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Photo: HANDOUT/bsanderlin@ajc.com

The Jolt: The D.C. bargain that raised the tide for the Port of Savannah

We told you earlier that the Savannah harbor expansion project had received record funding in President Donald Trump’s recent budget proposal.

Like many deals in Washington, it took a high-powered political alliance to set the table for it. That’s according to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who disclosed Tuesday that he had an agreement in place with White House budget director Mick Mulvaney that helped make things happen for the state’s top economic development project.

The partnership started last year, the state’s senior-most D.C. Republican told us. That’s when Mulvaney needed the Senate to confirm his deputy, Russell Vought. A conservative firebrand, Vought was having issues advancing through the upper chamber because of past comments he had made about Muslims.

Around that time, Isakson and his colleagues in the Georgia delegation were looking for Washington allies for the port. Boosters had long felt like the project was shortchanged by the Obama administration, and they saw potential allies in the Trump administration, given the Republican president’s off-again, on-again infrastructure push.

“We found mutual ways to help each other,” Isakson said of Mulvaney. 

Isakson and Georgia colleague David Perdue ultimately backed Vought, who was confirmed after Pence cast the tie-breaking vote in March 2018.

The port, meanwhile, went on to secure three years of record-breaking funding, even in blueprints where the Trump administration went after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers budget with an axe.

Remember that the Corps’ budget is different from other agencies because of the earmark ban; with Congress out of the business of picking projects, that gives the administration almost unilateral power. 

A senior administration official said the Port of Savannah is “one of many projects that meets the Army Corps’ budget criteria of providing a high economic return to the nation.”

It’s worth keeping in mind that Mulvaney represented South Carolina in the U.S. House for six years, and that Georgia and Palmetto State officials have collaborated on Port of Savannah issues before.

Isakson has had an agreement with GOP colleague Lindsey Graham not to fight against each other’s port projects – Charleston is also looking to deepen its harbor. Isakson also worked with former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint on an inland port project for Jasper County, S.C.

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The state takeover attempt of Atlanta’s airport may have run aground in the Georgia House. 

After easily passing the Senate, House Speaker David Ralston has been circumspect -- at best -- about its chances in his chamber. And he gave the most biting criticism of it yet to Channel 2’s Aaron Diamant. 

“It’s an expansion of government, quite frankly,” he told Diamant -- close to a kiss of death from a small-government Republican. 

Ralston then echoed the criticism of Democrats who question whether the state is any more insulated from corruption than the city of Atlanta, which has operated the airport for nearly a century. 

“I think what it would take is a showing that the state could do this better, that it would be in the best interest of the taxpayers of the state, that the airport would be even better and more efficiently operated than what the city is doing,” said Ralston. 

And that means showing him more than the latest indictments in the ongoing federal corruption probe into City Hall. “I’m not sure we need to change the whole system because of that,” he told Channel 2.

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The Senate today will take up HB 316, a measure to authorize the purchase of a new touch-screen voting system for the state. Our AJC colleague Mark Neisse has a recap that begins like this:

The conflict over election integrity will be a driving force in Wednesday’s state Senate vote to switch Georgia to a $150 million voting system that combines touchscreens and printed-out paper ballots. The state’s current electronic voting machines don’t produce paper ballots.

Voters would pick their candidates on touchscreens that are attached to ballot printers. Then voters could review their printed choices before inserting their ballots into scanning machines.

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Senate Republicans hope they’ve learned a lesson or two from the struggle in the House to pass the “heartbeat bill” that would essentially ban abortion in Georgia:

Lesson 1: Let a woman take the lead. 

Lesson 2: Don’t leave anything to chance in committee. 

The chamber’s leaders are routing HB 481 through Renee Unterman’s science and tech panel rather than the health committee that would normally handle these issues. That will make the Gwinnett Republican one of the champions of the bill - and could help boost her conservative chops if she runs for Congress next year. 

But the second lesson is where it gets interesting. Unterman’s committee has just five members: Three Republicans and two Democrats. One of those Democrats is Jen Jordan, who has already established herself as one of the chamber’s most formidable lawyers weeks into her first full term. She’s also the only attorney on the panel. 

That’s where Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan comes in. He has power to tap “ex-officio” members of committees to vote and shepherd through bills. 

It’s a power generally used sparingly, say, to help a committee meet quorum requirements by pulling a wandering senator into a meeting. 

But in this case, expect Duncan to use his power to hedge against any surprises in committee. Two names we’ve heard: Bill Cowsert and Bill Ligon, both conservative attorneys. 

“We want to get legislation right,” said Duncan. “At the end of the day, 11 million Georgians expect us to do that - get it right.”

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On that same topic: As posted earlier this morning, Democrat Stacey Abrams was back in the state on Tuesday for another “thank-you” appearance -- this time in Atlanta. The former gubernatorial candidate wondered why the state’s business community wasn’t taking HB 481, which would prohibit abortions after about six weeks, as seriously as it did “religious liberty” legislation.

“We do not often tie women’s autonomy to our economics. But they’re directly linked,” Abrams said. “And when women start saying, ‘I’m not moving to Georgia because they have this abominable bill stripping women of autonomy and their choices,’ we will see a result.”

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In today’s print column, we look at HB 324, a measure by state Rep. Micah Gravley, R-Carrollton, to allow the in-state cultivation of low-THC oil from marijuana. Moments after we punched the button on the article, Lt. Geoff Duncan put out a statement about its chances of passage in the Senate. This first sentence is the most important:

“In-state cultivation needs to be narrow in scope with controls in place that limit access to patients with approved medical needs. I am vehemently opposed to anything that puts as on a path to recreational marijuana.”

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Our friends at Roll Call wrote about Megan Whittemore and Joan Kirchner Carr, the second female duo to lead the offices of Georgia’s two U.S. senators in state history. Carr later Tweeted that Georgia is now the only state to have two women chiefs of staff on Capitol Hill. 

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Speaking of Isakson and Perdue, the duo is joining with U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, to push for the Pentagon to consider Savannah for a new Air National Guard squadron. Read their letter to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson here.

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