The Follow Up: Georgia lawmakers return to deal with virus’ damage

State Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, speaks Monday, the first day back at the Capitol for the Georgia General Assembly to restart the session it suspended in mid-March to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Among the Legislature’s tasks is passage of a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
State Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, speaks Monday, the first day back at the Capitol for the Georgia General Assembly to restart the session it suspended in mid-March to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Among the Legislature’s tasks is passage of a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Senate plan shows where the budget pain could be felt

Georgians got a good look this past week at where the dents are in the state budget now that the coronavirus has driven the economy into a ditch.

K-12 schools would account for a big part of the damage — $1 billion worth — under the plan the Senate Appropriations Committee approved to cut $2.6 billion in spending.

State workers would also feel the pain through layoffs and furloughs, while cuts are also penciled in for dozens of programs such as road construction, and treatment for substance abuse and mental illness.

It’s all a long fall since mid-March, when the House approved a $28 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. That spending plan, now reduced to scrap paper, sought raises for more than 200,000 teachers and state workers while also mitigating the 6% spending reductions that Gov. Brian Kemp had ordered back then — before the virus blew a hole in state tax collections and set the new goal for cuts at 11%.

"Today, the headlines of January and February feel like distant history," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Blake Tillery, who wasn't even the head of the panel back then.

It’s not as bad, however, as some agencies expected.

Officers in the State Patrol had been looking at the prospect of 24 furlough days in the coming year. But senators found savings in other areas to avoid sidelining troopers for nearly five weeks without pay.

Luck also fell on pre-kindergarten classes, which wouldn’t see any cuts under the plan. That’s mostly because they’re funded by lottery sales, which have remained strong during the recession.

Naturally, other workers were not so fortunate. For example, public health workers, often on the front lines in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic, would have to take 12 furlough days next year.

Other programs taking hits include the Transportation Department, which would see more than $200 million in cuts for construction and maintenance programs; county health departments that would see $14 million in grants dry up; and the GBI, where a hiring freeze would affect dozens of positions for investigators, scientists and lab technicians.

State lawmakers are also feeling losses, agreeing to an 11% pay cut in their own salaries of $17,000 to reduce staff furloughs in House and Senate offices. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan is shaving off 14% of his salary of about $90,000 a year.

Senators are also looking for ways to ease spending cuts by raising revenue, but they’ve had difficulty getting House leaders to play along.

Early in the week, the senators were looking to eliminate or reduce about 40 special-interest tax breaks that lawmakers have passed over the years. House Speaker David Ralston put the kibosh on that. He also stubbed out any moves to increase the state's cigarette taxes, something health advocates have long promoted and some have suggested could raise nearly $500 million a year.

Lt. gov reveals his hate-crimes proposal

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan unveiled his proposal to give Georgia a hate-crimes law for the first time in 16 years, although some maintain it could kill the chances of any such bill passing during the few days left in this legislative session.

Duncan's measure starts the same way as House Bill 426, legislation that the House passed in 2019, only to watch it idle in the Senate Judiciary Committee since then. The lieutenant governor's proposal would impose new penalties for crimes motivated by age, gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

But then it goes further. It would:

  • Add "culture," "exercise of religious beliefs" and "exercising rights guaranteed by the First Amendment" as protected classes.
  • Allow members of the community to file a warrant to force a grand jury hearing for a hate-crime charge if a prosecutor doesn't initially do so.
  • Mandate that law enforcement officials track hate crimes for the first time in a state database.

Convictions would carry a penalty of 1-5 years.

Those additions, however, put Duncan at odds with House Speaker David Ralston, who has called for passage of HB 426 as is.

The concern is that any changes to the House measure could doom it if it returns to that chamber, where it only passed by five votes the first time around.

Senate Minority Whip Harold Jones, an Augusta Democrat, saw some good and bad in Duncan's measure. Jones like the inclusion of mandatory tracking of hate crimes and giving victims a way to pursue legal action. But he also said that Senate Democrats believe HB 426 represents the best opportunity to pass hate-crimes legislation this session.

“The bottom line is that we want to get a hate-crime bill passed,” Jones said, “and, quite frankly, we’re running out of time.”

Fulton takes heat for voting troubles

It’s all right to forgive Fulton County for feeling paranoid. But some people are having a hard time forgiving the county for voting problems during the June 9 Georgia primary.

Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Democratic legislators from the county have both piled on blame against the county for lines of voters that stretched for hours on election day.

Raffensperger said that while other parts of the state had problems, especially in more densely populated areas with high turnout, Fulton was responsible for 70% of the trouble.

Fulton, which has experienced election problems for decades, ran into a number of difficulties in running the primary tied directly to the coronavirus. First, the county lost about 35 of its 198 precincts, especially at churches that refused to allow people inside because of concerns about the virus. Poll workers, many of them 70 years or older and at greater risk if they contracted COVID-19, also backed out of the job. And social distancing meant a limited number of people could enter polling areas at the same time.

There were also problems, however, connected to the state’s new $104 million voting system. Some poll workers lacked much training, and they struggled to start computers, log in and hook up the system correctly. Technical support numbered only 175 staffers across the entire state election day.

Raffensperger said he wants to bump up support staff for the November general election, placing a technician in each of the state’s 2,600-plus precincts. He also plans to increase hands-on training for poll workers; add polling places and send more equipment to high-turnout precincts; and create a state website where voters can request the ballots themselves.

Meanwhile, Fulton Democratic legislators introduced a bill to dissolve the county’s elections board.

"Fulton voters have fundamentally lost faith in the state and the county as institutions that can administer properly," said state Rep. Josh McLaurin, a Democrat from Sandy Springs who said he waited 4 1/2 hours to vote on election day.

Senior care measure clears Senate panel hurdle

A plan to improve staffing, training and accountability in Georgia's senior care homes won a Senate panel's approval this past week after new requirements were added for handling the coronavirus.

The Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee unanimously approved the new version of House Bill 987, a measure designed to address problems of neglect and abuse uncovered last year in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation.

Rep. Sharon Cooper, a Republican from Marietta and the lead sponsor of the bill, said she agreed to support some changes the Senate committee sought in response to concerns raised by the senior care industry that would slightly weaken staffing requirements. Cooper said she had worked closely with the industry in writing the compromise bill.

The Senate version would also require senior care homes to plan for a pandemic, maintain a short-term supply of personal protective gear, test residents and staff, and notify residents and families of an outbreak.

Voters will decide whether you can take government to court

Georgia's November ballot already features races for president, two U.S. Senate seats and every legislative district in the state, but now it's getting interesting: The people will get to decide whether you can take the government to court.

The House voted unanimously to approve House Resolution 1023, a proposed constitutional amendment voters can decide on this fall.

"All we're doing is giving the keys to the courthouse back to the people," said state Rep. Andrew Welch, a Republican from McDonough.

The measure would give Georgians permission in some cases to sue by waiving the legal doctrine of sovereign immunity, which — despite a little fracas in 1776 — is rooted in the centuries-old English principle that “the king can do no wrong.”

Georgians have not been able to go to court to stop what they believe are illegal government actions since 2017, when the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that citizens couldn’t sue the state without the government’s permission.

The General Assembly has twice passed legislation to restore the ability to go to court over questionable laws, but those bills both ran into vetoes, one by Gov. Nathan Deal and one by Gov. Brian Kemp.

Kemp gets no chance to weigh in this time because the proposal was turned into a proposed constitutional amendment, out of reach from a veto.

No masks, but senators do worry about protection

Some Georgia senators shunned masks this week when they returned to the Capitol, ending the legislative session's coronavirus hiatus. That doesn't mean, however, that they didn't have COVID-19 protection in mind.

The Senate Public Safety Committee voted in favor of guidelines aimed at shielding businesses and health care providers from liability in the event that their workers, customers or visitors contract the disease.

The legislation, House Bill 216, would protect businesses and other organizations — including charity groups and municipal and state governments — from civil lawsuits if a person gets sick and/or dies from COVID-19 after being exposed to the disease on the property. Health care providers also would be protected from liability lawsuits.

The groups would not be protected if it was found the disease was spread as a result of “gross negligence, willful and wanton misconduct, reckless infliction of harm or intentional infliction of harm.”

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"When you have Americans worthy of having a statue placed there, that's a very high honor. I just don't think we should be placing a statue of someone who actually tried to justify (slavery) and used words like 'they are an inferior race' to justify his actions." — Rep. Scot Turner, R-Holly Springs, on why he proposed House Resolution 1551, which would remove a statue of Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens from the National Statuary Hall Collection at the U.S. Capitol. Going in it's place would be a statue of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Turner's proposal, co-sponsored by state Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, is a bipartisan effort, but because so little time is left in the legislative session, it's unlikely to pass this year.

Stephens was known for giving "The Cornerstone Speech," a defense of slavery that was delivered shortly before the Civil War.

Likely supporters of Turner's measure include Stephens' great-great-great-great-nephews who wrote a letter three years ago to then-Gov. Nathan Deal seeking the statue's removal.

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