Georgia Politics, Campaigns & Elections for January 25, 2013 “Mama Tried”


Georgia Politics, Campaigns & Elections for January 25, 2013 “Mama Tried”

WaltonCountyDogs01252013Capone (left) is a Bulldog mix who would like nothing better than a home in which to spend his Saturdays watching Georgia games with a family of his own. He was turned in to Walton County Animal Shelter by his owner and is available for adoption immediately. He’s a small guy now, at 7 months of age and 25 pounds.

Pixie (center, female) and Pip (right, male) are little mixed puppies that might have som Chihuahua and Dachshund heritage. They are 6-8 weeks old and weigh about 5 pounds each and will be available for adoption beginning tomorrow at 1:00 from the Walton County Animal Shelter.

In 2012, for the first year ever, the Gwinnett County Animal Shelter placed more animals in homes than it euthanized. Congratulations to all involved, and I pray they will continue to see increasing success.

Another program in Gwinnett County that is reducing euthanasia is Sheriff Butch Conway’s Jail Dogs program, which aims to help rehabilitate inmates by equipping them with marketable skills, and save dogs that would otherwise be euthanized. I suspect that for some of the inmates, these dogs will be their first experience with unconditional love and I believe that can help mend broken lives. Please consider supporting the organizations that help Jail Dogs save lives at no additional cost to taxpayers.

Georgia Politics, Campaigns & Elections

WSB-TV reports that former Georgia Speaker of the House Terry Coleman is accused of trying to board an airplane in Atlanta with a handgun.

Voter turnout in House District 71, where a Special Election is being held February 5, is very light.

Early voting began Wednesday, and continues this week and next. The special election will be held Feb. 5.

Elections officials are expecting stronger turnout during Saturday’s hours at the Coweta Voter Registrar’s office. This will be the only Saturday of early voting for the District 71 race.

There had been 50 voters, total, as of 2:45 p.m. Thursday, said Coweta Chief Registrar Joan Hamilton. “It’s just slow,” Hamilton said. However, “I imagine Saturday will be fairly busy.”

Weekday early voting hours are 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The Saturday early voting hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Early voting takes place at the Coweta County Voter Registration Office, located at 22 East Broad Street, in the Coweta administration building in downtown Newnan.

Voters need to bring a government issued photo ID. You must live in District 71 to be eligible to vote in the election. Districts changed because of redistricting, and the Senoia and Haralson areas are no longer part of the district. HD 71 covers most of the eastern half of the county.

In Senate District 11, Librarian Libertarian candidate Dr. Jef Bivins has endorsed Mike Keown in the Runoff Election for February 5th. Dean Burke is emphasizing agriculture and job growth in his campaign.

Former Senator John Bulloch, whose resignation occasioned the special election, has not endorsed.

“I’m going to vote for somebody,” said John Bulloch, a Thomas County Republican and longtime state senator and representative. He encouraged others to vote in the Feb. 5 runoff.

Bulloch said he knows both candidates and will support the person elected.

“I think we have two good, qualified people who have offered themselves, and the people in the 11th District will decide who will represent them,” Bulloch said.

Add State Representative Amy Carter to the list of legislators who oppose using state funds to build a new Atlanta stadium.

“The state of Georgia is not going to be involved in that Dome issue anymore,” said Amy Carter, District 175 House member.

Carter, R-Valdosta, made the statement at a meeting of the Thomas County Republican Party.

The final campaign cash tally for the Charter School Amendment ballot question shows proponents outspent opponents by a 10-1 margin.

Final campaign reports filed this month show pro-amendment groups, including national school-choice advocates and for-profit charter school operators, raised and spent more than $2.7 million through such groups as “Families for Better Public Schools,” “Georgia Public School Families for Amendment One” and “Committee for Educational Freedom.”

Opponents of the amendment reported spending $262,822, about half of it raised in the final days of the campaign.

Supporters of the amendment argue that it would have passed with or without the big money from outside groups.

“I don’t think it made a difference,” said Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, former Senate education committee chairman. “The charter school vote message was people are not happy with the status quo.”

Department of Community Health Commissioner David Cook made the case for retaining the hospital bed tax before the joint legislative budget hearings this week.

“Our opportunities to address a $550 million shortfall if that were not passed would be pretty much limited to addressing it through provider payment rates, which I think could be significant.”

Policy analysts say as significant as a 20 percent payment cut to doctors and hospitals. And they say the cuts would put 10-15 hospitals across the state in danger of shutting down.

Lawmakers are currently considering a proposal sponsored by Governor Nathan Deal that would shift the power to levy the tax from the legislature to the Board of Community Health, which the governor appoints.

Governor Deal, who refers to the tax as a fee, said his plan would be more efficient because the board already administers a similar fee on nursing homes.

Critics, however, say it allows state lawmakers to get out of an explicit vote on a controversial tax increase.

Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald hopes to expand the use of telemedicine in Georgia.

In two or three years, every county public health center across the state will be able to put patients in front of top specialists via telemedicine setups worth about $20,000 each, if the boss of the Georgia Department of Public Health has her way.

“We’re applying for grant money” aggressively, said Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, the public health commissioner, speaking after a state budget hearing Thursday.

By the end of 2012, all county health departments were finally wired up for teleconferencing, she said, meaning that patients can have a video chat with distant specialists.

Fitzgerald’s next step is rolling out so-called telemedicine “carts,” each a high-tech bundle of cameras, computers and sensors that can beam a patient’s status to faraway doctors.

Serious question: can some of this be done as simply as issuing an iPad to each county health department for use with FaceTime?
A study committee on the continuing issue of human trafficking in Georgia has issued a report on progress made since the passage of legislation to combat the crimes.

Let this music play while you read the rest of today’s new, if your email device allows. A version by Merle Haggard, who wrote the song, performing with Willie Nelson and Toby Keith. Or an alternate version by Johnny Cash. Or a Grateful Dead version from 1978.

Governor Nathan Deal will follow last year’s successful push for Criminal Justice Reform for Adults with Juvenile Justice Reform aimed at improving the outcomes and the cost for dealing with young offenders. While a final legislative proposal hasn’t been offered yet, details are emerging from budget discussions.

Before state lawmakers Tuesday, Deal  requested $5 million for a new pilot program aimed at diverting low-risk offenders from detention centers to counseling programs and alternative treatment centers.

A youth offender housed in a detention center costs $90,000 a year, more than an adult inmate.

“Less confinement and more community-based options requires that we put some money out there,” said Deal.

Any new legislative package will likely include elements of last year’s failed House Bill 641, which  sought to overhaul the juvenile code.  The bill passed the House, but died in the Senate.

On any given day, the Department of Juvenile Justice supervises between 12,000 to 14,000 youth offenders. About 1,700 of those are housed in detention centers, at an annual cost of about $90,000 per offender,  more than what the state spends on adult inmates.

Juvenile Justice Commissioner Avery Niles says one of the key elements of a reform package is providing more sentencing flexibility to judges.

“It’s essential we are making sure our low-risk youth are in a program that fits their particular crime. Those are things that will prevent youth from coming to us.”

Data shows 65 percent of youth offenders released from detention centers will make their way back into confinement within three years of release.

Read these two statistics together: we spend $90,000 per year to house youth offenders, and 65% of those who are released will be back in the detention center or prison system within three years.

As part of the implementation of last year’s adult criminal justice reform, Governor Deal proposes $1.1 million for accountability courts, which aim at true rehabilitation by addressing mental health or substance abuse issues that underlie many offenders’ continuing problems.

People sentenced in Barrow County’s accountability court, established two years ago, report to a judge every week. But that’s not all. They must attend individual counseling sessions, case management sessions and Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings. They are required to submit to regular drug testing, attend school, complete community service or get a part-time job. In addition, they must pay the monthly $150 participation fee for drug court and keep a 9 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew.

Accountability courts can also show impressive results.

Bibb County’s Mental Health Court offers a measure of arrests and jail time. According to 2012 statistics, 47 people have graduated from the program since it began in 2007. Before the program, together they had a lifetime total of 350 arrests. Since graduation, the whole group has racked up just 15 arrests.

Another part of Governor Deal’s budget proposal is $5 million to fund juvenile offender diversion programs at the local level.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal is asking the state legislature to spend $5 million dollars to set up community diversion programs for low-risk youth offenders, on the model of other states.

The appropriation would “create an incentive funding program” to encourage communities to treat appropriate youth at home, Deal told lawmakers at his annual State of the State address on Jan. 17.

“We would emphasize community-based, non-confinement correctional methods for low-risk offenders as an alternative to regional and state youth centers,” Deal said, options like substance abuse treatment and family counseling.

“It’s almost like a pilot,” said Debra Nesbit, associate legislative director of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. Against the big picture of a state budget totalling some $20 billion for the fiscal year beginning this July, Deal’s $5 million request is fairly little. “It’s intended to look at the communities where the largest number of commitments are coming from,” said Nesbit.

She said she worked with the Council over the summer and doesn’t believe counties will be stuck with new costs for the programs.

“It’s my understanding that it will be cost-neutral” to the counties, she said, adding that she will be reviewing the bill when it comes out.

If the Georgia General Assembly makes the $5 million appropriation, counties or, perhaps, other jurisdictions would apply for a piece. Some communities may be fairly well prepared, with juvenile service talent close at hand. Others may struggle to attract and build up the expertise to set up juvenile diversionary programs.

One dark cloud on the horizon, though, is the increased proportion of violent inmates in state prisons as the non-violent are given lesser penalties. Nearly two out of three prisoners are classified as violent today, and that will grow, making the guards’ jobs even more dangerous. About a quarter of the guards quit their jobs every year.

Deal addressed the issue in the juvenile context before the budget hearings.

As part of an effort to reform Georgia’s juvenile justice system, Gov. Nathan Deal is proposing nearly $5 million in next year’s budget to house the state’s most violent youth offenders in two new facilities.

“We want to get those who are really causing the most trouble out of our YDC’s and put them in a more confined status,” he told House and Senate budget writers this week.

Juvenile Justice Commissioner Avery Niles tells WSB’s Sandra Parrish the state also plans to do a better job assessing those teens before they are incarcerated.

“For the safety of the youth as well as the staff and then the citizens of Georgia, we need to be in the classification business to make sure we have the right youth housed in the right location,” he says.

And the occasional unintended consequence of shrinking the prison population.

Vacant Middle Georgia prisons must seek new missions or face dereliction, as the state moves to limit prison population growth.

The Georgia Department of Corrections has returned some $6 million to the state because a plan fell through to renovate the old Bostick State Prison on the Central State Hospital campus in Milledgeville and convert it into an inmate nursing home.

“We could not make the business model work” that would have allowed a private vendor to operate the home on Medicaid funding, he said.

The Corrections Department owns four closed prisons on the campus as well as the active Baldwin State Prison.

Some might need to be demolished, said Owens, because they date back to the 1930s, when they housed a state mental hospital.

“They were never really designed to be prison facilities,” he said.

Demolition is one possibility among many, said Mike Couch, executive director of the Central State Hospital Local Redevelopment Authority.

“We need to come up with a master plan for the whole campus,” said Couch. “We need to understand what our assets are.”

There are more than 200 buildings on the site, including the Georgia War Veterans Home.

A draft plan may be published within about three months, Couch said. And future tenants could be public or private entities.

The city of Butler in Taylor County has a similar problem: the vacant 200-bed Western Probation Detention Center.

“It’s still a state facility,” said state Rep. Patty Bentley, D-Reynolds. “We really need that revenue.”

The center was one of the biggest customers of Butler’s water department. When it shut down, Bentley said, higher costs fell back on taxpayers.

It’s up to the Department of Corrections, within a budget set by the Legislature, to figure out what to do with the Butler building.

And some local officials note that last year’s changes caused some additional work for local prosecutors as they worked to get acquainted with new laws.

Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh noted that some changes had put increased pressure on his office.

“Significant changes in the criminal law and the evidence code do present challenges, but they will be met by this district attorney’s office,” he said. “However, the resources needed to keep talented, experienced prosecutors and support staff serving the community and crime victims effectively should be an important part of any criminal justice reform.”

Leigh Patterson, Floyd County district attorney and president of the District Attorneys’ Association of Georgia, elaborated on that sentiment.

There are new penalty provisions for certain crimes, and the elements of other crimes have changed so some that used to be felonies are now misdemeanors. Those changes have to be considered as charges are filed and indictments written, she said.

“One of the challenges is that at prosecutors’ offices around the state, people haven’t had raises in four years, there’s no new staff that’s been added, and now we have all these new duties and new code sections and a whole new evidence code to learn, on top of keeping up with increasing case loads,” Patterson said.



Flowery Branch Mayor Mike Miller will run for reelection in November.

The Georgia Ports Authority believes the federal government will fund significant portions of the Savannah Harbor deepening project, while the State of Georgia has already put $231 million toward what is likely the greatest economic development project in a generation.

James “Jamie” C. McCurry Jr., the authority’s senior director of administration and government affairs, said the hope is the project — first proposed in 1996 — can get started this year and wrap up in three to four years.

The $652 million project calls for deepening the port from 42 feet, its current depth at low tide, to 47 feet.

The authority has received $231 million from the state, or $30 million shy of the state’s total share in the project, McCurry said, addressing the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors at the Gainesville Civic Center.

Funding from the Obama administration would back up his promise to include the project in July as one of the nation’s “We Can’t Wait” infrastructure improvement projects.

“The proposed project would enable the Port of Savannah to accommodate larger cargo vessels and other ships, ultimately facilitating more efficient movement of goods,” the administration stated in a July press release.

“At the end of the day, the net annual benefit in terms of transportation savings costs to the nation is $174 million a year for the next 50 years,” McCurry said. “… When you have something that’s going to return to you $5.50 for every $1 that you put into it, it’s a pretty darn good investment.”

Last year, Hall County shipped cargo worth $620 million total, McCurry said.

That included more than 3,000 20-foot cargo containers for imports and 1,000 for exports.

“This is definitely an important area for us and cargo that goes to the port,” he said.

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