Capitol Recap: Georgia delays spending on COVID-19 relief funds

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Cities, counties, others given more time to work on proposals

Gov. Brian Kemp had planned to announce next month who would be receiving shares of the $4.8 billion that Congress voted to send Georgia’s way in COVID-19 relief money.

That will now have to wait until early next year.

Cities, counties, businesses and nonprofits needed more time to draw up their proposals for grants that would fund broadband expansion, water and sewer projects, and programs to aid Georgians and businesses.

So the state pushed back the application deadline from this past Monday to the end of October.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, sees benefits in the delay, saying it could help the state deal with two problems: finding both workers and materials for the types of projects that would receive funding.

Georgia’s unemployment rate was 3.7% in July, nearly the same as what it was the month the pandemic shutdown began, and businesses have reported having trouble finding workers.

“At the time this (relief bill) was passed, I understand we were really concerned about people being able to find jobs,” Tillery said. “That is not our problem now. The supply chain is the problem.”

The money, part of the $1.9 trillion relief package that President Joe Biden signed in March, can be used broadly for COVID-19 response. The means it could be used to make direct payments to Georgians, provide aid to small businesses, give extra pay to “essential workers,” fund job training and placement services, assist hard-hit areas of the economy such as the hospitality and travel industries, and pay for infrastructure projects.

Kemp appointed Tillery, other legislators and state officials to serve on three committees to study applications for the funding. The governor will then make the final decisions on the grants.

Redistricting process will remain same as it ever was

Legislators held 11 public hearings across the state this summer before choosing how to redraw the lines that form Georgia’s congressional and legislative districts.

Here’s what they came up with: Do it the same way as last time.

Legislative committees this past week voted to go with essentially the same guidelines they used 10 years ago to draw districts with similar populations based on recently released census numbers.

But there are many ways to draw a map, and the key to the process is who’s holding the crayons.

That’s why many of those who attended this summer’s hearings called for greater transparency in the process.

But, as was done before, Georgia’s new political maps will be drawn in secret, only to become public once they are submitted to redistricting committees, according to the guidelines that legislators put in place this past week.

A decade ago, that meant the public didn’t see state district maps until the Friday before the General Assembly opened its special session for redistricting. It was two more weeks, midway through the session, before an initial viewing of the congressional maps.

That’s something Susanna Scott, president of the League of Women Voters of Georgia, doesn’t want to see happen again.

“Georgians have a right to know how and why these decisions are being made,” she said. “We have the right to see proposed maps and be given sufficient time to provide input before the maps are written into law.”

The new(old) guidelines also suggest — with no obligation — that lawmakers:

  • Consider boundaries of counties and communities, with an idea of keeping areas unified. (Majority parties often divide cities to water down opponents’ strongholds while maintaining their own edge in elections.)
  • Avoid pairing incumbent legislators in the same district.
  • Announce committee meetings to the public at least 24 hours in advance.

Court action on Texas anti-abortion law turns spotlight on Georgia case

Georgia advocates on both sides of the issue of abortion responded strongly after the U.S. Supreme Court this past week allowed a restrictive law from Texas to take effect.

Those who oppose abortion say the high court’s decision signals that it’s ready to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that established a constitutional, nationwide right to abortion.

Supporters of abortion rights vowed to keep fighting.

The Texas law is similar to a statute the Georgia General Assembly passed in 2019 that will get a hearing later this month in a federal appellate court after a U.S. district judge struck it down last year. Both would ban most abortions once fetal cardiac activity can be detected — usually about six weeks into a pregnancy and before many women know they’re pregnant.

Georgia’s law also includes what many supporters call “personhood” language, which would extend legal rights to fertilized eggs.

The Texas law allows private citizens to sue anyone involved in facilitating abortions. That would include, for example, anyone who drives a woman to a clinic in Texas to get an abortion. Under the law, anyone who successfully sues another person in that situation would be entitled to at least $10,000.

The high court’s decision not to intervene in the Texas case follows an announcement earlier this year that it will consider ruling on a restrictive anti-abortion law out of Mississippi, blocked by lower courts, that would outlaw most abortions once a woman reaches 15 weeks of pregnancy.

Joshua Edmonds, the executive director of the anti-abortion Georgia Life Alliance, said the court’s action on the Texas law indicates the “inevitable outcome” of the cases in Georgia and Mississippi.

“States are going to be given the right to have a compelling interest to regulate abortion,” Edmonds said. “And the mechanism to do so is going to be through Georgia’s ‘heartbeat bill.’ "

Staci Fox, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Southeast Advocates, called the Supreme Court “irresponsible” for not acting before Texas’ law took effect. (A day later, justices voted 5-4 to not block the law.)

“We’re in the streets today to remind people about this issue and that abortion is safe and legal and available in the state of Georgia, given how confusing this can be for people who need care,” she said. “It’s a sad day, but today I woke up mad. I’m past sadness. This is why we go to work every day. We’re not backing down from a fight.”

The case challenging the Georgia law will be heard in a federal appeals court on Sept. 24.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Experts: There’s no easy solution for crime

Republicans have seized on crime — particularly Atlanta’s rising homicide rate — as a key issue in their strategy for the 2022 elections.

But it’s a problem with many causes and no easy fix, experts told a legislative panel.

“There’s just no way to tell exactly why it’s hitting the way it’s hitting,” Pete Skandalakis, director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, told the state House Public Safety Committee. “You can’t blame it all on the pandemic. You can’t blame it all on guns. You can’t blame it all on the criminal justice system. You can’t blame it on the police. You can’t even blame it all the riots that occurred out west or even in the city of Atlanta. There’s no one cause that causes a surge in crime rates.”

Violent crime hit historic levels in Atlanta in 2020, when authorities investigated 157 homicide cases — the most in more than two decades. It hasn’t gotten any better this year. Through June, homicides had increased in the city by more than 50% and shootings were up by 40% compared with the same time period in 2020.

The response has been multifaceted:

  • Gov. Brian Kemp has called on the Legislature to pass policies aimed at curbing crime during a special legislative session already planned for this fall.
  • Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms created an office of violence reduction, and she also announced plans to invest $70 million to develop and implement strategies to address crime.
  • The Georgia Department of Public Safety earlier this year created a “crime suppression unit,” with 10 officers focusing on the Atlanta area.

Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant was among those who told the panel that more police and greater visibility will help reduce crime to a point.

“We must all be mindful that we will not be able to police our way out of this. We will not be able to lock up enough folks, regardless of how many police officers we have,” Bryant said. “But having a police presence does have an effect on both the perception of crime plus the ability for an individual to commit a crime.”

Adrienne Penake, a volunteer with the gun control organization Moms Demand Action, encouraged lawmakers to also invest in grassroots anti-crime organizations to try to head off gun violence, saying such programs “already have successful relationships in their local communities.”

But that idea met some resistance from state Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, who focused on boosting police forces.

A lack of police “is what creates anarchy,” Powell said, “and that’s what we need to be dealing with at this time.”

House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan have their own ideas. They both involve money.

Ralston wants to boost criminal justice funding by $75 million next year.

Duncan has proposed creating a $250 million tax credit for Georgians who donate directly to local police departments or sheriff’s offices.

Big names in the GOP start taking sides in Senate race

Herschel Walker got the Heisman Trophy of Republican endorsements this past week, but one of his GOP opponents in the state’s U.S. Senate race rolled out a team of high-profile supporters within the party at a rally in northeast Georgia.

Hundreds turned out at Gary Black’s farm in Commerce to hear former U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde and Public Service Commissioner Bubba McDonald pledge their support for the state’s agriculture commissioner in his campaign to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock.

Collins opened the event, saying: “We need people who have the integrity Gary Black has. I don’t care who else is running — I’m supporting Gary Black.”

The former congressman’s support for Black is significant because it marks a rare break from former President Donald Trump, who later in the week formally endorsed Walker’s candidacy after first encouraging the former University of Georgia football star to run.

Trump’s support is why Walker is considered the front-runner on the GOP side of the race and why some polls have shown him running neck-and-neck with Warnock.

It’s also why other big names have shown an interest in Walker’s campaign, including Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, who turned out this past week at a fundraiser for the former running back.

Because Walker had been expected for months to enter the race, most of Georgia’s top Republicans chose to wait on the sidelines until he made that official late last month.

Former Gov. Nathan Deal was one of the few to take sides beforehand, backing Black.

But when he spoke at Black’s gathering, Deal offered a message for all Georgia Republicans, telling them they will have to work hard to beat Warnock.

“Can any of you logically explain to me, or anybody else, why the state of Georgia, which in my opinion is still a red state, has two Democrats in the U.S. Senate?” Deal said. “One of the reasons is we got outworked. We took things for granted. This is the wake-up time when you cannot take anything for granted.”

Loeffler group launches search for new voters in Atlanta exurbs

Former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s Greater Georgia has set its sights on Atlanta’s northern exurbs in search of voters.

The group is spending big — in the six figures — on a “Red Belt Blitz” in Bartow, Cherokee, Floyd, Forsyth and Hall counties. The goal is to motivate 100,000 additional conservative voters ahead of the 2022 election.

“It’s an unprecedented effort we haven’t had on our side,” Loeffler said. “We’ve seen the left out register us in the 2020 cycle. That’s why it’s important for us to put our resources and efforts toward this new voter registration effort.”

The five counties could be rich territory, especially Forsyth. New census figures show it grew by 43% over the past decade, making it one of the fastest-growing large counties in the nation.

Candidates, endorsements, etc.:

Derrick Wilson, an insurance adjuster from Gwinnett County, launched his campaign for state insurance commissioner. He becomes the second Wilson to enter the race, following state Rep. Matthew Wilson, a Democrat from Brookhaven.

— Gov. Brian Kemp released a list of 87 members of the Georgia House and 30 state senators who are backing his re-election campaign.

Most notable may be the Republican legislators not on the list, including state Sens. Brandon Beach and Burt Jones. Both supported an unsuccessful effort earlier this year to pressure Kemp into calling a special session of the Legislature to overturn the results of the state’s presidential election in favor of former President Trump.

House Speaker David Ralston also was not on the list, but the Kemp campaign expressed hope that the speaker will endorse the governor at a later date.

— Former President Donald Trump is backing state Sen. Burt Jones, a Republican from Jackson, in the lieutenant governor’s race.

— Three former Cobb County GOP chairs — Scott Johnson, Jason Shepherd and Rose Wing — are throwing their support behind Jake Evans, a Republican running in the 6th Congressional District.

— Stacey Abrams is backing Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath of Marietta in her reelection bid in the 6th Congressional District.