Gov. Nathan Deal. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

The Jolt: Nathan Deal endorses a distracted driving bill stalled in Senate committee

We’re told that Republicans on the state Senate Judiciary Committee abandoned the Capitol on Wednesday without reaching consensus on two lingering pieces of legislation: House Bill 605, which would extend the statute of limitations on crimes involving child sexual abuse; and HB 673, the distracted driving bill.

The latter, authored by state Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, got something of a boost last night. In an interview aired on GPB’s “Lawmakers,” Gov. Nathan Deal endorsed the bill, which would restrict cell phone use while driving – if hands-free technology isn’t used.

On the other hand, the governor also conceded that the bill may not make it across next Thursday’s finish line. Said the governor:

“It is virtually impossible for law enforcement officers to enforce the law we have because you can’t prove what was going on. They may have legitimate reasons for looking at a cell phone that are acceptable under current law…

“I do think it is a subject that – if we don’t get it this year – I think we’ll need to see it as soon as possible in the next few sessions. If it comes to me, and there are no serious problems associated with it, I would sign it, because law enforcement is telling me this is a needed step in Georgia safety.”

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In that same interview with GPB’s Scott Slade, Governor Deal chided Democrats who this week have urged support for HB 981, which would allow some convicted of non-violent felonies to restrict access to their criminal histories. With three days left in the session, they’re rather late to the party, Deal said.

But the governor did have a suggestion for the off-season: Focus not just on jobs, but housing. Deal said he’s already broached the topic on the federal level:

“I would ask them to continue to look at optional housing for these inmates who are leaving our prison system, some of our jails. It’s very difficult for them to find…

“I would like to see them to talk to their local housing authorities and see whether or not their housing authorities, that are receiving money at several different levels, if they have absolute exclusions for housing anyone who has a felony.

“I’ve talked to the secretary of housing and urban renewal, and I have told Dr. [Ben] Carson that this is one of the things that they need to take up at the federal level.”

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The faculty of Kennesaw State University can finally stop Googling “seppuku.” Our AJC colleague Eric Stirgus has confirmed at the highest levels that state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, will not be KSU’s next president.

The rumor had been bobbing around since the ouster of Sam Olens from the post last year. Stirgus has now killed it. “No, I’m retiring. I don’t need that job,” Ehrhart said. And yes, he laughed at the very thought.

The longest-serving Republican in the Legislature, Ehrhart announced earlier this month that he wouldn’t seek re-election -- his wife has qualified for the seat instead.

As chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees university spending, Ehrhart has been so involved in higher education policy that he’s considered an informal member of the Board of Regents.

Last year, the Cobb County lawmaker boasted in a series of text messages about pressuring Olens, then KSU president, into keeping the school’s cheerleaders off the field during the national anthem after several of them took a knee in protest. The action, which violated a university system policy, cost Olens his job.

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Heads up to Atlanta drivers: Mike Pence is coming. The vice president will make a southside entrance on Friday afternoon, first to a Midtown hotel where he’ll quarterback an event touting the benefits of the Republican tax bill passed late last year. Pence will be introduced by Gov. Nathan Deal.

The vice presidential appearance will be preceded by a panel of Republican lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson and Reps. Rob Woodall and Barry Loudermilk. Wholly by coincidence, they’ll be talking about the tax cuts, too. The event is sponsored by America First Policies, the nonprofit cofounded by former Sonny Perdue aide Nick Ayers, now Pence’s chief of staff, to promote President Donald Trump’s agenda.

After that, the vice president will serve as the prime attraction at the Georgia GOP’s annual President’s Day fundraiser in downtown Atlanta.

So take to the streets at your own risk. 

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The importance that Republicans are placing on their tax cuts in the run-up to November’s mid-term elections can’t be overstated. Control of the U.S. House is at stake, and maybe the Senate, too. Over at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, Geoffrey Skelley has an analysis of Republican exposure that includes this:

Republicans already have more retirements than any presidential party in a midterm cycle from 1974 to 2018, and they are not far behind Democrats in 1978 in terms of the open seats they hold. Because seats lacking an incumbent are more difficult for the incumbent party to retain, this situation should deeply worry the GOP.

For those of you who weren’t there, 1974 was the year of the Watergate backlash.

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We’re not done with this session, and already groundwork is being laid for the next. The Georgia Horse Racing Association announced Wednesday that two state lawmakers, Rep. Brett Harrell, R-Snellville, and Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, had committed to backing a measure to permit “racinos” – combinations of horse tracks and casinos -- in three locations in Georgia. From a report that accompanied the announcement:

“[A single ‘racino’] would contribute $670 Million per year to state GDP and roughly $1.25 Billion to economic output. In addition, the Racino’s allocation of 10% of gaming revenues to purses and breeding would yield more than $116 Million per year in economic output, a boost the horse industry needs.

“The existing horse industry ranks among the top ten agricultural commodities in Georgia. The horse industry is an important contributor to the state’s economy but it is not growing and in need of stimulus.”

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A third-party candidate for Georgia secretary of state is calling on lawmakers to scrap a proposed overhaul of Georgia’s voting system and let an independent panel guide the process. 

Libertarian Smythe Duval said the bill lacks transparency and needs more shaping from Common Cause and other election integrity groups. Said he:

"Republicans in the House and at the Secretary of State's office are rejecting Common Cause input to this bill, controlling the bid process, and rushing this thing through in an election year. It just looks bad, like they're trying to get away with something."

State Sen. Bruce Thompson, R-White, the sponsor of SB 403, has called on House lawmakers to act on the bill before the session ends next week.

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