Capitol Recap: Georgia leaders plan bonuses for state employees

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, from left, Gov. Brian Kemp and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan announced plans this past week to give $1,000 bonuses to state workers who make less than $80,000 a year. Kemp said the workers have worked "incredibly hard" as the state deals with the COVID-19 pandemic. “I believe we are doing our part to say ‘thank you for all you have done,’ " the governor said. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, from left, Gov. Brian Kemp and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan announced plans this past week to give $1,000 bonuses to state workers who make less than $80,000 a year. Kemp said the workers have worked "incredibly hard" as the state deals with the COVID-19 pandemic. “I believe we are doing our part to say ‘thank you for all you have done,’ " the governor said. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

$1,000 to thank workers during pandemic

Tens of thousands of state employees will surely want to thank Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, who announced plans this past week to give them $1,000 bonuses.

But they should also show a little gratitude to the federal government. That’s ultimately where the money is coming from.

The bonuses are similar to those Kemp announced last month for Georgia’s public school teachers.

They would go to the more than 57,000 state employees who earn less than $80,000 a year.

The money is coming directly or indirectly from the federal government, which has provided billions of dollars to schools and greatly increased funding for the state’s Medicaid program.

Because the feds are paying more for Medicaid, which provides health care to the poor and disabled, the state is spending less than expected, leaving money for the bonuses.

After the announcement this week, the University System of Georgia said it too would provide the bonuses to its 36,000 employees who make less than $80,000 a year.

Kemp said the bonuses are warranted because state employees “have worked incredibly hard despite the global pandemic.”

“I believe we are doing our part to say ‘thank you for all you have done,’ " the governor said.

Legislation proposed this past week would help the state ethics commission investigate cases involving issues like those raised in complaints against former Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine concerning the handling of leftover campaign donations. Oxendine's case, however, would not be affected if the measure passes.
Legislation proposed this past week would help the state ethics commission investigate cases involving issues like those raised in complaints against former Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine concerning the handling of leftover campaign donations. Oxendine's case, however, would not be affected if the measure passes.

Bill could assist in probing campaign finances

Legislation filed this past week would strengthen the state ethics commission’s hand in investigating campaign finance violations.

House Bill 333, sponsored by Judiciary Chairman Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, would:

  • Give the commission more time to make cases without the statute of limitations running out.
  • Make ex-candidates hold onto campaign bank records longer.
  • Clarify that candidates could not use campaign contributions to make personal loans to themselves or invest in their companies.
  • Mandate that candidates who collect money for primary and general election runoffs must return those contributions to donors if they fail to make the runoffs.

The legislation addresses issues raised by two ongoing, high-profile cases.

One involves former longtime Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, a onetime Republican front-runner in the 2010 gubernatorial race who has been fighting ethics charges for more than a decade.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in 2009 that Oxendine’s gubernatorial campaign accepted $120,000 in bundled contributions from two Georgia insurance companies. That led to an ongoing ethics complaint. Six years later, the AJC reported that Oxendine never returned more than $500,000 worth of leftover contributions from his gubernatorial bid and kept and spent money raised for Republican runoff and general election campaigns that he never ran because he lost in the GOP primary. Oxendine then amended his disclosures in October 2015 to show more than $700,000 left over, including $237,000 in loans to his law firm.

The other case involves former Republican state Senate leader Dan Balfour, who left office in 2015. The commission last year reopened what appeared to be a dead case against Balfour a week after the AJC reported it was being dismissed by the panel’s staff, despite the fact that the ex-Gwinnett County lawmaker hadn’t reported what happened to about $630,000 in leftover campaign money. By law, former politicians aren’t allowed to keep the money for personal use.

State’s revenue numbers remain rosy

Georgia lawmakers — amid fears about the COVID-19 recession — steeled themselves for big losses in revenue last year, when they cut spending by 10%.

But the money has continued to pour in — at least so far.

Through the first seven months of the fiscal year, state collections are up 6.3%, or just under $900 million.

January yielded another strong showing, even with a spike in COVID-19 cases, finishing 7.5% ahead of the same month in 2020.

Gov. Brian Kemp’s office reported that individual income tax collections were up 6.3% in January. Meanwhile, sales tax collections rose 8.8% and corporate income taxes climbed 51.2%.

The state gets most of its revenue to fund schools, roads, health care and other programs from income and sales taxes.

One thing affecting the income tax numbers was the lower amount paid out in refunds in January compared with January 2020. Budget writers expect those refunds to grow in coming months as the hundreds of thousands of Georgians who received unemployment benefits in 2020 begin filing their tax returns.

A man makes a sports bet at the Resorts casino in Atlantic City, N.J. Many states have legalized sports betting after a 2019 U.S. Supreme Court decision cleared the way. Bills are now working their way through the General Assembly to bring legalized sports betting to Georgia. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry, File)
A man makes a sports bet at the Resorts casino in Atlantic City, N.J. Many states have legalized sports betting after a 2019 U.S. Supreme Court decision cleared the way. Bills are now working their way through the General Assembly to bring legalized sports betting to Georgia. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry, File)

Credit: Wayne Parry

Credit: Wayne Parry

Prospects improve for legalizing sports betting

It’s becoming a safer wager that sports betting will be legalized in Georgia this session.

One measure, House Bill 86, has already cleared a panel in that chamber.

Now some high rollers in the Senate — President Pro Tem Butch Miller and Rules Committee Chairman Jeff Mullis — have introduced their own sports betting bill. Top Democrats Harold Jones and Elena Parent have also signed on, giving the effort that bipartisan feel.

Gambling supporters have for years pushed the Legislature to allow casinos or horse racing. But a new opportunity arose in 2019 with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to legalize sports betting, clearing the way for 20 or so states to embrace the idea.

Gambling supporters have perennially pushed the Legislature to allow casinos or horse racing. But a 2019 U.S. Supreme Court ruling opened an opportunity for states to legalize sports betting, clearing the way for 20 or so states to embrace the idea.

The Senate bill differs with the House version over how much the state would collect in taxes. Under the Senate bill, sports betting companies would pay the state a 10% tax on their income. The House bill calls for 14%, but an earlier iteration sought 16%.

Supporters maintain that a sports betting bill would not have to take the same route to approval as casino or horse racing legislation, which would require a constitutional amendment.

A constitutional amendment requires two-thirds approval in each chamber of the Legislature before it’s even placed on a ballot, leaving it to a majority of voters to decide.

The House’s legal staff said in 2019 that sports betting would require a constitutional amendment. Supporters disagree.

Any effort to expand gambling will face stiff resistance, though, from some conservative groups and religious leaders who say it is an immoral and addictive habit that breeds crime. Others question the rosy revenue predictions offered by supporters, especially as more states expand gambling and compete for customers.

Runoff set to fill state House seat

The race to fill a DeKalb County-based state House seat is now down to two contenders.

Stan Watson, a former state representative who also served as a DeKalb commissioner, will face public relations specialist Angela Moore in a runoff election March 9.

They were the two top vote-getters among six candidates in this past week’s special election to fill the House District 90 seat that opened up when state Rep. Pam Stephenson, D-Lithonia, resigned and withdrew her candidacy in September. Neither Watson nor Moore received a majority of the 3,000 some votes cast in the Democratic primary.

Watson has had his fair share of scandal while in public office, including pleading guilty in 2017 to receiving about $3,000 in advances for government trips and using the money for personal purposes. Watson, who repaid the money before he was charged with a crime, was sentenced to 12 months of probation and 150 hours of community service for a misdemeanor count of theft by conversion.

Moore was removed from the ballot in 2015 in a special election for Senate District 43 after an investigation determined she did not live in the district.

Since no Republican ran to represent the district, which includes portions of DeKalb, Henry and Rockdale counties, only Democrats could vie for the seat.

Legislation has been introduced to place a monument to former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller in the state Capitol. (BEN GRAY/STAFF)
Legislation has been introduced to place a monument to former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller in the state Capitol. (BEN GRAY/STAFF)

Bill would honor Miller’s memory at Capitol

A monument to Zell Miller could soon find a place in the state Capitol, a place few knew as well as Miller himself.

State Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Rock Spring, filed Senate Bill 140 to make way for the monument.

Miller, who died in 2018, began his political career as mayor of Young Harris, and he finished it as a U.S. senator. But in between, he was a state senator, a top staffer to Gov. Lester Maddox, a four-term lieutenant governor and a two-term governor.

Retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson could have a bridge near the Port of Savannah named in his honor if legislation proposed by Georgia House Speaker David Ralston wins passage. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson could have a bridge near the Port of Savannah named in his honor if legislation proposed by Georgia House Speaker David Ralston wins passage. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Ralston wants to name bridge after Isakson

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston is promoting the renaming of a bridge near the Port of Savannah as a way to honor retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.

Ralston filed House Resolution 119, which would direct the Georgia Department of Transportation to rename a bridge on Ga. 307 that crosses the Georgia Ports Authority mega rail site in Garden City.

Isakson, citing a need to focus on his health, retired from the Senate in 2019. He revealed in 2015 that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

In all, Isakson spent 43 years in public service, first winning election to the Georgia House in 1976. He entered the U.S. Senate in 2005.

Ralston had initially announced last year that he would seek to rename the Port of Savannah after Isakson.

A plan was announced this week to bring high-speed internet service to 80,000 homes and businesses in 18 Georgia counties. The project will cost more than $210 million and could be completed in four years.
A plan was announced this week to bring high-speed internet service to 80,000 homes and businesses in 18 Georgia counties. The project will cost more than $210 million and could be completed in four years.

Credit: Michael Bocchieri

Credit: Michael Bocchieri

Stat of the week: 507,000 homes, businesses lack adequate internet

About 11% of the state lacks adequate internet, according to a map of service gaps in Georgia, representing roughly 507,000 homes and businesses.

But two power companies, acting on legislation passed in 2019, announced plans this past week to cut into that bandwidth deficit by building high-speed internet lines to reach 80,000 homes and businesses across 18 counties in Middle Georgia.

Central Georgia EMC and Southern Rivers Energy, as early as this summer, could be offering fiber internet service with speeds up to 1 gigabit per second. The project is expected to be completed within four years.

The utilities, in partnership with a broadband company called Conexon, are taking advantage of a law the General Assembly approved two years ago allowing local electric membership corporations to offer broadband.

The Middle Georgia project will cost more than $210 million, including $135 million from Central Georgia EMC, $53 million from Southern Rivers Energy and $21.5 million from Conexon.

Lawmakers, especially Republicans from rural areas, have made the need to wire the state an issue for several years. That need has only grown as Georgians deal with the coronavirus pandemic, making online service even more essential to operate businesses, and provide health care and education.

“For rural Georgia to move forward, we had to have access to high-speed broadband,” said House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge. “Whether it is telemedicine, online learning or e-commerce, high-speed broadband is a critical infrastructure need.”

Gov. Brian Kemp has proposed that the state start funding internet expansion. He set aside $20 million for that purpose in his midyear budget recommendation, plus $10 million more for next year. The money would be awarded in the form of grants to rural communities. The House and Senate included the initial $20 million in the midyear budget they passed last week.

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