Capitol Recap: Financially struggling Fair Fight heads for ‘restructuring’

Lauren Groh-Wargo, right, will return to the voting group Fair Fight as an interim chief executive as the financially struggling organization undergoes a "restructuring." Stacey Abrams, left, who founded the group, is expected to also return to play some undetermined role in the overhaul. (Alyssa Pointer/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Lauren Groh-Wargo, right, will return to the voting group Fair Fight as an interim chief executive as the financially struggling organization undergoes a "restructuring." Stacey Abrams, left, who founded the group, is expected to also return to play some undetermined role in the overhaul. (Alyssa Pointer/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Voter group that Stacey Abrams founded to lay off nearly three-quarters of staff

It once was a juggernaut, collecting more than $100 million over its first three years, but now it’s racked by debt.

Fair Fight, the political and advocacy organization that Democrat Stacey Abrams founded in the days after her 2018 defeat in the governor’s race, owes $2.5 million but has only $1.9 million in the bank.

About three-quarters of its staff — a total of 20 employees — will soon be out of work, and the organization is scaling back its mission during an election year when it could have been a force in one of the nation’s key battleground states working at the grassroots level and registering voters.

Fair Fight used to be so successful it forced Republicans to respond.

Former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler launched Greater Georgia as a Republican answer to Fair Fight.

Republican lawmakers in 2021 created a fundraising mechanism known as a “leadership committee” that allowed Gov. Brian Kemp and a few others to skirt campaign contribution limits to help him compete financially in an expected rematch the next year with Abrams.

Now, Fair Fight is headed for a “restructuring,”

Lauren Groh-Wargo, who left Fair Fight in 2021 to manage Abrams’ campaign for governor, is returning as the interim chief executive. Abrams, who stepped down as board chair before launching her second bid for governor, is also likely to play some still undetermined role in the overhaul.

Fair Fight still benefits from thousands of small, reoccurring contributions from donors — but the money isn’t coming in like it once did.

Where did all that cash go?

Legal expenses consumed a big chunk of it. A Politico investigation found that, just over 2021 and 2022, Fair Fight spent more than $25 million on legal fees.

But it reaped little from those legal expenses, losing a number of court battles. Just last month, a federal judge ruled against the group, determining that mass challenges of Georgia voters’ eligibility under a 2021 state law didn’t amount to illegal voter intimidation.

Gov. Brian Kemp signs into law House Bill 30, a measure that makes antisemitism part of the state's hate crimes statute. (Arvin Temkar /

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Kemp signs antisemitism bill, providing protection under hate crimes statute

Gov. Brian Kemp said “there is no place for hate in this great state” as he signed into law protections against antisemitism as part of the state’s law targeting crimes rooted in bias and bigotry.

“Acts of hatred have taken on many forms, including harassment, intimidation and unfortunately, violence. Georgia has not been immune to that horrible reality,” Kemp said. “In Georgia, we stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters.”

House Bill 30 makes antisemitism a part of Georgia’s hate crimes statute, which now will allow harsher criminal penalties against people who target victims because they’re Jewish. The hate crimes law already covers crimes based on religion and race, but it didn’t specify antisemitism, a broader category of bias against Jewish people.

Antisemitic speech would continue to be protected by the First Amendment. But a judge could impose additional penalties under the state’s hate crimes act if an underlying crime, such as assault, is found to be motivated by antisemitism.

Hate crimes come with an additional six to 12 months of incarceration for misdemeanors and at least two years for felonies.

The antisemitism bill stalled last year but became a priority for Georgia’s elected leaders after the Israel-Hamas war began Oct. 7, with supporters citing an increase in hate speech against Jewish people.

Antisemitic incidents were already on the rise before the war, when hate groups repeatedly distributed fliers smearing Jewish people in several neighborhoods and a group hung a Jew in effigy last summer outside a Macon synagogue.

State Senate Finance Chair Chuck Hufstetler is the sponsor of legislation that would cap increases in home assessments for use in calculating property taxes. (Natrice Miller/

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

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Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Cap on property assessments eyed as way to hold down taxes on homeowners

A push is underway in the state Senate to cap how much home assessments could rise to 3% a year.

Supporters see it as a way to help homeowners, especially in a booming housing market that can force property tax bills to rise sharply even when tax rates remain stable.

“We’ve probably heard more about property taxes than we’ve heard about any other issue in the past year,” said Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, who is sponsoring one assessment bill and co-sponsoring another. “We’ve seen property tax increases — just solely on the assessed value — of 25, 30 and even 40%.”

A cap on assessments, however, wouldn’t necessarily save homeowners money.

If a taxing jurisdiction, such as a county or school district, needs to increase revenue and can no longer count on increased property values to bring in that extra cash, it can still bump up the tax rate.

That’s what happened in Columbus-Muscogee County, which began freezing property values for assessment purposes in 1983.

Suzanne Widenhouse, the chief appraiser there, said the freeze has left the county with one of the highest property tax rates in the state, and the sales tax rate has more than doubled. Economic growth has slowed, she said, and business recruitment is more difficult.

But the freeze is popular with longtime homeowners — Widenhouse said tens of thousands of them pay less than $100 a year in property taxes — so efforts to change the system fail on the ballot.

“Once it’s in place,” Widenhouse said, “it’s impossible to claw back.”

State Rep. Joseph Gullet, R-Acworth, proposed House Bill 881, which would eliminate a provision in a law passed last year to create a panel that would have the power to sanction and even oust local prosecutors it determined were not doing their job. The House approved the measure on a nearly party-line vote with Republicans in favor. Miguel Martinez /

Credit: Miguel Martinez for the AJC

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Credit: Miguel Martinez for the AJC

House backs bill that would allow panel to begin overseeing prosecutors

A panel the General Assembly created last year could soon begins its work overseeing local prosecutors under a new bill that would essentially delete a requirement in the original legislation.

Lawmakers last year gave the Prosecuting Attorneys Qualifications Commission the power to sanction and even oust district attorneys and other prosecutors it determined were not doing their jobs, such as enforcing Georgia’s anti-abortion law.

But they also required that the state Supreme Court approve rules to guide the panel.

The high court, however, expressed “grave doubts” that it had the constitutional authority to approve rules and standards of conduct for the commission.

State Rep. Joseph Gullet, an Acworth Republican, responded by introducing House Bill 881, which removes the requirement that a third party approve the commission’s rules. Only one Republican voted against the measure this past week when the House approved it on a nearly party-line vote of 95-75.

Gullett said HB 881 would “reinforce the integrity of our legal system.”

But state Rep. Stacey Evans, an Atlanta Democrat, pointed out that while lawmakers last year approved creating the commission to oversee prosecutors, they did so thinking the panel also needed to operate under the eye of the Supreme Court. Now, the monitor would have no monitor.

“For a body so concerned about oversight, when the person we picked to do the oversight said they can’t do it, we didn’t pick a substitute overseer,” she said. “We just said, ‘We’re good, don’t oversee us.’ "

The battle over the commission has drawn national attention because Donald Trump’s allies aim to use the law to punish Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis for seeking election interference charges against the former president in his efforts to reverse the results of the 2020 contest in Georgia.

HB 881 now heads to the Senate for its consideration.

State House Rules Chair Richard Smith, center, died this past week after fighting the flu. He was one of the most influential members in the House as head of the panel that determines which bills get votes on the floor. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

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Credit: Hyosub Shin

Powerful lawmaker dies, victim of the flu

Lawmakers were shaken this week by the death of state Rep. Richard Smith, chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee that sets the agenda for votes in that chamber.

Smith, a Republican from Columbus, died at age 78 after fighting the flu.

Gov. Brian Kemp, during a speech to teary-eyed legislators in the state House, called Smith a friend who was dedicated to serving his community.

“He just did what he thought was right,” Kemp said. “He was making our state better. He did that for a long time, and his legacy will continue to do that in the future.”

Former Rules Chairman Calvin Smyre, a Democrat who retired after spending 48 years representing the Columbus area in the House, said Smith will be greatly missed.

“He was a steady hand and trusted colleague for me over many years. We shared a great friendship,” Smyre said. “He will be dearly missed in the Columbus community, the General Assembly and the state of Georgia.”

Three Rules chairmen have died in office in recent years: Smith, state Rep. Jay Powell in 2019 and state Rep. John Meadows in 2018.

Smith, who was first elected to the House in 2004, previously served as chairman of the House Insurance Committee. Before that, he was a member of the Columbus City Council.

Bills target use of ‘deepfakes’ in campaigns

Georgia legislators want to ensure when you’re exposed this year to campaigning by Donald Trump or Joe Biden that you’re getting the real thing.

Bills are under consideration in both the state House and Senate to criminalize “deepfakes,” videos and recordings that impersonate candidates.

The work is moving along cautiously amid concerns about enforcement, the creation of a new crime in Georgia law and preserving constitutional protections for online content.

Meanwhile, deepfakes are already making an impact in campaigns in other states. In New Hampshire, a robocall that mimicked Biden’s voice told people to shun the primary to “save your vote for the November election.”

“This is going to happen in this election cycle as we have never seen it before,” warned state Sen. John Albers, a Republican from Roswell and sponsor of Senate Bill 392. “If something’s not illegal, you better believe people on that moral and ethical edge are going to use that to their perverted advantage.”

Albers’ bill would make it a felony to create a deepfake video, image or sound recording with the intent of influencing an election. Violation could result in a sentence of up to five years in prison and a maximum fine of $50,000.

Sarah Hunt-Blackwell of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia warned during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that “applying felony charges to the publication of online content sets an unnerving and excessive precedent.”

Both Republican and Democratic senators suggested changes to Albers’ bill before scheduling a vote. They included adding misdemeanor-level penalties and clarifying where offenses could be prosecuted for ads broadcast statewide.

House Bill 986, a similar measure, is pending in the state House.

Legislation backs vending machines as tool in fight against opioid overdoses

Vending machines could make drugs available to reverse opioid-related overdoses on college campuses in Georgia.

House Bill 1035 would protect pharmacists from criminal liability for filling up the vending machines, which are planned for use on Emory University’s campus and could extend to colleges across Georgia.

The House Public Health Committee backed the measure by unanimous vote.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last year approved two nasal spray drugs that administer naloxone for over-the-counter use, meaning users would not need a prescription to access Narcan or RiVive.

The state Department of Public Health reports that 2,390 people died from drug overdose deaths in Georgia in 2021.

“I hate to even bring this up, it kills me, because it shows how bad the problem is getting,” said House Public Health Committee Chair Sharon Cooper, a Republican from Marietta and the sponsor of HB 1035.

The bill has bipartisan support, including House Health Committee Chairman Lee Hawkins, a Republican from Gainesville and a co-sponsor.

Senate approves measure that would outlaw sex with adopted relative

Sex with adopted family members would be banned as incest under a bill that this past week cleared the state Senate on a unanimous vote.

Senate Public Safety Chairman John Albers, a Roswell Republican, told colleagues that people who have sex with adopted family members should be charged with incest.

“Adoptive parents that will start either in fostering or go straight to adoption are true heroes to take a child and give them that home, and 99.999-plus percent of them do a phenomenal job,” Albers said. “However, there is that rare occurrence where someone has crossed the line and done something blatantly wrong.”

Most times, an investigation is done because it involves an adopted minor, but there are some instances where the victim of incest is an adult, Blue Ridge District Attorney Susan Treadaway told a Senate panel earlier this year when describing why the the measure, Senate Bill 335, needs to become law.

The penalties for incest would remain the same under the proposal. Currently, someone is guilty of incest if he or she “engages in sexual intercourse or sodomy” with a family member. If convicted of incest, they could be sentenced to between 10 and 30 years, unless one person is under 14. Then he or she could serve no less than 25 and up to 50 years in prison.

The bill now goes to the House for its consideration.

Capitol Recap: The 2024 Legislative Session

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