Georgia Politics, Campaigns, and Elections for January 31, 2023


Georgia Politics, Campaigns, and Elections for January 31, 2023

On January 31, 1865, Robert E. Lee began service as Commander-in-Chief of the Confederate armies.

On January 31, 1865, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing slavery.

General William Tecumseh Sherman visited Kimball Opera House in Atlanta on January 31, 1879, which was then serving as State Capitol, fifteen years after burning the city.

On January 31, 1893, the trademark for “Coca-Cola” was filed.

Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker was suspended on January 31, 2000 for remarks made to ESPN.

Georgia Politics, Campaigns, and Elections

Voters go to the polls today in four state legislative districts, according to the Associated Press.

Two contests will be decided Tuesday, while two contests with three or more candidates could go to Feb. 28 runoffs if no one wins a majority.

In southwest Georgia’s Senate District 11, former state House member Sam Watson, of Moultrie, is running as a Republican against Democrat Mary Weaver-Anderson and Libertarian John Monds, both of Cairo.

The seat, which includes Brooks, Colquitt, Cook, Decatur, Grady, Seminole and Thomas counties, became open after Republican Sen. Dean Burke stepped down to become chief medical officer of Georgia’s Department of Community Health.

Watson resigned from his House District 172 seat to run for Senate. There, Colquitt County Administrator Charles “Chas” Cannon is unopposed as a Republican in a district including Colquitt and parts of Thomas and Cook counties.

In House District 119, which includes most of Barrow County and a corner of Jackson County, six Republicans and a Democrat want to succeed Danny Rampey, who withdrew without taking office after being arrested on drug and theft charges. The Republicans include contractor Charlie Chase of Winder, safety coordinator Joseph Grodzicki of Winder, business owner Renee Lord of Statham, landscape architect Holt Persinger of Winder, salesperson Joe Price and insurance agent Bill Ritter of Statham.

Voters in House District 75 will go to the polls on March 21 to select a replacement for Democratic Rep. Mike Glanton of Jonesboro, who stepped down for health reasons earlier this month after serving 14 years in the House in two separate stints.

From the AJC:

[In House District 7, Sheree] Ralston faces bank executive Johnny Chastain in a runoff today for the former speaker’s seat.

In reports filed late last week, Sheree Ralston reported having raised $173,000 for the contest, with Chastain taking in about $96,000.

The Ralston-Chastain runoff in the Blue Ridge-based House District 7 is the big contest on the ballot today. But there are three other races on the docket.

State Rep. Ben Watson is running to succeed state Sen. Dean Burke in Senate District 11, and there’s an open House race for Watson’s seat.

Note: Ben Watson is the Senator from the 1st District, based in Savannah. Former State Rep. Sam Watson is running for Senate District 11.`

Under the Gold Dome Today

TBD Senate Rules Committee: Upon Adjournment – 450 CAP
10 AM HOUSE FLOOR SESSION (LD 10) – House Chamber
10 AM Senate Floor Session (LD 10) – Senate Chamber
1 PM Senate Cancelled – Children & Families – 307 CLOB
2 PM Senate Joint Retirement – 406 CLOB
2 PM Senate Veterans, Military, & Homeland Security – 125 CAP
2 PM Senate Joint Education & Youth Committee and Higher Ed – 450 CAP
4 PM Senate Regulated Industries & Utilities – 450 CAP

A group of Southern Democrats is encouraging the Democratic Party to hold their 2024 Convention in Atlanta, according to CNN via the Albany Herald.

More than 65 current and former Democratic US senators, members of the US House, governors, mayors and local leaders in Southern states signed the letter, a copy of which was obtained by CNN. Notable names include Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff of Georgia, Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner of Virginia, and DNC senior adviser and former senior adviser to the president Cedric Richmond, among many others.

“Democratic turnout in the state of Georgia is the single greatest reason that you and Vice President Harris are in the White House today instead of Donald Trump and it is the single greatest reason why Democrats have maintained a majority in the United States Senate,” the letter, first reported by NBC News, reads. “Everything we have accomplished as a party since January of 2021 can be traced back to Georgia, and specifically, to the metro Atlanta area which swung the state in our favor.”

Ossoff and Warnock both won runoffs in January 2021, giving Democrats Senate control after Biden won the state in the 2020 election. Warnock helped Democrats maintain their majority by winning a full six-year term last year.

The letter argues Atlanta should be chosen because it “served as the cradle of America’s civil rights movement” and “stands as a beacon of LGBTQUIA+ rights in the Deep South.”

“As the cultural and economic hub of Black America, the city embodies the American Dream in the 21st Century. A nominating convention in the city of Atlanta will provide you with a backdrop that reflects your personal values and embodies your vision for America,” the letter reads.

The Georgia Department of Human Service Division of Family & Children Services  seeks funding to end the practice of “hotelling” foster children in their custody, according to the Associated Press via WSAV.

“We have been hell-bent on ending hoteling, a practice born out of necessity, but one that contradicts our mission, crushes our workforce and derails lifesaving work,” Department of Human Services Commissioner Candice Broce, who oversees the child welfare agency, told lawmakers on Jan. 17.

Broce said the state spent $28 million on hoteling last year. She said Georgia has made progress by paying providers more to care for children with complex problems in exchange for agreeing to keep children at least six months.

Foster parents, group homes, crisis stabilization units and psychiatric treatment facilities may be refusing such children because they are too difficult to care for or because the state doesn’t pay enough.

Broce also said some juvenile court judges are improperly placing children in state custody. She said the foster care system isn’t set up to care for minors accused of violent crimes. She also accused some parents of jettisoning difficult children into foster care.

Finally, leaders say Georgia may lack available beds in psychiatric treatment facilities. Some witnesses told lawmakers that Georgia’s own facilities appear to be increasingly filled with children from other states, which may reflect that Georgia’s payment rates are too low. Kevin Tanner, commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, told lawmakers Jan. 17, that a study suggests Georgia needs to raise payments to behavioral health providers by up to 40%, which could cost an additional $180 million.

State Senate Bill 34 by state Senator Elena Parent (D-Atlanta) would regulate third party food delivery services, according to the Capitol Beat News Service via the Athens Banner Herald.

Senate Bill 34 is an outgrowth of a Senate study committee chaired by Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, that held several meetings last summer and fall to talk about an industry that has no federal oversight and only patchwork state and local regulations.

Third-party food delivery was virtually non-existent before the pandemic closed restaurants to in-person dining. Apps including Uber Eats and DoorDash sprang up so quickly and grew so rapidly that health regulators couldn’t catch up, resulting in complaints from customers of unsanitary practices.

The industry also ran afoul of restaurant owners, who complained third-party food deliverers were running ads featuring their names without authorization, touting relationships that didn’t exist.

Senate Bill 34 would put an end to such practices in Georgia, prohibiting third-party food companies from advertising non-existent connections with restaurants and requiring them to enter into contracts with restaurants before picking up and delivering food from those facilities.

Parent’s bill has bipartisan cosponsors, including Republican Sens. John Albers of Roswell and Frank Ginn of Danielsville. Democratic cosponsors include Sens. Harold Jones of Augusta and Sally Harrell of Atlanta.

Senate Bill 44, the Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act, by state Senator Bo Hatchett (R-Cornelia) will enhance sentences for gang-related offenses, according to a Press Release from Lt. Governor Burt Jones’s Office.

Governor Brian P. Kemp’s Floor Leader Bo Hatchett (R- Cornelia) introduced Senate Bill 44 which addresses gang violence by creating a new offense for recruiting minors to gangs and establishes a mandatory minimum sentencing scheme for all gang offenses.

“Senate Bill 44 is a top priority for my office, along with Governor Kemp and Senator Hatchett,” said Lt. Governor Burt Jones. “This bill is one piece of the overall approach to reaffirm that Georgia will not tolerate gang activity or recruitment. Senate Bill 44 will enact powerful new tools to combat the violent street gangs operating across our state. Governor Kemp’s plan to target gang recruitment of minors will cut off the pipeline of young people being drawn into gangs. I look forward to continuing our work with Governor Kemp and Senator Hatchett to see it through.”

“As I said in my State of the State address, if you come after our children, we will come after you,” said Governor Brian Kemp. “We will not rest when it comes to making our streets safer and ensuring Georgia’s youngest citizens are not recruited into a life of crime that leads either to the prison cell or a cemetery. I’m grateful that our legislative leaders are making this issue a priority and working together to address it.”

“There is no place for gangs in Georgia, and passage of this vital legislation is a top priority,” said Senate Floor Leader Bo Hatchett. “Enhancing gang sentencing across the board will ensure tough prison sentences for more gang offenders while offering a strong incentive for those accused of gang activity to cooperate with prosecutors.”

In addition to targeting gang recruitment, the legislation also requires mandatory minimum sentences for all other gang offenses currently recognized by Georgia law, but would allow the prosecutor and the judge to consider a lower sentence in limited circumstances, including situations in which the defendant renders “substantial assistance” in the identification, arrest, or conviction of other gang associates.

Senate Bill 22 by state Senator Kay Kirkpatrick (R-East Cobb) would prevent sales of “Delta-8” products at every last convenience store in the state, according to the Georgia Recorder.

Delta-8 is a compound found in small amounts in some types of hemp plant. It is similar to the Delta-9 compound, which produces the high marijuana users experience. In 2018, Congress passed an agriculture bill that, among other changes, made it legal to grow hemp with concentrations of Delta-9 THC below 0.3%.

But the bill did not specify any other form of THC, including Delta-8, which opened a loophole for businesses to sell products containing Delta-8 even in states that do not allow medical or recreational cannabis use. Today, products can be found in head shops and gas stations as dried leaves, vape cartridges or cooked into food items.

East Cobb Republican Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick has filed a bill that could close that loophole in Georgia. The bulk of the bill has to do with measures preventing the sale of hemp products to minors, but it also removes the reference to Delta-9 in state code, which would treat all THC-containing products the same.

“The intention of that is to broaden it to cover any product that has that THC concentration,” Kirkpatrick said. “So that would be Delta-8, Delta-10, Delta-omega, Delta-whatever it is next year, so that all of those will come under the same testing and labeling requirements as Delta-9.”

Separately, the Supreme Court of Georgia heard arguments this month from attorneys in the case of Gwinnett County District Attorney Patsy Austin-Gatson’s attempt to crack down on stores selling the products.

The Georgia Poison Center reports 191 calls related to synthetic THC since 2018, with 14 last year. Of those, 53 were in response to people 17 and younger and 130 were for adults.

Kirkpatrick said she believes her bill may not end recreational use in Georgia.

“Well, they might still be able to, it’s all about the dosage,” she said. “So you eat enough edibles, you’re still gonna be able to, but at least you would know what’s in it. And I don’t think we want our kids under 18 – I put 18 in the bill, but some people want it to be 21 – I don’t think we want our teenagers walking into these stores and buying gummies and getting high without even knowing what’s in the product.”

Georgia Sheriffs’ Association Executive Director Terry Norris said his association had not taken an official stance on the bill, but he guesses the state’s sheriffs will like it.

“There’ve been a lot of sheriffs that have talked to me over the past year or two about the stores selling stuff, and you’ve seen CBD stores jump up all over the place,” he said. “It is a very confusing proposition for the average street cop or even some of the investigators to know what’s legal and what’s not, so I think there’s a lot of clarity coming forth in this bill.”

Two Democrats signed on to the bill, Minority Leader Gloria Butler and Sen. Michael “Doc” Rhett of Marietta. Stone Mountain Democratic Sen. Kim Jackson said she supports the parts of the bill aimed at preventing minors getting their hands on THC, but strongly opposes a full ban.

“I very strongly do believe in what Kay is trying to do around protecting minors from a product that they may not fully understand, and I think that’s valuable and important that we do that,” she said. “But for us to do that and therefore, create a full ban for adults being able to access it as well, that’s where I have a problem, and I hope that we can find a middle way that we can provide the protections that young people need while also allowing these products to stay on the market in our state.”

In 2015, Georgia lawmakers approved a low-THC form of oil for more than 20,000 patients suffering from a list of serious ailments, but today, there is still no pathway for those Georgians to get the medicine. Passing a law banning Delta-8 before helping those patients would not be a good look for the state, Jackson said.

“We know that there are people in our state who are suffering, and that low-THC oil can help ease their suffering,” she said. “We need to do that, and we need to do that with urgency. Prosecuting on Delta-8 should not be a priority for this body.”

“Our governor said that he was not interested in fighting any culture wars this year, and from where I stand, the banning of Delta-8 or any other delta product is a culture war that he would be engaging in, and so my hope would be that the leadership would say, ‘Let’s not do this right now.’” [said Senator Jackson]

I’ve harped on this at length, but the late Mrs. GaPundit was diagnosed with ALS, registered for the state THC oil card, was prescribed the oil, and never had an opportunity to legally purchase her medication while the state continued to try to make a go of the medical cannabis program. Damn right I’d buy that stuff for her if she was still alive.

A three-member panel convened by the Georgia Supreme Court recommended unanimously that Court of Appeals Judge Christian Coomer be removed from office for alleged ethics abuses, according to the AJC.

The Georgia Supreme Court will decide whether Christian Coomer, a Cartersville lawyer and state representative who became an appeals court judge in 2018, should be removed. Coomer, 48, has been voluntarily suspended, with pay, since January 2021, meaning he has been paid more than $350,000 by the state while on leave.

In a 50-page opinion, the three-judge panel that oversaw Coomer’s historic ethics hearing said the judge’s improper conduct and “steadily recurring abuse of positions of trust” warranted removal.

“The judicial system, the smallest and most fragile branch of government, can function only if the people trust the women and men who populate the judiciary,” the recommendation said. “Because the public cannot and should not have faith in (Coomer’s) ability to fairly dispense justice and uphold the law in light of his repeated violations … (he) should be removed from office so as to preserve (or at least begin to rebuild) the public’s confidence in the integrity of our judicial system.”

The unanimous panel was chaired by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney. Other members were retired businessman Jack Winter and Dax Lopez, a Dunwoody attorney and former judge. It is the first time the judicial watchdog agency has recommended the removal of a state appellate court judge.

“This man has a lifetime of good conduct and deserves to wear a robe,” Coomer’s attorney, Mark Lefkow, told the three-judge panel.

The panel found that Coomer improperly mingled money from his campaign account with his law firm’s banking account. Four times in 2017, his campaign account transferred between $1,000 and $1,200 to his law firm account. Each time, Coomer’s law firm account would have suffered an overdrawn balance had the transfer not been made, the panel found.

The panel also said Coomer improperly used campaign funds for family vacations to Israel and Hawaii. In all, the panel said the JQC proved 29 of the 36 ethics violations lodged against Coomer, who took the stand twice during his quasi-trial.

United States Senator Raphael Warnock (D-Atlanta) introduced federal legislation to help some renters, according to WALB.

The Choice in Affordable Housing Act is a bill that seeks to improve the federal government’s latest rental assistance. The bill would make it easier to access housing choice vouchers and attract and retain landlords to the program.

“Housing means dignity, safety, and security, and I’m proud to join colleagues from both sides of the aisle to reintroduce the bipartisan Choice in Affordable Housing Act,” Warnock said.

Median rent has increased by 13.7% for Georgia renters since 2019. Experts say some prospective homeowners are forced to remain in the renter’s market since housing has become more unaffordable, which is causing rent prices to increase further.

“As a senator who grew up in public housing, I know that increasing the availability of federal housing vouchers will change lives and pave a brighter future for hardworking families across my home state and the country,” Warnock said.

State Senator Carden Summers (R-Cordel) spoke of his legislative priorities with Jim Wallace at WALB.

“Well to be truthful, everything is important to South Georgia,” State Senator Carden Summers said. “Whether it’s a part of North Georgia or South Georgia. Of course, we’re strengthening the ag(riculture) industry. We’re working on school safety programs, which everyone is concerned about that. We’re working on school safety programs, which everyone is concerned about that.  We’re working on the homeless problem.  I will assure you homeless doesn’t mean it’s indigenous to Atlanta. Homeless happens in Albany, Georgia just like it would in Cordele, Georgia.  We are working on that. I am working on two gender bills that I will be presented to the full board.  Putting in on the full board pretty soon.  And I worked on tax waiver boards.  For example, the county of Dougherty County would be able to they try to sell a piece of property twice and it doesn’t sell, the county can vote to waive the taxes so that property can be bought at a reasonable price. And be put back on the market. So the next person can start to pay ad valorem tax. So everybody plays by the same rules.”

“Well the [Senate Banking and Finance] committee there, I have no idea. Banking and financial institutions seem like they are over everybody. We’re over the Georgia Banking Association. The Community Banking Association, the Community Banking Association.  Most of your mortgage companies and whatever. We are dealing with possible regulations on pawn. We are dealing with possible regulations on changing, what I call clean-up bills on the banking industry itself. And basically, we are just trying to streamline things so it’s easier for the consumer to get what they need to get done in the banking business. And I have a lot of support on that. A lot of people are working hard on that. I’m just chairing the meeting and making it happen, and that’s where we are at.”

“Georgia has been voted for nine years in a row the number one state to do business in. And that kind of can be a somewhat of a hindrance, because of infrastructure issues. Other things you have to deal with. But let me tell you, Georgia is growing by leaps and bounds because there are companies building 200 acre under roof buildings in Georgia right now. For example the car industries, whatever. It’s really growing.”

Augusta is searching for a new ambulance provider, according to WJBF.

Augusta commissioners have voted to apply to the state to be a designated ambulance zone provider for the county. But to be considered, the city must have a signed contract with a qualified ambulance provider.

Now to find a company, the city has put out a request for proposals to get bids, but supporters of Gold Cross are not in favor of this development.

“And now we’re going to go out for bids with other companies, lord knows how that’s going to work out,” said Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle.

The requests for proposals will remain open until February 6, but February 10 is the deadline to have an ambulance deal signed so the city can apply to the state to get the ambulance zone.

Columbus has seen rising homelessness, according to the Ledger-Enquirer.

Preliminary numbers show the number of people experiencing homelessness rose 14% from 2022’s count, according to United Way of the Chattahoochee Valley’s Home for Good program which conducted the annual Point in Time Count on Jan 23-24.

“It validated what we already suspected — that the numbers were going up,” said Pat Frey, vice-president of Home for Good. “It’s one of those things that’s a hard pill to swallow. You desperately don’t want (numbers) to go up, but you really want to have real information.”

Highlighted in the report was that more families with children are experiencing homelessness than have been counted in the past, Frey said. Children experiencing homelessness rose to 36 in 2023 from eight in 2022, which makes it the second highest year for homeless children since 2016.

“Income has not kept up with the cost of living,” Frey said. “Primarily the almost doubling of rent or the cost of housing. Couple that with inflation being the double digits, and it’s just been, unfortunately, a perfect storm.”

Single-family home prices in Columbus were 29% above pre-pandemic levels in the second quarter of 2022, said Jerald Mitchell, president and CEO of the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce, while delivering the city’s economic forecast on Jan. 25. The median rent for Columbus is $1,050, according to data from Zillow.

The Richmond County Sheriff’s Office needs additional funding for mental health training, according to WRDW.

The second in command at the sheriff’s office sits down with the I-TEAM and admits deputies need more training and resources when dealing with mental health patients.

The I-TEAM also uncovered mental health calls have skyrocketed in Augusta- Richmond County. We obtained data that found a 66 percent increase in mental health calls to the RSCO in five years.

The sheriff’s office tells our Will Rioux it’s asked commissioners for more money for that critical training but was turned down.

While that investigation is ongoing, the sheriff’s office tells me mental health calls like this are skyrocketing and they need more help.

Chief Patrick Clayton is the second in command to Sheriff Richard Roundtree at the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, “In law enforcement, there’s three issues that we’re asked to do. And asked to deal with by the citizens. They’re going to be homelessness, drug addiction, and mental health subjects. But we’re not given the resources to effectively deal with them.”

He tells the I-TEAM the men and women of the sheriff’s office need the resources they once recently had.

As part of the program, the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office partnered with the state of Georgia through Serenity Behavioral Health to pair deputies with social workers who are trained to deal with mental health calls.

The problem is shortly after the start of the CIT program, the COVID pandemic started.

The sheriff’s office says limited state resources and manpower and ultimately, money for the CIT program was cut.

Meanwhile, as the I-TEAM showed you in a yearlong series ‘Faces of homelessness’ our homeless population jumped nearly 150% percent following the pandemic and our mental health systems remain in crisis.

Last November the sheriff’s office asked commissioners to create two behavioral health specialists under the sheriff’s office since Serenity was having staffing shortage issues.

The cost is $150,000 including salary, benefits, and equipment.

According to the budget request from the sheriff’s office, it requested 15 items but only three were approved. The Behavioral Health Specialists were not one of them.

The Chatham County Health Department expects higher numbers of seniors seeking vaccination after the Inflation Reduction Act, according to WTOC.

As a part of the Inflation Reduction Act, those vaccines are now free to people on Medicare.

Anyone with Medicare Part D will now pay nothing to get vaccines like Shingles, Pneumonia, Tetanus or any others reommended by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

The change went into effect on the first of the year but after one month, the Chatham County Health Department says they want even more people to know about the change to come in and get their vaccines.

“We’re really hoping that will break down some of those barriers that our community has, especially our elderly population so they will come in and get the protection that they need, the Shingles specifically can be over $100 for one vaccine and it is a two dose series, so that could be $200 plus.”

Dougherty County courts are working to clear a backlog of cases, according to WALB.

Many are calling it “COVID backlog.” Representing the cases that were filed but went unaddressed because of the pandemic in Dougherty County. Now those cases are being brought back to court, hopefully bringing justice to those who were affected.

“The effort is to try to resolve the most serious, violent felonies as much as we can. All of the cases that we have in terms of serious violent cases are violent crimes, murders, rapes, and armed robbery,” Greg Edwards, Dougherty County district attorney, said.

“I’m optimistic that as we move forward, as we gain more personnel to work in this particular office, we’re going to be able to get our backlog down,” Edwards said.

Port Wentworth Chief of Police Matthew Libby announced he will retire effective February 1, 2023, according to WSAV.

Perry will lower some speed limits in downtown and may consider allowing golf carts on some roadways, according to the Macon Telegraph.

The speed limit will be lowered from 30 mph to 25 mph on a handful of roads near Perry’s popular restaurants and shops.

Another reason for the change is the interest among residents to be able to drive golf carts in the downtown area.

[Perry Police Captain Heath] Dykes stated that the decrease in speeds could help the city transition toward allowing residents to drive golf carts from residential areas to downtown Perry.

The city is currently waiting for approval from the state to change the speed limits. After approval, the changes will take effect about seven to 10 days later.

Qualifying is open for the March 21, 2023 Special Election to Clarkesville City Council Post Five, according to AccessWDUN.

The Post 5 vacancy was created after the resignation of Brendan Ansley.

Those interested can qualify Monday through Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., excluding a one-hour lunch break. Qualifying is open from 8:30 a.m. to noon Friday.

The qualifying fee is $18.

“All qualified candidates that live within the city limits of Clarkesville are encouraged to run,” the release reads.

The Post 5 seat will be elected at large for an unexpired term lasting about two years and nine months beginning on or about April 1, 2023.

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