Capitol Recap: Demand for Georgia’s COVID-19 money surpasses supply

Gov. Brian Kemp plans to distribute $875 million in COVID-19 relief money to pay for expansion of broadband, fund water and sewer projects, and help those hurt financially by the pandemic. The state received requests totaling $14.6 billion from nearly 1,500 applicants seeking funding. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Caption
Gov. Brian Kemp plans to distribute $875 million in COVID-19 relief money to pay for expansion of broadband, fund water and sewer projects, and help those hurt financially by the pandemic. The state received requests totaling $14.6 billion from nearly 1,500 applicants seeking funding. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Requests total $14.6 billion for $875 million in relief funds

It’s like one of those math questions you faced back in primary school, with maybe a few extra zeros.

Brian (Kemp) has 875 million apples. How many apples will he have left if he gives everybody what they requested?

The answer: He’s in the hole for 13.725 billion apples.

Now, think of those apples as dollars.

Georgia has received nearly 1,500 applications totaling $14.6 billion in requests for COVID-19 relief funds the state is receiving from the feds.

But the state only plans to set aside $875 million for such requests, part of Georgia’s $4.8 billion share of COVID-19 relief money that Democrats pushed through Congress earlier this year without any Republican votes.

Kemp appointed three committees to examine the applications with three specific needs in mind: broadband expansion, water and sewer projects, and help for those hurt financially by the pandemic. The governor will make the final decision on who gets how much.

Kelly Farr, the governor’s budget director, said many of the applications won’t be considered and some applicants may not have fully investigated federal requirements for the money, or how the state planned to spend it.

“I think people were misinformed,” Farr said. “It was like, ‘Here is this website and it’s giving away free government money.’ "

The state has received half of the $4.8 billion, so far, and some of it has already been designated.

Kemp last month said some will be used to help court systems facing backlogs that began with the COVID-19 shutdown and then grew as violent crime rates rose. That comes with a price tag of $110 million.

In September, the governor announced $1,000 bonuses for police and sheriffs’ employees, EMTs, dispatchers, state troopers and guards, full-time firefighters and others. That could cost as much as $100 million.

The biggest request came from the state Department of Labor.

Kemp last year used $1.5 billion in earlier federal COVID-19 funding to shore up the fund that pays unemployment benefits after the shutdown in March and April 2020 sent Georgia’s unemployment rates skyrocketing.

Now, state Labor Commissioner Mark Butler is seeking an additional $800 million — remember, the whole pot is $875 million — to restore and rebuild the state’s unemployment fund.

“If funds are not restored by March 2022, the state’s (fund) is expected to be depleted,” the agency’s request said. “To prevent depletion, the state will need to either use funding provided through these federal funds or burden Georgia businesses with additional taxes in order to pay for state benefits.”

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Georgia's efforts to award licenses to six companies to cultivate and distribute medical marijuana, in the form of a cannabis oil, have hit a snag when companies that did not receive the permits filed protests about the competitive bid process. (BITA HONARVAR/SPECIAL)

Georgia's efforts to award licenses to six companies to cultivate and distribute medical marijuana, in the form of a cannabis oil, have hit a snag when companies that did not receive the permits filed protests about the competitive bid process. (BITA HONARVAR/SPECIAL)
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Georgia's efforts to award licenses to six companies to cultivate and distribute medical marijuana, in the form of a cannabis oil, have hit a snag when companies that did not receive the permits filed protests about the competitive bid process. (BITA HONARVAR/SPECIAL)

Georgia medical marijuana program stalls

Georgia lawmakers voted in April 2019 to allow the cultivation of marijuana to be used for medical purposes by registered patients who had no legal way to obtain it in the state.

More than 2 1/2 years later, not a seed has been planted.

The process for awarding marijuana licenses to companies has stalled indefinitely amid protests from the firms that did not win licenses.

The state’s medical marijuana board in July chose six companies out of 69 applicants to grow and distribute the medication to registered patients. But then 15 companies that failed to gain licenses filed protests alleging problems with the competitive bidding process. Those complaints now must be reviewed by an administrative hearing officer before the licenses can be issued.

Andrew Turnage, executive director of the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission, couldn’t tell state representatives how long it would take to resolve the protests.

Lawmakers are considering how to break the impasse, including opening up the program to more businesses, granting temporary licenses or importing the cannabis oil that the state’s 20,000 registered patients are allowed to use to treat conditions including seizures, terminal cancers and Parkinson’s disease.

Bringing the oil in from other states, however, would be a violation of federal law that prohibits the transportation of illicit drugs across state lines.

That’s the problem the General Assembly was trying to solve when it voted to create the cultivation program.

A 2015 state law first allowed the use of medical marijuana in Georgia, although only in the form of a cannabis oil with no more than 5% THC, the compound that gives marijuana users a high. But it gave patients no way to legally obtain the drug.

Lawmakers will meet again in December to consider ideas that could turn into bills during the legislative session that begins in January.

“Three years to do this is absolutely ridiculous to help the people of Georgia that need it so much,” said state Rep. Gerald Greene, a Republican from Cuthbert. “They just felt like the system has failed us.”

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Georgia Senate Redistricting Committee Chair John Kennedy, R-Macon, introduces a map drawing new lines for the state's 56 Senate districts. The Senate approved the map this past week. (Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Georgia Senate Redistricting Committee Chair John Kennedy, R-Macon, introduces a map drawing new lines for the state's 56 Senate districts. The Senate approved the map this past week. (Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Caption
Georgia Senate Redistricting Committee Chair John Kennedy, R-Macon, introduces a map drawing new lines for the state's 56 Senate districts. The Senate approved the map this past week. (Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

General Assembly maps take shape as redistricting moves forward

The General Assembly made major progress this past week in picking who will vote for which legislators.

The Georgia Senate and the state House each approved maps setting district lines for its own chamber.

Republicans, who control both the Senate and House, preserved their majorities in each, but Democrats appeared to gain some ground.

The work in both chambers involved some tricky cartography. It had to accommodate growth that saw Georgia add 1 million new residents since 2010 while also considering the population’s shift from rural areas where Republicans are strongest to metro areas where Democrats have done better in recent elections.

Recent statewide elections have approached an even split between Republicans and Democrats, but the new maps would still give the GOP an edge.

The Senate map’s division of the chamber’s 56 districts gives Democrats a net gain of one additional seat. The breakdown would be 33 Republican-leaning districts to 23 for Democrats.

Metro Atlanta would add two new Democratic-leaning districts under the plan, one in Gwinnett County and another near Alpharetta and Roswell in Fulton County.

But alterations to state Sen. Michelle Au’s district, adding more GOP-leaning voters from Forsyth County, could harm the chances of reelection for the Democrat from Johns Creek. It would change from a district where people of color dominate the electorate to one that is majority-white.

“The Republican map under consideration does not add even a single majority-minority district over the total we’ve had for the past decade,” said Au, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, noting that the state’s population changes were driven by people of color while white populations declined. “It’s as if the huge population growth we’ve seen consisting essentially entirely of Georgians of color has been rendered invisible.”

Senate Redistricting Chairman John Kennedy, a Republican from Macon, pointed out at least a dozen times that the proposal that won passage was similar to the map introduced by the Senate Democratic Caucus.

The House map, like the Senate proposal, would yield some territory to Democrats while maintaining GOP control of the chamber.

Republicans, who now hold 103 of the House’s 180 seats, could see that number drop to 97, according to an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Democrats would gain six seats under the plan, but that doesn’t mean they’re happy.

They said Georgia’s districts should have been drawn in a way that better represented the state’s racial breakdown. The House’s membership is 67% white, even though the state’s population is now about 50% white.

In metro Atlanta, Democrats have several opportunities to add seats in newly formed districts where there are no incumbents. Cobb County has two such districts, as does Gwinnett County. Fulton County and Rockdale County each have one.

Caption
State Rep. Philip Singleton of Sharpsburg in Coweta County, blames state House Speaker David Ralston for redrawing his district to make it less likely he will win reelection. Singleton has been a strong critic of Ralston, a fellow Republican, over his use of legislative leave to delay court cases he's handling as an attorney. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

State Rep. Philip Singleton of Sharpsburg in Coweta County, blames state House Speaker David Ralston for redrawing his district to make it less likely he will win reelection. Singleton has been a strong critic of Ralston, a fellow Republican, over his use of legislative leave to delay court cases he's handling as an attorney. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
State Rep. Philip Singleton of Sharpsburg in Coweta County, blames state House Speaker David Ralston for redrawing his district to make it less likely he will win reelection. Singleton has been a strong critic of Ralston, a fellow Republican, over his use of legislative leave to delay court cases he's handling as an attorney. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Some Republicans lose out in GOP map

The GOP majorities in the state House and Senate control the redistricting process, but this past week saw some Republican voters frustrated with the system.

Leading the way were constituents of state Rep. Philip Singleton, a Republican from Sharpsburg in Coweta County whose district has been redrawn by House GOP members to extend into Fulton County and hurt his chances of reelection.

“You’re railroading my representation,” Maxwell Britton, a Coweta voter, told the House Redistricting Committee. “I don’t accept your intent to California my Coweta. This is a move to disenfranchise representation of my county and my voice. I will not give up or forget.”

Singleton is far from being the only legislator threatened by redistricting. Seven Democrats and five Republicans in the House were drawn into the same districts as other incumbents who haven’t announced plans to leave the General Assembly next year.

He is, however, one who has been critical of House Speaker David Ralston over his use of legislative leave. An investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News found that Ralston, a criminal defense attorney, frequently delayed criminal cases by claiming they interfered with his legislative duties.

“The Speaker of the House couldn’t buy me off or beat me at the ballot box, so I am unsurprised he would gerrymander to remove the most conservative Republican in the state from office,” Singleton wrote on Facebook. “This is a shocking betrayal of GA conservatives that is far worse for Coweta than even the Democrat proposal was.”

Ralston didn’t speak directly to Singleton’s accusation, but he said “not everybody’s going to be happy” with the final maps.

“Not all the Republicans are going to be happy,” the speaker said. “And that’s the case with every piece of legislation that we pass, but we have done the best we can.”

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A Mercer University political scientist thinks Republicans in the General Assembly may be using redistricting to make Democratic U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop of Albany consider retiring so they can capture his southwest Georgia seat. AP file

A Mercer University political scientist thinks Republicans in the General Assembly may be using redistricting to make Democratic U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop of Albany consider retiring so they can capture his southwest Georgia seat. AP file
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A Mercer University political scientist thinks Republicans in the General Assembly may be using redistricting to make Democratic U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop of Albany consider retiring so they can capture his southwest Georgia seat. AP file

Bishop’s 2nd District may be a long-term goal for GOP

Georgia’s 14 congressional districts will be the last to get a face-lift during the General Assembly’s special session on redistricting.

The one GOP plan to be released so far, by Senate Republicans, targets the 6th Congressional District as a potential gain for the party in 2022. It would move reliably Republican Forsyth County into the territory represented by Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath of Marietta.

But Republicans may be eyeing U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop’s 2nd Congressional District in the long term.

The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer notes that the 2nd District — which includes most of Columbus, part of Macon and much of southwest Georgia — is the most underpopulated of the state’s congressional districts and thus one that will invite tinkering.

The paper notes that the Senate Republican proposal would add the rest of Columbus to the district as well as the southern half of Harris County, both areas that lean Republican.

Mercer University political scientist Chris Grant told the Ledger-Enquirer that Republicans hope to narrow the gap in what has been a Democratic stronghold for decades. Their aim is to someday flip the seat, he said.

“They are doing what they can to make (Bishop) more vulnerable,” he said. “He is going to retire eventually, and they may be opening the door for a Republican to replace Sanford eventually. ... Republicans are going to lose strongholds in the metro Atlanta area, and I’m not sure the districts they are creating right now will continue to perform very well in the long run.

“That may be the purpose of the map: to get Sanford to think about retiring.”

Caption
Fulton County is apparently stepping up its investigation into whether Donald Trump violated election laws in his attempt to reverse his defeat in last year's presidential election by overturning the results in Georgia. The New York Times was the first to report that Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis will likely impanel a special grand jury to investigate the former president. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Credit: Evan Vucci

Fulton County is apparently stepping up its investigation into whether Donald Trump violated election laws in his attempt to reverse his defeat in last year's presidential election by overturning the results in Georgia. The New York Times was the first to report that Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis will likely impanel a special grand jury to investigate the former president. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
Caption
Fulton County is apparently stepping up its investigation into whether Donald Trump violated election laws in his attempt to reverse his defeat in last year's presidential election by overturning the results in Georgia. The New York Times was the first to report that Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis will likely impanel a special grand jury to investigate the former president. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Credit: Evan Vucci

Credit: Evan Vucci

Fulton could set up special grand jury to investigate Trump

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is likely to impanel a special grand jury to investigate whether Donald Trump violated state election laws in his attempt to reverse his defeat in Georgia in last year’s presidential election, according to a person with direct knowledge of discussions in the case.

The development, first reported by The New York Times, is a sign that the investigation is intensifying.

The special grand jury would have certain investigatory powers and could issue subpoenas to build a potential case, according to the person who spoke to the Times.

Investigators are said to be reviewing Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s new book, “Integrity Counts,” which includes his annotated transcript of a January phone call during which Trump urged the Georgia official to “find” enough votes to overturn his defeat.

Raffensperger would presumably be a star witness in the criminal case if it were to move forward. At least four of his closest aides have talked to prosecutors about the case.

Candidates, endorsements, etc.:

— Republican Gov. Brian Kemp gained endorsements from Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, state Insurance Commissioner John King and 108 sheriffs.

— Republican Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black’s U.S. Senate campaign drew support from U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, who hosted a fundraiser for him this past week in Madison, Mississippi.

— Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker received backing from former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

State Sen. Tyler Harper, a Republican from Ocilla running for agriculture commissioner, earned an endorsement from his former social studies teacher, state School Superintendent Richard Woods.

State Sen. Jen Jordan’s campaign for Georgia attorney general announced that she has raised more than $1 million. Jordan’s campaign manager, Meg Scribner, said that’s a record haul for a very specific group, Democratic challengers for attorney general. Jordan will face off against Atlanta attorney Charlie Bailey in the Democratic primary on May 24. The winner will go on to challenge Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr in November.

— Democrat Kolbey Gardner announced on Twitter that he has ended his campaign for lieutenant governor.

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