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Capitol Recap: Georgia, Atlanta head for mediation over virus

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has encouraged the use of masks to contain the coronavirus but has resisted mandates requiring their use. He has filed a lawsuit targeting tougher virus restrictions in Atlanta, but new talks between the city's major, Keisha Lance Bottoms, and the governor indicate that a resolution could be coming. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has encouraged the use of masks to contain the coronavirus but has resisted mandates requiring their use. He has filed a lawsuit targeting tougher virus restrictions in Atlanta, but new talks between the city's major, Keisha Lance Bottoms, and the governor indicate that a resolution could be coming. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

A roundup of government and political news

‘Good conversation’ points toward resolution between Kemp, Bottoms

Gov. Brian Kemp and Atlanta Mayor Keshia Lance Bottoms are headed for mediation in their legal dispute over response to the coronavirus pandemic.

There’s no certainty that they will reach a settlement, but the two leaders already appeared to be moving in that direction before Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jane Barwick ordered mediation in the suit Kemp filed against the city over its move to reinstitute restrictions aimed at the virus that were tougher than his own executive order.

Bottoms said on “The Tonight Show” that she and Kemp had had “a very good conversation” about the suit.

“We discussed where we disagree and hopefully we can figure out a way to agree to disagree without having to play this out in court,” Bottoms told Jimmy Fallon.

The new talks between Kemp and Bottoms — made possible after the litigation hit a speed bump earlier in the week when two Fulton judges recused themselves — focused on things they have in common.

“At the end of the day, we want the same thing. We want people to be safe. We want to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Bottoms said. “And it certainly doesn’t help when we’re having to fight one another.”

Now the state and city will talk some more about the lawsuit targeting Bottoms’ July 10 decision to revert to “phase one” guidelines that encouraged new limits on restaurants and other businesses to contain the disease. The suit also cast the city’s mask requirements as “void and unenforceable.”

Barwick has also set a hearing for 10 a.m. Tuesday to weigh the merits of the case.

That could include consideration of a brief filed in support of the city by the Georgia Municipal Association, which says the suit could affect roughly 100 of the 537 municipalities in its membership that have adopted mask mandates.

The GMA brief argues that under the Georgia Constitution, the state is usurping power that the Legislature bestowed upon local governments.

It states, “The Georgia General Assembly … intended for local governments to have the ability to enhance guidance from the Governor through supplementation, so long as the supplementation by the local governments is consistent with the Governor’s executive orders.”

It added that the municipalities, in establishing mask mandates, were following the lead of the governor, who had urged Georgians in his executive orders to use face coverings.

“If the goal of (Kemp’s) repeated executive orders strongly encouraging the usage of masks was to increase the usage of such,” the brief states, “then it is a reasonable reading that mandating usage of such would help achieve that goal.”

A measure moving through Congress would remove the names of Confederate military leaders from 10 U.S. military installations. In Georgia, that would include Fort Gordon and Fort Benning. HYOSUB SHIN/HSHIN@AJC.COM
A measure moving through Congress would remove the names of Confederate military leaders from 10 U.S. military installations. In Georgia, that would include Fort Gordon and Fort Benning. HYOSUB SHIN/HSHIN@AJC.COM

Collins says ‘no’ to bill to take Confederate names off U.S. bases

The U.S. House voted this past week to rename military installations bearing the monikers of Confederate generals, but that was a line U.S. Rep. Doug Collins would not cross.

The name changes — which in Georgia would affect Fort Benning and Fort Gordon — were a factor behind his vote against the National Defense Authorization Act, a massive military funding bill.

“Congressman Collins believes that erasing our nation’s history by renaming military bases, monuments and statues is a slippery slope, and we have to draw the line somewhere,” said a spokeswoman for the Republican U.S. Senate candidate from Gainesville.

U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, also voted against the bill but gave no indication that renaming figured in his opposition. He said his concerns involved limits on President Donald Trump’s power to respond to security threats.

“The NDAA is very important for the 1st District, but unfortunately, I had too many concerns in this version of the bill,” he said. “Among other things, it interferes with securing our southern border, severely restricts the president’s ability to respond to domestic threats, and restricts our ability to manage the U.S. nuclear arsenal.”

The other five members of the state’s congressional delegation who voted against the bill — Republican U.S. Reps. Rick Allen of Evans, Drew Ferguson of West Point, Jody Hice of Monroe and Barry Loudermilk of Cassville, plus Democratic U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson of Lithonia — did not immediately respond to requests seeking reasons for their “no” votes.

Trump has threatened to veto the bill if, once the measure reaches his desk, it still calls for renaming the 10 U.S. installations named after Confederate military leaders.

A good run on Wall Street has helped the state's Teacher Retirement System recover the assets it lost when stock markets plunged earlier this 
 year in response to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A good run on Wall Street has helped the state's Teacher Retirement System recover the assets it lost when stock markets plunged earlier this year in response to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Credit: Spencer Platt

Credit: Spencer Platt

Stock market’s rebound produces a healthier teacher pension system

Thanks to the coronavirus, it’s been a tough year for the state’s finances, including a cut of nearly $1 billion in funding for k-12 education. But there’s now some good news for teachers: Their pension system has bounced back.

In the early days of the pandemic — we’re talking March — the state’s Teacher Retirement System was hardly asymptomatic. As stock markets took a virus-fueled plunge, the TRS saw its assets drop from $83 billion at the end of 2019 to $65 billion.

“There was a sick feeling in my stomach,” TRS Executive Director Buster Evans told his board this past week.

Evans is no longer in need of an antacid: The system ended fiscal 2020 on June 30 with its assets back up to $81 billion. Now, only a few weeks later, they total nearly $84 billion.

Along with the teachers and retired educators, taxpayers should be happy. The pensions are funded through a combination of employee contributions, money from taxpayers and investments. And when the TRS sees its assets drop, that could force the state to pay hundreds of millions of dollars extra in a year to shore up the pension’s finances. For example, a few years ago, the state had to boost taxpayer payments into the system by about $600 million, eating up much of the new tax revenue that had come in during 2017 and 2018.

State sees rise in abortions for second straight year

Abortions increased in Georgia in 2019 by more than 2,100 — in excess of 7% — according to the state Department of Public Health.

It marked the second year in a row that the state saw a rise in abortions.

State records, published in the DPH’s vital statistics database, show 30,656 abortions were performed in 2019 at a rate of 9.2 abortions per 1,000 females between the ages of 10 and 55. That’s an increase of 2,122 over the 28,544 abortions performed in 2018, at a rate of 8.6 abortions per 1,000 females. That was an increase of almost 4% over 2017.

The number of abortions performed in Georgia has trended downward over about 25 years, but a similar spike appeared in 2016, when the number of procedures jumped by nearly 3,000.

The abortion count has dropped by nearly 8.5% since 1994, which experts credit to increased access to various forms of birth control.

The number of births also increased slightly in Georgia, from 126,051 in 2018 to 26,250 in 2019.

“We know this process is flawed and it needs extra work.”

- State Sen. Gloria Butler, speaking about the method Democrats used to choose a candidate to replace the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis on November's ballot. State law required Democrats to decide by 4 p.m. the next business day whether they wanted to pick a new candidate or leave Lewis' name on the ballot. Because Lewis died July 17, a Friday, Democrats had the weekend to choose. But if Lewis had died on July 16, they would have had to make their decision by July 17. The way the law is written was also problematic for Democrats, who didn't know whether they had to pick a new candidate by that deadline or just decide that a replacement would be found for Lewis. To be safe, they chose to go ahead and name state Sen. Nikema Williams, the state party's chairwoman, as Lewis' successor. Butler said Democrats will push for changes to the statute when the Legislature returns in January for its 2021 session.

Stat of the week: $880 million

That’s the total the state of Georgia incurred in costs related to COVID-19 through June 30.

The number came out in a report to the federal government, which is picking up the tab through the CARES Act that Congress passed in March.

About 40% of the expenses involve funding that will go to local communities to meet the challenges of the pandemic. That money has yet to be allocated.

The state said nearly $400 million in costs were incurred during the first four months of the pandemic to cover medical and public health expenses. That figure includes expanding bed capacity, boosting medical staffing, accelerating testing, and acquiring masks and other equipment.

About $5 million was spent in areas such as improving teleworking capabilities of public employees and distance learning. Tens of thousands of state employees started working from home in March, a move that could save the government money in the long run.

A more detailed accounting will be filed in September.

Candidates, endorsements, etc.

— The Republican Jewish Coalition took the rare step of endorsing a candidate in a primary, throwing its support behind Dr. John Cowan in the 14th Congressional District runoff.

Executive Director Matt Brooks said in a press release that the result of that contest “is too great for us to stay on the sidelines.”

The coalition’s decision appears to be motivated not so much by Cowan as his opponent, Marjorie Taylor Greene. Brooks said in the press release that Greene “would take our party in the wrong direction.”

“Greene,” he said, “came to national attention for all the wrong reasons: repeatedly using offensive language in long online video diatribes, promoting bizarre political conspiracy theories, and refusing to admit a mistake after posing for photos smiling side by side with a long-time white supremacist leader.”

The coalition did not issue an endorsement in the state’s other Republican congressional runoff, in the 9th District. But it previously distanced itself from one of the two candidates in that race, state Rep. Matt Gurtler. Brooks told the Jewish Insider website that his organization would not back Gurtler or Greene if they advanced to the general election.

— Democrat Jon Ossoff gained the backing of U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California in his bid to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue. Harris also sent out a fundraising email in support of Ossoff.

— The anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List has endorsed Rich McCormick in the general election for Georgia’s 7th Congressional District.

— The Voter Protection Project, a liberal super PAC, is backing the Rev. Raphael Warnock in the U.S. Senate special election for Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s seat.

— Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, will hold a virtual fundraiser Monday. His featured guest will be Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who is considered a potential running mate.