Subcommittee to also focus on DA Fani Willis
A new Georgia Senate subcommittee will investigate dangerous conditions at the Fulton County Jail, where 10 inmates have died so far this year.
Hearings begin as early as November.
The subcommittee is also expected to focus some of its attention on Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis, whom some Senate Republicans seek to punish after she launched an election interference investigation that led to an indictment against Donald Trump and 18 others.
Willis will likely face scrutiny over her use of resources and strategy in addressing an enormous backlog of cases that grew worse during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The DA is required by Georgia law to have a grand jury inspect the sanitary condition of the jail and the treatment of inmates, and it isn’t clear she’s carried out that duty,” said state Sen. Jason Anavitarte, one of the chamber’s top Republicans. “She did find time and resources to pursue politically chosen cases when the jail has been deteriorating, resulting in deaths.”
But officials say Willis won’t be the sole subject of the investigation.
“We don’t know the root cause of the challenges, so anything would be premature at this point. We will follow the facts,” said state Sen. John Albers, who will head the subcommittee with state Sen. Randy Robertson. “This issue is the conditions and deaths at the jail.”
The jail’s troubles have been many.
More than 60 people who were held at the jail or other facilities operated or leased by Fulton County have died since 2009, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation.
The U.S. Justice Department is also investigating conditions inside the jail, citing the Sept. 13 death of a homeless and mentally ill man in the lockup’s psychiatric wing.
Fulton Sheriff Pat Labat has called the jail’s conditions a “humanitarian crisis.” He’s talked about inmates using crumbling walls to make weapons and cited “long-standing, dangerous overcrowding” in demonstrating a need for a replacement facility.
The county has tentatively approved a new 4,500-bed jail at an estimated cost of roughly $1.7 billion.
Film industry seeks preservation of lucrative tax credit
Citing billions of dollars in economic impact, representatives from Georgia’s growing film industry urged lawmakers this past week to continue funding what is thought to be the most lucrative tax credit for movie and television projects in the country.
The tax credit of about $1 billion a year is working for the film industry, but it’s also producing tens of thousands of jobs in the state, they told members of a state House-Senate study committee.
“The future of this business is in your hands,” said Gray Television CEO Hilton Howell, whose company turned the former General Motors plant in Doraville into Assembly Studios. “Don’t lose what you’ve got. You’re winning.”
The committee is examining the effectiveness of dozens of state tax breaks, trying to determine whether they should be eliminated, reduced or expanded.
The film tax credit draws a lot of attention as one of the state’s largest tax breaks.
Filmmakers said they expect their production facilities to continue to grow, and they came armed with big numbers:
- $4.4 billion in direct spending last that was tied to movie and television projects in the state, according to a report compiled by the Georgia State University Creative Media Industries Institute.
- Nearly 60,000 direct and indirect jobs are linked to film and television productions in Georgia, according to Olsberg SPI, a London-based consulting firm that works with the industry.
That could all go away, though, said Frank Patterson, president of the massive Trilith Studios in Fayette County.
“These dollars would not have been invested without the tax credit,” he said.
Some, however, question whether it’s the best way for the state to spend its money.
Earlier this year, then-state fiscal economist Jeffrey Dorfman told the study committee that continuing huge tax breaks for “mature industries,” such as Georgia’s film industry, makes less sense and that the state “should be looking to shrink or end those credits.”
The film tax credit is popular at the Capitol, though, and leaders aren’t talking about doing away with it. Some, however, would like to contain it.
For instance, Senate Finance Committee Chair Hufstetler — who’s also a co-chair of the study committee — proposed putting a $900 million-a-year cap on the credit. But Senate leaders, under pressure from industry lobbyists, backed away from that proposal after it passed Hufstetler’s committee near the end of the 2022 session.
The state Department of Audits and Accounts plans to put out a new review of the film tax credit program by the end of the year.
Credit: Fulton County Sheriff's Office
Credit: Fulton County Sheriff's Office
Georgia GOP’s legal expenses continue to grow in defense of Trump electors
Legal bills are piling up for the Georgia Republican Party in its support of defendants in an elector scheme that was part of a larger effort to overturn the state’s presidential election in 2020.
Federal reports show the state GOP spent about $350,000 in July and August on legal fees, much of it to defend 16 Georgians who submitted documents to state and federal authorities claiming to be “duly elected” to cast the state’s votes in the Electoral College for then-President Donald Trump, even though he had lost to Democrat Joe Biden.
Three of them — former Georgia Republican Chair David Shafer, state Sen. Shawn Still and former Coffee County GOP Chair Cathy Latham — were among 19 people indicted by a Fulton County grand jury, including Trump, as participants in a “criminal enterprise” to reverse the results of the presidential election.
Shafer’s attorneys have cited the actions of Hawaii Democrats during the tight 1960 presidential election as a historic precedent. They’ve also argued the electors were following legal advice and were acting as federal officials as they cast their votes.
In all, the Georgia GOP has spent more than $1 million on legal fees since the beginning of last year.
The spending has accelerated, with the state GOP paying more in attorney costs in July and August than it did in all of 2022. That comes after a report earlier this summer by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the party had spent more than $500,000 on legal fees in the first half of 2023.
It’s meant big business for some law firms. For example, federal records show Smith Gambrell & Russell, which is representing Still, recently received $200,000 from the state GOP.
The state party’s executive committee has agreed to cover the electors’ legal fees, something Shafer noted in announcing that he would not seek another term as chair.
The defendants, however, are seeking new ways to raise cash. Latham and Shafer have both pursued donations on the Christian-based crowdfunding site GiveSendGo. Shafer has collected nearly $30,000, and Latham has pulled in more than $21,000.
Meanwhile, Shafer’s successor as party chair, former state Sen. Joshua McKoon, is courting donors to help with the defense.
“We will fight against those who want to destroy the legal system that has been the envy of western democratic governments in service of their personal political agenda,” McKoon’s recent fundraising appeal stated.
Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC
Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC
Kemp group’s ad campaign paves way for new fight over tort laws
An overhaul of the state’s tort laws — aimed at curbing “frivolous lawsuits” and limiting jury awards — could be coming when the General Assembly returns in January.
A group linked to Gov. Brian Kemp this past week unveiled an initial six-figure media campaign that includes digital ads warning Georgians about “senseless regulations that drive up insurance prices.”
“We need to reform these laws to reduce prices, to restore fairness in our court system and to bring more jobs to our communities,” says an ad financed by the Hardworking Georgians PAC that the governor’s allies established in the runup to his 2022 reelection campaign.
Kemp first drew a bead on the tort system during a speech in August at the annual meeting of the Georgia Chamber, where he vowed to reshape regulations guiding plaintiffs’ litigation.
The governor’s advisers say he’ll play a direct role in crafting tort legislation during the upcoming session.
Republicans made rewriting the state’s rules for litigation a top priority when they took power at the Georgia Capitol nearly two decades ago. Kemp was in the Georgia Senate at the time.
Tort legislation that then-Gov. Sonny Perdue signed into law in 2005 capped medical malpractice pain-and-suffering awards at $350,000, added tougher standards for expert witnesses in malpractice trials and offered incentives for patients to settle out of court.
Doctors and hospitals backed the measures, saying they would help lure more physicians to Georgia. It’s unclear what impact it had in that regard. Business lobbies also supported them, believing they would lead to speedier out-of-court settlements.
Opposition came from trial lawyers and patient advocacy groups that said limiting damage awards puts an arbitrary price on a victim’s life. They often described the legislation as a giveaway to the insurance industry and powerful corporations.
Since then, the courts have chipped away at the overhaul.
In 2010, for example, the Georgia Supreme Court struck down the $350,000 cap.
Kemp and his advisers say they’re ready for a new fight. Like last time, they’ll have key business groups and the insurance industry at their side.
“For too long, Georgia tort laws have encouraged frivolous lawsuits that hamstring job creators, drive up insurance costs for families already struggling to make ends meet” and make it harder for businesses to grow, Kemp adviser Cody Hall said.
They will face familiar foes in the form of trial lawyers, judicial advocacy groups and Democrats who have long opposed efforts to make it harder to bring litigation and limit big jury awards.
State promotes voter registration program for victims of domestic violence
Georgia election officials are urging victims of domestic violence to register to vote without having to publicly reveal where they live.
The VoteSafe program keeps victims’ residential addresses confidential — an exception to a state law that requires the public availability of names and addresses of registered voters. Under the program, mailing addresses remain public.
While it was approved by the General Assembly in 2009, only about 100 people currently take advantage of VoteSafe, according to the secretary of state’s office.
The State Election Board encouraged people threatened by domestic violence or stalking to enroll in VoteSafe after considering a complaint in August that questioned the registrations of voters who listed UPS stores or post office boxes as their addresses.
Georgians shouldn’t have to choose between their right to vote and their personal security, board member Matt Mashburn said.
“One of the responses we received was particularly heartbreaking because this person responded, ‘I use this UPS box, not for purposes of fraud, but because someone wants to kill me,’ " Mashburn said.
Votesafe is available to registered voters who have a protective order, a restraining order or are residents of a family violence center. Georgians can apply to the program through their county’s election office.
Georgia Medicaid program wins award with help of math error
Sometimes it’s worth it to run those numbers a second time.
The Georgia Pathways program, a Medicaid waiver that Gov. Brian Kemp sought to cover certain low-income adult Georgians, has won a Spotlight Award from the National Association of Medicaid Directors.
In presenting the award, the association praised the state’s persistence through years of legal fights to establish the program it said is “projected to provide Medicaid coverage to approximately 300,000 individuals.”
The Medicaid directors got their math wrong. State officials say that when the program reaches full enrollment, it will serve about 90,000 enrollees.
The state expects Georgia Pathways to offer about 300,000 uninsured adults a “pathway” to coverage under certain requirements, such as working 80 hours per month or performing other eligible activities. But it also predicts that most of those adults will not be able or willing to take that pathway, leaving more than 200,000 people uninsured.
The goal of 90,000 insured won’t be reached until 2025, according to state forecasts.
As of now, there’s only one piece of hard data on the program: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in the first month since the program’s launch on July 1, enrollment was at 265.
Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC
Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC
Warnock urges Supreme Court to preserve consumer protection agency
That’s how many complaints the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has fielded from Georgia since its creation in 2011, according to U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock’s office.
Whether more could come in the future is now in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments this past week in a case that could threaten the bureau’s existence.
The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the agency’s funding is unconstitutional because it receives its money from the Federal Reserve — which, in turn, is funded by bank fees — instead of through annual appropriations approved by Congress.
Warnock, who chairs the Senate Banking Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Protection, said in a statement that he is hopeful the Supreme Court will allow the agency to continue operating as it does currently.
“I urge the Supreme Court to uphold decades of legal precedent and do the right thing by ensuring the government can maintain its vital role in protecting the American people from profit-hungry corporations,” Warnock said. “Our government has an important role to play in making sure that companies don’t rip off everyday Georgians and Americans.”
If the high court rules against the bureau, it could affect several other agencies that operate without the funding of annual appropriations, including the Federal Reserve; the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which protects bank depositors; the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency; and the U.S. Mint.