March12, 2020 Atlanta - Staff members prepare for Crossover day at the Georgia State Capitol on Thursday, March 11, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The Jolt: Citing the pandemic, House Democrats call for a quick end to state Capitol deliberations

As the state Capitol readied for a crucial deadline day, Democratic members of the House called this morning for a quick end to a legislative session – citing the coronavirus pandemic.

“We must be responsible & follow the appropriate guidelines,” reads the announcement from the caucus Twitter feed.

House Speaker David Ralston gaveled in the session acknowledging the growing concerns about the pandemic, and said he and other leaders will discuss possibly adjourning the session after Crossover Day. 

“The best thing to do at this point in time is to err on the side of caution,” he said to applause. “We will keep you posted.” 

The session is currently scheduled to end April 2. Today is Crossover Day, when most legislation must pass one chamber to receive consideration by the other.

The only constitutionally mandated duty of the Legislature is to pass the annual state budget. The House on Tuesday voted out its version of the $28 billion spending plan.

Five Democrat-leaning groups urged Gov. Brian Kemp and Republican legislative leaders on Wednesday to “do the right thing” and shutter the Capitol until public health concerns over coronavirus subside.

The governor fired back in a statement that public health officials do not recommend the closure of the state Capitol, and that “fear-mongering by partisan activists does nothing to help families make rational decisions” about the illness.

The House has already sent home its teenaged pages. The Senate has posted signs advising against shaking hands in greeting.

***

The first COVID-19 patient isolated at Hard Labor Creek State Park by Georgia health officials is a 30-year-old Afghanistan war veteran who cooked at a Waffle House in Canton before he began experiencing a fever, chills and aching joints, according to our AJC colleague Jeremy Redmon, who scored an interview with him.

State Rep. Dave Belton, R-Buckhead, whose east Georgia district includes the park, toured the site. He was interviewed by Rahu Bali of the Oconee Radio Group. Listen here.

“You cannot see any visible private residences from the site. It’s heavily wooded, there’s seven really small trailers – campers, really – that can house one, a maximum of two people,” Belton said. “I saw a lot of state patrol presence – really, a high degree of professionalism in keeping this quarantine isolated.”

***

On Tuesday, the state House passed House Bill 949 on a 100-68 vote. Among other things, the bill authored by state Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, would establish a flat income tax rate of 5.375%.

Currently, tax rates increase from 1 to 5.75%, rising with income levels. The legislation does include a low, non-refundable tax credit intended to offset the tax increases that would result from lumping low-earners into a higher tax rate.

However, even that doesn’t impress the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, which offers an analysis that includes this:

For the most part, Georgia taxpayers with annual incomes below $108,000 per year would not benefit—and may experience tax increases—as a result of the flat income tax structure created under the legislation. Overall, 88 percent of the $458 million in net tax cuts would go solely to filers earning over $108,000 per year. This fiscal impact is partially offset by $75 million in net tax increases that would be shared by 538,000 low- and middle-income households….

If enacted, the only Georgians who will see an average annual tax cut greater than $13 are those earning more than $108,000 per year, or those in the top 20 percent of earners. The largest share of net tax savings, 42 percent, will be shared by filers making more than $572,000 per year; the top 1 percent of income earners will, on average, benefit from a net tax cut of nearly $4,000 per year. Meanwhile, Georgians in the middle class—those earning between $38,000 to $108,000 per year—will pay an average of $5 more per year in taxes.

***

A GOP-backed bill that would allow young immigrants to receive in-state tuition rates at some Georgia colleges failed to pass a House committee after an emotional hearing on Wednesday, according to our AJC colleague Sarah Kallis:

State Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton, the author of House Bill 997, said the state should invest in the higher education of students in the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shields young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents. About 21,000 people in Georgia are covered by the program.

"To me, it's a workforce development issue,” Carpenter said. “They’re working in our community, living in our community, driving cars and paying taxes.

An estimated 35% of Whitfield County’s population is Hispanic, one of the highest rates in the state.

***

The Georgia Board of Elections has ordered that the state’s new touchscreen voting machines be used in Athens starting right away. The AJC’s Mark Niesse has details from Wednesday’s emergency meeting. A taste:

The State Election Board on Wednesday unanimously ordered Athens-Clarke County to immediately switch back to Georgia’s touchscreen voting system, a rebuke of its decision to use paper ballots filled out by hand.

The board, led by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, found that voters’ right to a secret ballot can be protected on the state’s new $104 million voting system, which combines touchscreens and printers to create paper ballots.

… The Athens-Clarke County Elections Board last week rejected the touchscreens, deciding on a 3-2 vote that they exposed voters’ choices to their neighbors. It was the only county in the state that had attempted to use hand-marked paper ballots.

More than 100 supporters of hand-marked paper ballots packed the seven-hour emergency hearing Wednesday, wearing stickers saying “Protect the Secret Ballot.”

***

Former Georgia congressman John Barrow sends word that his lawsuit challenging Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s decision to cancel a race for a seat on the Georgia Supreme Court will get a 9 a.m. hearing in Fulton County Superior Court.

Judge Emily K. Richardson will preside. Barrow is being represented by Chuck Byrd, Lester Tate and former congressman Buddy Darden. Also on the legal team: Trip Tomlinson, husband of U.S. Senate candidate Teresa Tomlinson.

Last week, the secretary of state refused to allow Barrow to qualify for election to the seat on the Georgia Supreme Court currently held by Justice Keith Blackwell. Blackwell has announced he intends to resign on Nov. 18, which would allow the governor to name his replacement – and push the contest for the seat back by two years.

***

This will fuel more talk about Stacey Abrams as a potential running-mate to Joe Biden: The Georgia Democrat was the “clear front-runner” of an internal poll among members ofShe the People, an influential group of women of color.

NBC News reports 63% of the group’s members picked her, followed by U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, the choice of 42% of respondents. Nearly 900 members responded, and they were allowed to pick multiple options.

***

The campaign of U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler on Wednesday announced “grassroots leaders” in all 159 Georgia counties. Scoffers in the camp of U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, her chief GOP rival, said the Loeffler campaign merely duplicated Brian Kemp’s 2018 gubernatorial operation.

Well, yes, that’s probably true. But that’s also the advantage of having a governor at your back.

***

Campaigning in the coronavirus era: A Thursday event for Joe Biden at Paschal’s Restaurant featuring Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young was swiftly changed into a “virtual event” and teleconference call over concerns of the illness. 

And Jon Ossoff, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, postponed a town hall slated for Savannah this weekend. 

***

Former federal prosecutor Ed Tarver of Augusta, one of U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s 20 challengers, on Wednesday challenged fellow Democratic opponents to a series of debates.

“I know the people of Georgia want to know where the candidates stand on these and other issues,” he said, after mentioning health care, criminal justice and other policy items.

We know of at least one Republican debate in the works, being put together by the Cobb County Republican Women’s Club.

***

In endorsement news: Former NAACP President Benjamin Jealous has endorsed Nabilah Islam’s campaign for the 7th Congressional District in Georgia.

-- Sarah Riggs Amico, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, endorsed Joe Biden’s bid for president.

-- Former deputy U.S. attorney general Sally Yates said she’s quietly supported the former vice president for months but will now loudly advocate for him ahead of the state’s March 24 primary

***

In Washington, the U.S. House on Wednesday addressed matters beyond the coronavirus. The chamber approved a war powers amendment that will limit President Donald Trump’s ability to take additional military action against Iran without congressional approval, and authorized an extension of a controversial federal surveillance program.

The war powers bill now heads to Trump’s desk for approval or a potential veto. House Republicans overwhelmingly voted against it, including every GOP member of the Georgia delegation with the exception of U.S. Rep. Doug Collins who is still home on self-quarantine (he said he’s feeling fine), and U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, who is tending to his son, who was seriously injured in a cycling accident.

Republicans and Democrats were much more divided on a vote to reauthorize the much scrutinized Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Leaders from both parties worked on a compromise bill that was approved 278-136.

All of Georgia’s Democratic House members voted in favor of the measure, but the GOP caucus was divided. Four of them voted in favor of the bill: U.S. Reps. Drew Ferguson, Rob Woodall, Austin Scott and Rick Allen. Three others were “no” votes: U.S. Reps. Jody Hice, Buddy Carter and Barry Loudermilk.

Although Collins wasn’t present for the vote because of his quarantine, he put out a statement saying he supported the FISA compromise.

“While this bill doesn’t include every reform Republicans wanted, this bipartisan agreement ultimately accomplishes our central goal: To reauthorize critical counterterrorism provisions while instituting necessary safeguards to protect the civil liberties of every American,” the Gainesville Republican wrote.

***

Rebecca Chase Williams, a former Brookhaven City Council member and former mayor known by some as the “founding mother of Brookhaven,” died Wednesday, her family announced on Facebook. From Reporter Newspapers:

Williams, who was also an award-winning national reporter for ABC News for more than 20 years, died peacefully at home surrounded by family, according to a Facebook post by her children and husband, Dick Williams. Dick Williams is the retired editor and publisher of the Dunwoody Crier newspaper and former host of the “Georgia Gang” news show on FOX 5. Rebecca Chase Williams wrote for the newspaper as well.

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