Capitol Recap: Georgia economist predicts healthy spending will follow pandemic’s demise

Prosperity linked to vaccinations

What will it take to get Georgia’s economy to make healthy gains? A shot in many arms.

Jeffrey Dorfman, the state’s fiscal economist, told lawmakers this past week that Georgia’s economy is prepared for takeoff once the coronavirus pandemic is under control.

The conditions are right for a strong recovery from the COVID-19 recession because many consumers have watched their wallets grow fatter.

Savings rates have climbed since the pandemic set in, rising from about 7% or 8% to 12% or 13%. Credit scores have also ascended while credit card debt has declined, said Dorfman, an economist at the University of Georgia.

“We have never had a recession before when people had more money to spend,” Dorfman told lawmakers who were beginning their review of Gov. Brian Kemp’s $27.2 billion budget proposal.

Georgia has held up well, so far. States across the country had expected massive shortfalls because of the recession, but Georgia has seen its tax collections rise, rather than fall, in large part because of massive federal spending on the unemployed and businesses.

The job market has suffered, though.

The state had 123,000 fewer jobs in November than it did the same month a year before, Dorfman said.

But even that wasn’t quite as bad as it first sounds. Many of those lost jobs, Dorfman said, were part-time positions held by students or parents, including some who had to spend more time at home with their children because of the pandemic.

“Really, our labor market is about as fully recovered as it can be until the pandemic is over,” he said.

But prosperity will only come once vaccinations hit a critical level, and Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey said that — at the current rate of vaccine distribution to the state — is “going to take many, many months.”

The state currently receives about 80,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine per week, Toomey said, well short of the millions needed to achieve herd immunity. Worse, yet, is the uncertainty about the shipments, she said, although she’s hoping that might improve with a change in administrations in Washington.

“We literally don’t know week to week what our allocation will be,” she said Tuesday, the day before President Joe Biden took office. “There’s some disconnect between what we were told was coming and what actually is available.”

Absentee-ballot foe to head voting panel

When Georgia House Speaker David Ralston announced that he would appoint a special committee to look into election issues, he also came down firmly on the side of allowing no-excuse absentee voting to continue as is.

“Somebody’s going to have to make a real strong case to convince me” that change is necessary, he said.

Now, Ralston is giving somebody a good opportunity to make that case.

He picked state Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, to head that committee, and Fleming has made it clear he holds absentee ballots in low regard.

“If elections were like coastal cities, absentee balloting would be the shady part of town down near the docks you do not want to wander into because the chance of being shanghaied is significant,” Fleming wrote in December in an op-ed for The Augusta Chronicle. “Expect the Georgia Legislature to address that in our next session in January.”

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge, has named Democratic state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver of Decatur to lead the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Overview Committee. That makes her the only Democrat to hold any of the House's 41 chairmanships. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge, has named Democratic state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver of Decatur to lead the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Overview Committee. That makes her the only Democrat to hold any of the House's 41 chairmanships. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com

Bipartisanship creeps into House chair lineup

The Democratic sweep in this month’s U.S. Senate runoffs introduced more blue in Georgia’s political palette, but Republican red is still the dominant color at the Statehouse.

And, yet, a Democrat now possesses one of the 41 chairmanships in the Georgia House.

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver of Decatur is the new leader of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Overview Committee, a special House-Senate panel that does not handle legislation but is charged with oversight of MARTA.

The appointment is a realization of House Speaker David Ralston’s recent utterings about bipartisanship.

Oliver was a likely choice for the role for a number of reasons. First, she and the speaker have a healthy respect for each other’s abilities despite their differences in ideology.

But it’s also a matter of location, location, location.

Oliver lives in MARTA territory, something that can no longer be said for many Republicans in the House, given the GOP’s recent slips in Atlanta’s suburbs.

Ban sought on outside funding to run elections

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg gave millions of dollars to Georgia counties last year to help them run elections.

That won’t happen again if House Bill 62 gains passage.

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Joseph Gullett, a Republican from Dallas, said the money — given through the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which is funded by Zuckerberg and his wife, philanthropist Priscilla Chan — was helpful to the counties but also problematic.

”One role of government is to run elections, and I don’t think it’s appropriate to allow outside organizations to do it,” said Gullett, a former member of Paulding County’s elections board. “We want as little influence on elections as possible.”

The money in question went toward election staffing, hazard pay, absentee ballot postage costs, equipment, voter outreach and personal protective gear.

Much of it was spent in metro Atlanta.

The organization gave $9.4 million to DeKalb County, $6 million to Fulton County, $4.2 million to Gwinnett County, nearly $1.7 million to Douglas County and $765,000 to Cherokee County.

Dems seek restoration of voting rights for convicted felons

Georgians who have been convicted of a felony would see the restoration of their voting rights under a Democratic plan.

State Rep. Josh McLaurin of Atlanta said the current law is rooted in racism.

“Over 200,000 of our fellow citizens in Georgia are denied (voting rights) because of a racist policy that was enacted nearly 150 years ago,” McLaurin said. “After the Civil War, Georgia adopted a policy of disenfranchising people convicted of felonies as a strategy to exclude Black people from participating in democracy.”

Under the Georgia Constitution, those who have been convicted of a “felony involving moral turpitude” can’t be registered to vote until their sentences are completed — including the completion of any probation, parole and payment of any fines.

The problem is, it never defined “moral turpitude.” That left it to be interpreted by election officials, who have ruled that any felony conviction is appropriate for limiting voting rights.

Shortly before November’s election, the secretary of state’s office clarified its position, saying that those who have completed their sentences but still owe fees, court costs and restitution are eligible to vote.

The proposal faces long odds of passing this year. A bipartisan Senate panel in 2019 studied the possibility of reinstating the voting rights of some convicted felons — those who had not committed violent crimes — but Republican members chose not to pursue it.

Jones calls loss of chairmanship ‘petty politics’

State Sen. Burt Jones, who in the first days of the legislative session was stripped of his chairmanship of the chamber’s Insurance and Labor Committee, says what he lost is not as important as why it was taken away from him.

The lawmaker from Jackson was one of three Republican senators — the other two were Brandon Beach of Alpharetta and Matt Brass of Newnan — who lost key committee chairmanships after they aggressively promoted President Donald Trump’s false claims of widespread election fraud and pushed for overturning Joe Biden’s victory in the state.

In an interview with Oconee Radio Group’s Rahul Bali, Jackson called Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan cowardly in the way he demoted them.

“Instead of getting behind closed doors and talking through whatever issues he might have had with us,” Jones said, “(Duncan) just decided to get his ‘yes men’ on the committee, handpicked people on the committee, and to strip us of our chairmanships, I guess trying to publicly embarrass us maybe. I don’t know. But anyway, that’s a cowardly way and kind of petty politics. But that’s fine. That’s politics. I get it.”

Jones, who also said he really didn’t care that much about running the Insurance Committee, then suggested that a backlash could follow.

“What comes around goes around in this building,” he said.

Gwinnett Dems pressure election official to quit

Fifteen Democratic state legislators are calling on Gwinnett County Board of Elections Chair Alice O’Lenick to resign after she backed alterations to Georgia’s voting laws, including restricting no-excuse absentee voting and banning ballot drop boxes.

“They don’t have to change all of them, but they’ve got to change the major parts of them so that we at least have a shot at winning,” O’Lenick said at a Republican Party meeting.

In a letter, the county’s legislative delegation accused O’Lenick, a Republican appointee, of causing “irreparable harm” to her impartial duties of administering elections. They added that they could try to force her decision if she refuses.

“Please be advised that the Gwinnett state House and Senate delegations will take all actions necessary through local legislation to protect the right to vote of every citizen in Gwinnett County,” the lawmakers wrote.

O’Lenick, according to The Gwinnett Daily Post, said at the GOP meeting that only the “elderly and the infirm” should be allowed to vote by mail without giving a reason for the request.

She then repeated false claims of abuse of the voting system before saying that “ballot drop boxes have to go.”

O’Lenick has indicated that she is going nowhere.

Georgia's Department of Juvenile Justice and the state's Department of Corrections both report that low pay has contributed to high turnover rates among their guards. Gov. Brian Kemp is proposing 10% raises for the guards, which would be funded by not filling vacant positions.
Georgia's Department of Juvenile Justice and the state's Department of Corrections both report that low pay has contributed to high turnover rates among their guards. Gov. Brian Kemp is proposing 10% raises for the guards, which would be funded by not filling vacant positions.

Credit: Hédi Benyounes/Unsplash

Credit: Hédi Benyounes/Unsplash

Stat of the week: 97% turnover

Officials from the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice says 97% of their new corrections officers left the agency in fiscal 2020.

Juvenile Justice Commissioner Tyrone Oliver said the top reasons the exiting officers gave for leaving were low pay and benefits.

The state Department of Corrections cites the same problem in holding onto its guards.

To combat the problem, Gov. Brian Kemp’s budget proposes a 10% pay increase for guards from both departments.

If the General Assembly approves the plan, an entry-level corrections officer at an adult or juvenile detention center will see his or her pay jump from $27,936 to $30,730. The raises would take effect April 1.

Both departments would pay for the raises by not filling vacant positions.

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