill. “Georgia is a great state. Passing this landmark bill will also mean we’re a good state.”

House Bill 1013 incorporates the recommendations of a task force formed in 2019 that included mental health, substance abuse and criminal justice experts.

Georgia’s mental health crisis hotline has experienced a 24% increase in calls, texts and chats since the pandemic began, while mental health screenings have soared by 426%, Judy Fitzgerald, commissioner of the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, told members of a House committee last month.

The state also saw a 36% increase in drug overdose deaths between April 2020 and last April, Fitzgerald said.

“This bill is a giant leap forward and will fill many of the gaps we have in our mental health system,” said former Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, who co-chaired the commission. “It will provide hope and support for families who have waited for too long.”

Funding will be key component of the General Assembly’s push to improve mental health and substance abuse services.

Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, a member of the commission and cosponsor of the 74-page bill, described it as “comprehensive” and a “deep dive” into the mental health system challenges Georgia faces.

From the Associated Press via the Statesboro Herald:

The legislation would pressure private insurers to improve coverage for mental health disorders and substance abuse and create an incentive for people to become mental health workers. It also calls for a grant program to establish effective policies for ensuring adherence to court-ordered mental health or substance abuse treatment.

The nonprofit group Mental Health America has consistently ranked Georgia among the worst states for access to mental health care. Of the state’s 159 counties, 77 had no psychiatrists working fulltime and 76 did not have a licensed psychologist, according to a January 2021 state commission report.

A key provision of the bill aims to ensure private insurers provide the same level of benefits for depression, anxiety and other mental disorders as they do for medical conditions.

Such parity is required by federal law, which generally bans insurers from charging higher co-pays or deductibles, requiring pre-authorization or imposing other restrictions on mental health and substance abuse treatment that they don’t require for medical or surgical procedures. But critics accuse insurers of violating the requirement, citing as evidence a dearth of mental health providers in insurance networks in some parts of the state.

Another bill provision aims to boost the state’s mental health workforce by extending loan forgiveness to Georgia residents studying to become mental health or substance abuse professionals, including psychiatrists.

Ralston said separate from the bill, the budget for the next fiscal year will address vital needs in mental health and substance abuse care.

Gov. Brian Kemp has proposed millions of dollars in new funding for the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities to treat adults with substance abuse and mental health problems — and add hospital beds for those experiencing mental health crises.

Kemp praised Ralston’s bill, saying in a statement it will create “a lasting, positive impact across our state.”

“It is truly my hope and dream that Georgians will look back on this day for generations as the beginning of a real commitment to the reform of our mental care delivery system,” Ralston said.

The Georgia Senate Insurance and Labor Committee recommended passage of Senate Bill 330, the “Giving the Gift of Life Act” by Sen. John Albers. From the Capitol Beat News Service via the Albany Herald:

The Senate Insurance and Labor Committee approved the Giving the Gift of Life Act following a presentation by Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, who donated one of his kidneys to his 25-year-old son, Will, last year.

“We sit here today 100% in good health,” the elder Albers, with his son at his side, told committee members. “Our calling now is to help encourage people to become organ donors.”

Albers’ bill would increase an existing income tax credit the state offers living organ donors from $10,000 to $25,000 and create a new tax credit to help employers offset the cost of paying workers who donate an organ while they are recovering from the surgery for up to six weeks.

It also would prohibit life insurance companies from denying coverage to living organ donors.

“We do not want to discourage anyone from donating,” Albers said.

Eighteen states already have legislation similar to Albers’ bill on their books.

Senate Bill 330 moves next to the Senate Rules Committee to schedule a vote of the full Senate.

Senate Bill 350 by State Sen. Brandon Beach (R-North Fulton) and others would allow the General Assembly more leeway in making county offices nonpartisan, according to the Gwinnett Daily Post.

Senate Bill 350 would remove restrictions on which county-level offices the General Assembly can move to nonpartisan elections. State law currently limits legislators to setting nonpartisan elections for school board, judicial and county-city consolidated government offices. City-level races across Georgia are also nonpartisan elections.

State Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, is the lead sponsor on Senate Bill 350 but Sens. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, and Clint Dixon, R-Buford, are co-sponsors on it.

If passed, the bill would enable legislators to push bills to move any county office, such as county commissioners for example, to nonpartisan elections. An implication of such a switch is that the final winner of those races would now be determined in tandem with the state primary in May, when turnout is generally lower, rather than Georgia’s general election in November.

Candidates for county commission, solicitor general election, sheriff and tax commissioner handle qualifying for elections through their local political parties. Candidates for county school board seats also handle election qualifying through their respective political party if partisan elections are held for their seats.

State Senator Clint Dixon (R-Buford) introduced new legislation to make Gwinnett County Board of Education elections nonpartisan, according to the Gwinnett Daily Post.

Senate Bill 369 was put into the Senate hopper on Monday and received its first reading on Tuesday. Dixon filed the legislation as a general bill since rules, at least in the state House of Representatives, say changes to the political nature of a governmental body, such as school board, are considered general legislation instead of local bills.

The bill has been assigned to the Senate’s State and Local Government Operations Committee where it is set to be considered at 10 a.m. Thursday in room 307 of the Coverdell Legislative Office Building in Atlanta.

“It’s getting politics off our schools,” said Dixon, whose children attend Buford City Schools, as he was rushing to a press conference at the State Capitol on Tuesday. “Now, we’ve got our most radical, in my opinion, member has been elected or appointed the chairwoman and we’ve got to protect our kids.”

Dixon said the bill, if passed by the Georgia Senate and House, will go into effect as soon as Gov. Brian Kemp signs it into law. Dixon’s goal is to have the bill in place in time for this year’s school board elections to be nonpartisan races.

The seats held by Everton Blair, who is not seeking re-election, and Steve Knudsen will up for election this year. Candidate qualifying for offices up for election this year is set to be held in early March.

Georgia Senate Republicans presented their priorities, according to the Capitol Beat News Service via the Albany Herald.

Critical-race theory and “Big Tech” will be top targets of Georgia Senate Republicans as the 2022 General Assembly session unfolds, Senate GOP leaders announced.

“Despite unprecedented challenges and distractions over the past two years, I believe our Senate Republican Caucus has stayed focused on getting results and has embodied our belief in the caucus being, ‘real people solving real problems’,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, said. “This session, I am encouraged by the common goals that have been previewed by members of both chambers.”

Shaming white students in Georgia by making them feel guilty over America’s racist past won’t be tolerated if Senate Republicans get their way. One Senate GOP priority will be to ban the teaching of “critical race theory” in Georgia schools.

“We must stop divisive concepts from being taught in Georgia colleges and universities and seeping down into our k-12 schools — concepts that an overwhelming majority of Georgians outright reject,”” Sen. Bo Hatchett, R-Cornelia, said. “We must ensure that no student is taught to feel guilty or ‘less than’ because of how they were born. Scapegoating and stereotyping are not acceptable teaching methods. Period.”

Meanwhile, the banning of former President Trump from social media platforms for disseminating false information about the results of the 2020 presidential election has Republicans in Georgia and elsewhere going after Big Tech.

State Senate Republicans pledged Tuesday to target “shadow banning,” the practice of banning a user’s social media content without their knowledge.

“For too long, Big Tech companies have gone unchecked, trampling on our basic rights as Americans by censoring our freedom of speech, while exploiting our private data to line their own pockets,” Sen. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming, said.

Senate Bill 226 by State Sen. Jason Anavitarte (R-Paulding County) was heard by a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee, according to the Associated Press via AccessWDUN.

Republicans in the Georgia House on Tuesday signaled they will push forward with a proposal that would allow parents to protest books and other materials that they believe are harmful to minors, with school officials required to decide within seven days whether to remove the material.

“I think what we were trying to do is basically create a process that the public would understand in terms of where to go if there was a concern with material,” Anavitarte said.

A group of conservative activists have particularly focused on materials that may be available in online databases, with state Rep. Martin Momtahan, a Dallas Republican, citing examples Tuesday of what he called “disgusting, raunchy filth.”

Now, state rules require each school district to adopt a media policy and each school board to review instructional materials, including soliciting public comment. But there’s no guaranteed way for a parent to force a school district to decide if a particular item is obscene.

House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones of Milton has said she and other Republicans are working on a bill that would require school districts to do more to make sure students can’t access inappropriate material on the internet at school. That measure has yet to be introduced.

The bill dovetails with a larger Republican push to give parents more visibility into and control over public school instructional materials. Senate Republicans on Tuesday said they would join House Republicans in having a bill that seeks to ban the teaching of critical race theory, a term stretched from its original meaning as examining how societal structures perpetuate racial disparities to a broader indictment of diversity initiatives and teaching about race.

Governor Brian Kemp will propose increasing retirement benefits for state employees, according to the Rome News Tribune.

Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, is carrying the legislation for Kemp and is slated to be among the local, state and federal leaders joining the governor and First Lady Marty Kemp. The morning roundtable will focus on proposals to support active and retired military service members.

Senate Bill 343 will increase the 401(k) match for current employees and give long-excluded retirees cost-of-living adjustments as early as July 1.

“The pensions have not been updated since 2009, during the big recession, when they were changed drastically,” Hufstetler said. “Georgia is in a much better shape now to come back and improve things for our employees.”

A major component of the legislation will raise the state match to up to 5% for employees’ 401K plans. It’s currently capped at 3%. There also will be a bonus contribution for longevity after five years, increasing incrementally to as much as 9% of an employee’s pay.

The hope is that the change will help with recruitment and retention, Hufstetler said.

Democratic United States Senator Raphael Warnock’s reelection campaign is at the center of the fight for partisan control of the Senate, according to the Macon Telegraph.

Warnock is competing for a full six-year term after winning a special election last year. The fight will be among the most expensive in the 2022 midterm election cycle, with candidates, political parties, activist organizations and political action committees preparing to spend hefty sums on voter persuasion and turnout efforts.

Democrats say their side has the upper hand in the race against Republicans, in spite of a failed push to pass federal voting rights legislation that would have superseded Georgia’s new election law and the potential for depressed turnout from Democratic Party base voters, including young adults and African-Americans.

Warnock beat his Republican opponent, former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, by fewer than 100,000 votes in a runoff election last January. Biden won the state by an even slimmer margin — roughly 11,000 ballots — and has seen his popularity decline sharply with voters across the country.

“Stacey Abrams and Raphael are Batman and Catwoman,” said Democratic strategist and civil rights attorney Bakari Sellers. “They are two of the more talented people in our party.”

Biden’s national approval rating stands at roughly 42% on average, and midterms are historically hard on the party of the sitting president. In an NBC News poll released last week, Biden’s support among Black voters nationally was at 64%, while independents gave him a 36% approval rating. His approval rating was 40% and 51% among young people and women, respectively.

Sen. Warnock wants to include renewal of the monthly child tax credit payments part of Biden Administration legislation, according to the Macon Telegraph.

Warnock, alongside Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Ron Wyden (D-OR), sent a letter asking the White House to secure an extension of the expanded Child Tax Credit as part of Biden’s revamped Build Back Better package, a $2.2 trillion spending bill that passed the House but later stalled in the Senate.

“The consequences of failing to extend the (tax credit) expansion are dire, particularly as families face another wave of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the senators wrote. “After historic progress, it is unacceptable to return to a status quo in which children are America’s poorest residents and child poverty costs our nation more than $1 trillion per year. Raising taxes on working families is the last thing we should do during a pandemic.”

The child tax credit expanded under Biden’s COVID-19 relief package, the American Rescue Plan. Families received $3,000 per child for children from the ages of six to 17 and $3,600 for children under the age of six. Families got the full credit if they made up to $150,000 for a couple or $112,500 for a family with a single parent.

For eligible households, half of the money came in the form of direct payments each month through the end of 2021. The monthly payments began in July and ended in December. The payments were $250-$300 per child. The other half is claimed when filing a 2021 income tax return.

Without passage of the Build Back Better package, the credit reverts to its smaller pre-pandemic form, and there will be no monthly payments. The senators said the expanded tax credit represented “the biggest tax cut for low- and middle-income families in modern American history.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Warnock has raised more than $23 million dollars for his reelection campaign, according to the AJC.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock raised more than $9.8 million in the last three months of 2021 and will end the quarter with roughly $23 million in cash on hand for a reelection battle that could decide control of the U.S. Senate.

Warnock’s latest fundraising report exceeded his last record-breaking haul, which amassed $9.5 million between July and September. His campaign said he collected contributions from 130,000 donors in his latest report, which spans October to December.

The Democrat disclosed his fundraising figures hours after his chief Republican rival, former football star Herschel Walker, revealed his fundraising numbers. Walker raised $5.4 million from 44,000 donors over the three-month span and has roughly $5 million in the bank.

With his latest report, Warnock further cements a reputation as a fundraising juggernaut who can attract small-dollar donors — his average donation is $43 — and the party’s wealthy elite.

Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Christian Coomer is under federal investigation, according to the AJC.

The AJC learned of the probe after the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta filed a court motion on Jan. 12 disclosing it had obtained search warrants to seize evidence from two online accounts used from 2016 to 2018 by an attorney at a small Georgia law firm.

The motion did not name Coomer, only referring to the person as “the attorney.” But the AJC has confirmed through people familiar with the case that Coomer is the attorney under investigation. Coomer practiced law as a sole practitioner in Cartersville until 2018, when then-Gov. Nathan Deal appointed him to the Court of Appeals.

Coomer, the former majority whip of the state House of Representatives, voluntarily agreed to a suspension in December 2019 when Georgia’s judicial watchdog agency filed ethics charges against him. Since then, Coomer has been suspended with pay — he earned $196,000 in 2020 — while Senior Judge Herbert Phipps filled in.

Gwinnett County District Attorney Patsy Austin-Gatson (D) issued a statement that some forms of marijuana touted as legal are not and her office will prosecute charges related to possession, according to the AJC.

The Gwinnett County District Attorney’s Office issued a warning on Wednesday about the products. State law allows the sale of Delta-9 THC when its THC concentration is less than 0.3%, but prosecutors said that stores are selling products that actually contain Delta-8 THC and Delta-10 THC.

Delta-8 THC and Delta-10 THC are two substances that are forbidden under Georgia law.

“With the emergence of the legalization of hemp and low THC oil there are other products which are being sold which are not legal. Two of those products are Delta-8 THC and Delta-10 THC.” [said the statement].

Austin-Gatson’s office announced it will prosecute business owners and stores that sell products that contain either Delta-8 THC or Delta-10 THC for felony crimes.

“Those found to be possessing, selling or distributing these substances may be subject to felony punishment and are at risk of having their assets seized and forfeited to the state,” the DA’s office said. “The Gwinnett County District Attorney’s Office is committed to protecting the citizens of Gwinnett County and others and has a vested interest in ensuring that illegal and dangerous controlled substances are not being distributed in Gwinnett County and to our citizens.”

The Albany area may lag in recovering economically from COVID, according to the Albany Herald.

That was the assessment by two experts from the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business. The state’s premier economic forecasting series, canceled in 2021 due to COVID, made a stop in Albany on Wednesday for a luncheon at the Hilton Garden Inn.

Albany’s economy, which is more heavily dependent on the government and health care sectors, did not take as much of a dive as some other Georgia cities, but it lacks the wider industrial base to mount a quick recovery.

“It will take Albany about a year or two to fully recover, (by) 2023, 2024,” Alexandra Hill, an analyst with the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia, said at the summit.

While the Dougherty County School System has done a good job in boosting high school graduation rates, which has exceeded the state average, the number of residents with bachelor’s degrees is one in five, compared to one in three for the rest of the country.

That reality creates a “job mismatch” in that for every job opening that doesn’t require a high school diploma there are two applicants, while there is only one person with a bachelor’s degree available for every two jobs for which that degree is a requirement.

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson will oppose a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for Transportation (T-SPLOST) without a greater focus on transit, according to the Savannah Morning News.

All but one of Chatham’s government entities have submitted project lists and signed agreements to participate in TSPLOST should it pass. Savannah is the lone holdout, and city officials’ opposition is over other municipalities’ refusal to expand public transit service to their residents.

“Sophisticated cities have comprehensive public transportation systems and I just don’t think that in 2022 we should have a community where people cannot freely traverse from one end of our county to another,” Savannah Mayor Van Johnson said.

“… It’s  time for the city of Savannah to start addressing some of our strategic needs and among those is public transportation.”

“The TSPLOST is supposed to be cooperative. And so I just don’t think that I am willing to help other municipalities with their needs (if) they’re not willing to help us with ours,” Johnson said.

Gwinnett County Commission Chair Nicole Love Hendrickson (D) renewed the mask requirement for government buildings, according to the AJC.

The renewed order is effective until Feb. 25.

Masks must cover the nose and mouth, according to the order. Those who refuse to comply can be denied entry or asked to leave facilities that the county owns or leases.

The order does not apply to private businesses, court facilities, school district buildings or city government buildings.

State School Superintendent Richard Woods spoke on an online panel , according to The Brunswick News.

State Superintendent Richard Woods took part in the virtual panel conversation, which highlighted the important role K-12 education in the state plays in preparing students to be citizens.

States across the nation are paying closer attention to improving civics education, with nearly 100 bills introduced in state legislatures that focus on some element of civics or social studies education.

Woods, a former social studies teacher, said K-12 education lays the foundation for a student’s future civic engagement.

“It’s our role as educators to make sure that our kids know what it’s like to be an American, know where our foundation comes from and know how to navigate civics, whether it’s elections or running for office or even working within the government, and see how that definitely promotes the civic good within our state and nation,” he said.

The state education department is also launching a government official pathway that will prepare students for these kinds of careers.

“It is very important that we highlight what’s out there, doing some things early on, not just waiting until high school,” Woods said. “… Having a pathway that can potently lead an individual into government service work or civics, that’s something that we’re very proud of and we continue to also integrate this information within other courses.”

The Crisp County Sheriff’s Office is offering higher pay to address staffing needs, according to WALB.

The Crisp County Sheriff’s Office is just one of the law enforcement agencies experiencing critical staffing shortages.

Sheriff Billy Hancock said they have about 19 openings. Some of the reasons are the job itself and the pandemic, but those aren’t the only reasons.

″I think some of the ‘defund the police’ segments were a part of it. Then, of course, we rolled into COVID. We saw people with 10 to 14 years leave,” said Hancock.

Even with higher pay and better benefits, Hancock said they are still experiencing a critical shortage. Now, they’re working on more ways to keep the people they hire.

Recently, Crisp County Sheriff’s Office tried to broaden the pool of candidates by relaxing its tattoo policy. If the tattoo fits the guidelines, they no longer have to wear a sleeve. Employees are also now allowed to live further away than before, up to 40 miles away from the sheriff’s office.

The Rome Board of Education voted to raise employee pay, according to the Rome News Tribune.

That plan will be contingent on plans announced by Gov. Brian Kemp to remove austerity measures regarding schools in the state budget. That measure is currently in the governor’s 2022-2023 budget proposal, which would need to be approved by the legislature.

The plan is to add $2,000 to employees’ salaries. That would be in addition to a one-time $2,000 bonus promised by Kemp in the state’s mid-term budget.

That incentive, an action already taken by some nearby school systems like Bartow County, is meant to keep long term teachers within the system

Roger Moss announced he will run as an independent for Chair of the Savannah-Chatham County Board of Education, according to the Savannah Morning News.

Tye Whitley and Todd Rhodes are candidates running against Moss. Moss said his experience in starting schools, a passion for education and a focus on student achievement separates him from the other candidates.

The school board will have elections on Tuesday, May 24, 2022.

Glynn County can’t find an undertaker to save their lives. From The Brunswick News:

But nearly two weeks after putting the contract job out for bid, [Glynn County Procurement Officer Jason] Hagen has not heard a word on the request for someone to handle “Pickup, Removal and Delivery Services for Deceased Remains.”

“It’s not easy to find a qualified company to do this sort of work,” Hagen said. “But the bids are due on the 31st and there’s been nothing. Usually, we would have a couple of people at least call and ask questions at this point.”

The contract bid was posted Jan. 14 on the Glynn County government website as well as on the Georgia procurement registry, Hagen said. He even posted flyers in the lobby of the W. Harold Pate county governmental building, 1725 Reynolds St. in Brunswick.

Hagen posted the job at the request of Marc Neu, Glynn County’s elected coroner. The present contractor, Beck Transport Inc. of Dallas, has been unable to meet the county requirement of two persons responding to each call to transport a body. Like many other companies, spanning various sectors of the workforce, COVID-19 and other issues have resulted in Beck being short-staffed in recent months, Neu said.

“For about the last five months, they’ve only had one person,” he said. “I thought it was a short-time thing, but it’s still happening.”

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