Capitol Recap: Georgia tax collections up $3.2 billion year over year

Gov. Brian Kemp, Georgia legislators and state officials will consider their options about what to do with a surplus after state tax collections during the past fiscal year exceeded the previous year's take by $3.2 billion. Nathan Posner for the Atlanta-Journal-Constitution
Caption
Gov. Brian Kemp, Georgia legislators and state officials will consider their options about what to do with a surplus after state tax collections during the past fiscal year exceeded the previous year's take by $3.2 billion. Nathan Posner for the Atlanta-Journal-Constitution

Credit: Nathan Posner

Credit: Nathan Posner

Surplus gives Kemp, legislators plenty to think about

What would you do with $3.2 billion?

That’s a question that will probably consume plenty of attention through the end of next year’s legislative session after the state reported that revenue increased by that amount during the fiscal year that ended June 30.

While some of us might use that money to make a dent in our student loan debt, Gov. Brian Kemp, state legislators and other officials will likely consider other options.

A tax cut is a strong possibility, given that Kemp and all 236 seats in the General Assembly will be up for election next year. It’s no secret that the Republicans who run the state Legislature like telling voters during the heat of a campaign that they reduced taxes.

Democrats have a few different ideas.

One, they’d like to see the state provide health care coverage to more Georgians.

They also have pushed for a boost in school spending, especially after the General Assembly in June 2020 cut the budget by 10% because it feared tax collections would plummet during the coronavirus pandemic shutdown.

We know now that tax collections took no such plunge, and legislators restored many of those cuts in the state spending plan for the fiscal year that began July 1. That budget, among other things, backfills 60% of the cuts made to education and most state agencies.

The surplus is a one-time windfall, so state officials are reluctant to approve any ideas such as expanding Medicaid that have annual, year-to-year costs attached to them.

Budget writers, including House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, would like to park some of that money in the state’s “rainy day” fund.

The state currently has about $2.7 billion in reserve to weather some sort of economic downpour. Legally, it can set aside up to 15% of the previous year’s revenue, which would bring the fund closer to $3.5 billion to $3.8 billion, depending on how you do the math.

England has also suggested using some of the money to fund future health care for retired teachers and state employees. He also raised the possibility of injecting cash into the state’s Employees Retirement System so it can afford cost-of-living raises for 50,000 retirees for the first time since 2008.

Another option, but not looking as good as it may have in the past, is a pay raise for teachers.

Back in 2018 during his first campaign for governor, Kemp promised the state’s teachers a $5,000 raise. He managed to get them $3,000 of that pay bump in 2019, but his push for the remainder was shelved during the pandemic.

Kemp was careful about his word choice when he was recently asked whether teachers can count on that $2,000 next year.

“Pay raises are certainly one of my top priorities,” the governor said. “But also you keep hearing talks about potential tax cuts. I campaigned on a military tax cut. So we’re starting those discussions now. That commitment for a teacher pay raise is still there. Whether we can do it in one year, two years, three years — we’ll have to see.”

Drop boxes were embraced by voters in Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties during the 2020 presidential election. Analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Georgia Public Broadcasting found that 56% of absentee voters in those counties — 305,000 out of 547,000 — returned their ballots in drop boxes. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)
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Drop boxes were embraced by voters in Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties during the 2020 presidential election. Analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Georgia Public Broadcasting found that 56% of absentee voters in those counties — 305,000 out of 547,000 — returned their ballots in drop boxes. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Drop boxes were popular option for Dems

Voters in the Democratic-leaning counties of metro Atlanta were far more likely to use a ballot drop box during the 2020 election than their counterparts in the Republican strongholds of rural Georgia.

New limits on the boxes are a key part of Senate Bill 202, the election law the Republican-led General Assembly produced earlier this year.

Analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Georgia Public Broadcasting found that 56% of absentee voters in Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties — 305,000 out of 547,000 — returned their ballots in drop boxes during November’s election. Similar data from 11 smaller counties across Georgia showed that 32% of absentee voters used drop boxes, with the U.S. Postal Service delivering the rest.

“The law seems that it was designed to limit options in the metro areas versus the rural areas,” said Amber McReynolds, CEO for the National Vote at Home Institute, an organization that advocates for voting access outside polling places. “Honestly, there’s no logic to it, other than to curtail a certain segment of the population from voting.”

Drop box restrictions have been one aspect of multiple lawsuits opposing SB 202, including one the U.S. Department of Justice filed challenging the law’s limits on absentee voting, saying restrictions create obstacles for Black voters who voted remotely at a higher rate than white voters.

Twenty-four states employ drop boxes, according to the National Vote at Home Institute. Georgia joined the group last year when the State Election Board approved their usage during the coronavirus pandemic.

While the boxes were installed to help stem the spread of COVID-19, Forsyth County Elections Director Mandi Smith points to another advantage they offered: the certainty of delivery that the Postal Service could not guarantee.

With drop boxes in place — even with a much-higher-than-usual volume of absentee ballots cast — the rate of ballots returned late declined, from 1.7% in 2018 to 0.3% in 2020.

In Georgia, 124 of 159 counties used the boxes, which had to be installed on government property and were under video surveillance 24 hours a day.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, a supporter of SB 202, said the new law explicitly allows drop boxes by statute for the first time, with requirements that ensure they’re kept secure inside polling places.

“There should have been some regulation and tightening rather than having drop boxes all over the place,” said Dugan, a Republican from Carrollton. “Even though it’s not as broad as it was during the emergency period, it still is there. It still exists and people can take advantage of it, or they can mail it from their house or go in and vote.”

While the new law allows the boxes, they must be located inside early voting sites, available only during in-person voting hours, and shut down when early voting ends the Friday before an election.

Every county is required to install at least one drop box, but no more than one for every 100,000 active registered voters. In metro Atlanta’s four core counties, that means that where there were 111 boxes last year, there will only be 23.

Citing that decline, Cobb Elections Director Janine Eveler said: “They are no longer useful. The limited numbers mean you cannot deploy them in significant numbers to reach the voting population.”

Double-counted votes in Fulton had no effect on 2020 outcome

Fulton County election workers scanned nearly 200 ballots twice ahead of a recount of November’s presidential election, but there’s no indication that any vote had been counted more than once in the official tally.

The discovery of the double-count was made by supporters of former President Donald Trump’s false claim that election fraud cost him victory in Georgia in November’s election. They are suing Fulton, seeking permission to inspect high-resolution images of 147,000 of the county’s absentee ballots. A judge ruled against them last month, but the case has been recast, with new claims filed against the county’s five election board members.

“The simple fact that it happened and we found it here means that it probably occurred elsewhere,” said David Cross, an investment manager working with the plaintiffs.

But election observers and organizations disagree, saying it’s unlikely that double-counting occurred often or in large numbers.

Democrat Joe Biden, who won Georgia by about 12,000 votes, would have gained 27 extra votes from the double-counted ballots. After a recount, Trump gained a total of 121 absentee votes in Fulton. Biden took the county with 73% of the 524,000 votes cast.

The double-counting is another black mark on Fulton’s reputation for election management.

“It’s Fulton failing to follow proper election protocols again,” said Carter Jones, an independent monitor of the county’s elections who found sloppy practices but no fraud. “Fulton is so poor at managing the actual process that if they had actually tried to rig the election, they would have bungled it and we would have found out.”

Georgia Senate Pro Tem Butch Miller was undeterred after former President Donald Trump announced that he would not endorse Miller's candidacy for lieutenant governor. “I’ve fought for election integrity, I’ve fought for conservative values, and you can be damn sure I’ll keep the fight going,” Miller said in a statement. “I’m confident that when Georgia voters get a chance to compare my conservative record and character to my opponents I’ll be in good shape.” (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Caption
Georgia Senate Pro Tem Butch Miller was undeterred after former President Donald Trump announced that he would not endorse Miller's candidacy for lieutenant governor. “I’ve fought for election integrity, I’ve fought for conservative values, and you can be damn sure I’ll keep the fight going,” Miller said in a statement. “I’m confident that when Georgia voters get a chance to compare my conservative record and character to my opponents I’ll be in good shape.” (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Trump won’t back Miller in lt. gov race

Former President Donald Trump got involved in Georgia’s race for lieutenant governor this past week by announcing what he would not do: back the candidacy of Butch Miller.

Trump said he will not “support or endorse” Miller, the president pro tem of the Georgia Senate.

In a press release, Trump said Miller had refused “to work with other Republican Senators on voter fraud and irregularities in the state.”

Miller has repeatedly shown support for the state’s new voting law that the Legislature passed following Trump’s false claims that voter fraud had cost him his reelection. Miller even took on a high-profile role in the process when he stepped in to preside over debate in the Senate when Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan refused to take part.

What Miller didn’t do is join other state Republican lawmakers who signed an amicus brief in support of a failed attempt by Texas officials to sue Georgia and other states to overturn their election results.

Miller was undeterred after Trump took his active inaction.

“I’ve fought for election integrity, I’ve fought for conservative values, and you can be damn sure I’ll keep the fight going,” Miller said in a statement. “I’m confident that when Georgia voters get a chance to compare my conservative record and character to my opponents I’ll be in good shape.”

Those opponents could include Republican state Sen. Burt Jones of Jackson, who did sign that amicus brief and met this spring with Trump at the former president’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.

Jones has not entered the race yet, although he’s expected to announce his candidacy in the coming weeks.

Republican activist Jeanne Seaver has announced that she is running for the office.

Two Democrats are also campaigning for lieutenant governor: state Rep. Erick Allen of Smyrna and state Rep. Derrick Jackson of Tyrone.

Republicans maintain grip on two House seats in runoffs

Republicans held serve in runoffs this past week for two seats in the state House.

That was a given in one race that pit two Republicans against each other in South Georgia, where Toombs County GOP Chair Leesa Hagan defeated car dealer Wally Sapp.

In Cobb County, Republican Devan Seabaugh took 63% of the vote to defeat Democrat Priscilla Smith.

The runoffs were required because no candidate received a majority of the vote in their special election races last month.

The contest in Cobb was seen by at least some as an early test ahead of next year’s elections. It even drew the attention of the nonprofit voting groups that Democrat Stacey Abrams and former Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler formed.

Both organizations — Abrams’ Fair Fight and Loeffler’s Greater Georgia — worked to get voters to the polls. Fair Fight financed digital ads opposing Seabaugh. Greater Georgia also ran digital ads, and it paid for polling.

However, the district has been solidly Republican for years, so winning it was always a long shot for Democrats.

Out-of-state donors give state GOP a boost

Campaign finance disclosures show Georgia’s Republican Party now has national pull, with out-of-state donors kicking in the most money.

The state GOP has raised $1.3 million since the beginning of January, and nearly $890,000 of it came from outside Georgia.

Big donors included the Alexandria, Virginia-based Palmetto Peach Fund ($202,000), House Republicans’ Take Back the House fund ($147,000), the Alabama Republican Party ($146,000) and South Carolina U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s fund ($70,000).

State Republicans reported having $1.9 million in the bank as of June 30, along with $543,000 in mostly long-term debts. The state party has carried a big debt for years, in part because of costs associated with a racial discrimination lawsuit that a former staffer filed.

The state Democratic Party lags behind in fundraising, taking in just $285,000 over the same reporting period. It has $587,000 on hand.

Candidates, endorsements, etc.:

— Gov. Brian Kemp formally launched his reelection campaign at the Georgia National Fairgrounds in Perry. Kemp, so far, faces one opponent in the GOP primary, former Democratic state Rep. Vernon Jones. No Democrat has entered the race yet.

— The contest in the 6th Congressional District got a little more crowded this past week, with two more Republicans joining the race to unseat the incumbent, Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath.

Meagan Hanson, a former state legislator from Sandy Springs, was the first of the two to announce a bid.

Jake Evans, the former head of Georgia’s ethics commission, then launched his campaign.

That makes four Republicans now running for the seat in Atlanta’s northern suburbs. Army veteran Harold Earls and activist Suzi Voyles entered the contest earlier. So did Eric Welsh, another Army veteran, although he recently ended his candidacy.

— In the 7th Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, D- Suwanee, raised $556,000 for the past quarter and has $1.1 million in cash on hand. Republican Rich McCormick, who lost a close race to Bourdeaux in 2020, collected $317,000 between April and June, and he has $447,000 in the bank.

— Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black’s campaign for the U.S. Senate gained the support of former Gov. Nathan Deal. Black is one of three Republicans, so far, trying to take back the seat that Democrat Raphael Warnock won in January. The others are both military veterans: Latham Saddler, who also worked in the Trump administration; and Kelvin King, the owner of a metro Atlanta construction company.