Capitol Recap: Big budget boost planned for Georgia schools

In his proposed budget, Gov. Brian Kemp calls for a $1.2 billion boost in spending for k-12 education in Georgia over the next 18 months. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
In his proposed budget, Gov. Brian Kemp calls for a $1.2 billion boost in spending for k-12 education in Georgia over the next 18 months. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Credit: Rebecca Wright

A roundup of news about government and politics in the Peach State

Kemp seeks $1.2 billion extra for k-12 education

Education saw big cuts last year as Georgia lawmakers girded themselves for the COVID-19 recession, but that money and more would go to the state’s schools, colleges and universities in Gov. Brian Kemp’s new budget.

K-12 schools, which saw cuts of $950 million during last year’s legislative session, would see an extra $1.2 billion under the governor’s spending plan for the rest of fiscal 2021, which ends June 30, and fiscal 2022.

Kemp, however, for the first time is not calling for a state-funded raise for educators in his $27.2 billion plan. After promising a $5,000 pay bump during his 2018 campaign, Kemp pushed through a $3,000 raise during the first year of his term. Last year, he sought a $2,000 pay raise, but it vanished with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the governor said the state would use federal CARES Act money to provide school systems with one-time supplements of $1,000 per teacher and employee that can be used for bonuses.

Kemp will still have another chance to fulfill his promise of raises before he stands for reelection next year.

The University System of Georgia is also big beneficiary in the governor’s budget, which outlines a boost in basic funding. Kemp is also calling for the state to borrow about $400 million for construction and improvements at k-12 schools, plus university and college campuses.

Kemp also wants to designate about $70 million to help struggling rural communities, with about half of that helping them obtain high-speed internet service.

Health care is another big factor in the rising budget, with Medicaid — the state-federal public health program for the poor, disabled and elderly living in nursing homes — slated for an additional $329 million. Driving some of that increase is the expectation that recipients who put off medical treatment and appointments during the pandemic will see their doctors more often in 2022.

Kemp is also seeking $76 million for his program to increase health care availability for thousands of low-income Georgians.

Georgia officials estimate that about 50,000 people will receive coverage through the program. Democrats say adding more Georgians to the state’s Medicaid rolls would insure 10 times that many people, but Republicans, including Kemp, have opposed the idea.

The governor said in a letter outlining his proposal that he’s “optimistic that Georgia’s state economic foundations will continue to support our robust recovery.”

State revenue reports have helped fuel that optimism, showing collections for the first six months of the current fiscal year — mostly from income and sales taxes — up $722 million over the previous year. Those gains, however, could shrink in the coming months, once Georgians start receiving their income tax returns and the state has to return much of the money it withheld from federally enhanced unemployment checks.

The plan is now in the hands of the state House and Senate.

Gov backs photo ID regs for mail-in ballots

Gov. Brian Kemp is pushing photo ID requirements as a way to verify absentee ballots.

The idea is a popular one with Republicans after record turnout for November’s presidential election and this month’s U.S. Senate runoffs produced big wins for Democrats. Joe Biden’s victory marked the first time Georgia had backed a Democrat in the presidential race since 1992, and Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock became the first two Democrats to win a statewide race since 2006.

Kemp said a photo ID would be “a simple way to make sure that type of voting is further secured, and it’s a good first place to start.”

If the photo ID requirement passes, it will do away with the current system of twice verifying signatures on ballot envelopes. Votes are counted only if election workers find no inconsistencies.

Democrats and voting rights experts say there’s no need for changing the rules. They point to an audit completed weeks ago by the secretary of state’s office that found zero cases of fraud among 15,000 Cobb County absentee ballot envelopes reviewed by law enforcement.

Kemp said he was “reserving judgment” on a number of other proposals that seek to end at-will absentee voting, ban ballot drop boxes and restrict state officials or outside groups from sending out absentee ballot applications.

Governor backs citizen’s arrest rewrite

In his State of the State address, Gov. Brian Kemp endorsed overhauling Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law, a statute that has been in place for more than 150 years and drew heavy scrutiny following the February death of Ahmaud Arbery.

Critics of the law, which allows citizens to arrest people they believe to be committing a crime, say it has been used disproportionately to justify the killings of Black victims,

Arbery’s death is just such a case, they say. The Black man was shot and killed after he was chased by three white men who falsely claimed he was robbing a house that was under construction. Local prosecutors cited the citizen’s arrest law when they initially declined to charge the men.

Outrage over Arbery’s death contributed to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations over the summer and spurred Georgia lawmakers to end nearly two decades of debate by passing a hate-crimes law that strengthens penalties for those motivated by bias to commit crimes.

But critics said the effort should have also brought an end to the citizen’s arrest law, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers called for its repeal.

Kemp, instead, said his administration plans to introduce an overhaul of the legislation that takes “another step toward a better, safer and more just future for our state.”

Senate election deniers lose powerful positions

Elections have consequences, and so do election denials.

After attempting to overturn Georgia’s presidential vote, three Republican state senators slid down the chamber’s flow chart.

In his role as president of the Senate, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan — who strongly disputed claims of election fraud several times on national media — stripped Sens. Brandon Beach of Alpharetta and Burt Jones of Jackson of their prized committee chairmanships. Beach will no longer lead the Transportation Committee, and Jones is out as head of the Insurance and Labor Committee.

Sen. Matt Brass, a third denier, had been set to play a huge role this year as head of the Senate panel that will help redraw the state’s political maps based on new census data. He will still be a chairman, but he will oversee banking instead.

All three had aggressively promoted President Donald Trump’s false claims of widespread election fraud, and they pushed efforts to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the state.

Statehouse security upped after U.S. Capitol riot

A boost in security was visible at the Statehouse following the Jan. 6 ransacking of the U.S. Capitol by a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters, angered by his false claims that the November election had been stolen from them.

Police vehicles and heavily armed law enforcement officers were posted on the streets around the Gold Dome on the first day of the legislative session. Barricades were also in place around the building to keep the public and potential protesters at bay.

“They’re taking security very seriously,” House Speaker David Ralston said. “And I have full confidence they’re going to be ready to do whatever needs to be done to protect the members, the staff, the public, the media and all the people that have to be here.”

Many House members dodge COVID-19 testing

Forty-one percent of the 180 members of the Georgia House tested the patience of Speaker David Ralston when they did not submit to required examinations for the coronavirus.

“Imagine how I felt when I came in today and I found that, yesterday, 74 members of this body did not get tested and were present in the building,” Ralston told lawmakers on Tuesday, the second day of the legislative session.

The speaker, a Republican from Blue Ridge, said members of both parties skipped the tests on Monday.

Senate and House leadership announced last month that lawmakers and staff would undergo COVID-19 testing at the Capitol on Mondays and Thursdays during the legislative session.

Nearly all senators were tested Monday, Senate staff reported. Exact figures were not immediately available. The General Assembly exempted itself and its offices from the Open Records Act, which cities, counties and most state agencies are legally bound to follow.

Two senators tested positive. The chamber did not identify them, but Majority Leader Mike Dugan made his test results public in a statement on Twitter.

At least four legislators missed the first day of the session because they had contracted COVID-19 or been exposed to it.

An effort is underway to place of a statue of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis in the National Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol to replace a figure of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com
An effort is underway to place of a statue of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis in the National Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol to replace a figure of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Lewis could replace Stephens in Statuary Hall

Work got underway this past week on a bipartisan effort to replace a statue of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens at the U.S. Capitol with a likeness of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis.

Sponsoring the resolution are state Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, and House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.

Williams is one of many elected leaders, Democratic and Republican, who sought the change shortly after Lewis’ funeral in July. U.S. Reps. Sanford Bishop and Tom Graves wrote letters calling for the change, and other lawmakers quickly joined the effort.

Each state is represented by two statues in the Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol. Stephens has represented Georgia since 1927. Georgia’s other honoree, Crawford W. Long, was a 19th-century physician who pioneered the use of ether in surgery.

Swapping a statue of Lewis for that of Stephens would require the approval of Gov. Brian Kemp, who has previously backed the idea, and the General Assembly, where it’s expected to easily pass. Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who presides over the Senate, each expressed their support for the swap shortly after Lewis’ July 17 death.

Stephens’ relatives have also supported removal of his statue. In 2017, several of them wrote an open letter to then-Gov. Nathan Deal and legislative leaders calling for removal of the statue and those of other Confederate leaders so “that the descendants of enslaved people no longer walk beneath them at work and on campus.”

A state commission report is calling for Georgia to boost its annual spending road and rail improvements by $1.5 billion to better enable the transport of freight. JOHN SPINK /JSPINK@AJC.COM
A state commission report is calling for Georgia to boost its annual spending road and rail improvements by $1.5 billion to better enable the transport of freight. JOHN SPINK /JSPINK@AJC.COM

Stat of the week: 181,000 jobs

That’s how many Georgians who were directly employed by the freight industry in 2018, according to a report issued last year by the Georgia Commission on Freight and Logistics that calls for the state to boost its annual spending on road and rail improvements by $1.5 billion.

Demand is on the rise, according to the commission, which predicts that by 2045, freight movement in the state could increase by 30%. That forecast, however, may be on the low side in the age of the coronavirus: The commission report notes that nationwide online spending in May was up 77% over the same month a year earlier.

Potential sources for the money identified in the report include new fuel taxes, transportation user fees, levies on home-delivered packages, or assessments on warehouse and distribution facilities. It’s not certain, however, that any of that money — equal to almost 45% of the Georgia Department of Transportation’s current annual budget of $3.4 billion — will be set aside during this year’s legislative session.

The commission has a strong ally in House Speaker David Ralston, who called improvement to Georgia’s freight transportation network “very, very crucial to further expansion of our economy here in this state.”

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