Capitol Recap: Georgia to end federal payments to jobless of $300 a week

A roundup of news about politics and government in the Peach State

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Kemp says subsidies discourage unemployed from seeking work

Georgia in June will join a group of about a dozen Republican-led states in ending the $300 in weekly federal payments that have gone to jobless residents on top of their unemployment checks during the pandemic.

Gov. Brian Kemp said the payments are “hurting our productivity not only in Georgia, but around the country.”

The federal subsidies will halt in mid-to-late June. Federal law allows states to opt out of the program as early as June 12.

More than a dozen groups that advocate for state businesses — including the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the Georgia Farm Bureau and the Georgia Association of Manufacturers — sought an end to the payments.

The organizations say the extra $300 a week — added to weekly state benefits that top out at $365 — has discouraged unemployed people from looking for work at a time when businesses are desperate to make hires.

Kemp has repeatedly recounted conversations he’s had with business owners struggling to hire workers, particularly in logistics and lower-wage industries such as retail and food service.

“This is an issue I’m getting pounded on every day by our small business owners and many Georgians,” Kemp said, adding: “They need some help.”

Supporters say the extra benefits help blunt the impact of a downturn that disproportionately affected working mothers who have had to care for children unable to return to school during the pandemic.

Backing them up are studies that were conducted during the Trump administration of the $600 weekly payments made to unemployed workers at the beginning of the pandemic. They found that people who received extra benefits did not have a lower rate of return to the workforce.

Criticism of the payments picked up earlier this month after a disappointing federal jobs report.

Overall, in terms of the economy, Georgia is outperforming many other states. Its jobless rate was 4.5% in March, well below the national average of 6%, and Georgia’s labor force was close to an all-time high with nearly 5.2 million workers.

Georgia is still feeling effects from the pandemic, though. The state processed about 140,000 new jobless claims in March, far above pre-pandemic levels. The state Labor Department listed about 260,000 current openings, more than double the number of vacancies posted last summer.

Tax collections are up by $2.5 billion, pointing to strong economy

Georgia appears to be in much better financial shape than officials had feared it would be about a year ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic was threatening the state’s economy.

Gov. Brian Kemp’s office announced this past week that state tax collections over the first 10 months of the fiscal year were running about $2.5 billion ahead of the same period in the previous year.

The figures could change some because final income tax filings are due this month, but it looks like the state will finish the fiscal year on June 30 with a huge surplus.

Overall, collections through the first 10 months of the fiscal year have improved by 13.1%, with revenue from individual income taxes (up 15.8%) and net sales taxes (up 8.7%) leading the way.

April was a particularly strong month, topping the take from April 2020 by 52.4%.

It all points to continued strong growth in the economy since last summer as Georgia recovers from the pandemic slowdown.

That wasn’t expected back in June, when the General Assembly cut the budget by 10% because it feared tax collections would plunge in the midst of the pandemic.

Legislators had a sense things were getting better when they approved the state budget Gov. Brian Kemp signed this past week for fiscal 2022, which begins July 1. In addition to the steady climb in tax collections over the past year, the state is also receiving about $4.7 billion from the latest federal COVID-19 relief plan.

The new state spending plan backfills 60% of the cuts made to education and most state agencies, provides targeted raises and borrows more than $1 billion for construction projects.

Georgia isn’t the only state seeing a surge in revenue. The Urban Institute’s Tax Policy Center reports that state tax collections nationally showed solid growth in March. Naturally, some states are doing better than others. Collections are up over the past year in about two-thirds of the states, the center said.

Still, Georgia’s revenue figures are good news for Kemp, who is running for reelection next year. They may be even better news to the teachers who were promised raises by Kemp in 2018 when he first ran. The Republicans who run the General Assembly are also likely to be pleased because the extra money could possibly fund the kind of tax cuts GOP candidates traditionally like to feature in their campaigns.

Sounding a bit of caution is House Appropriations Chairman Terry England.

The Republican from Auburn said the gains may be short-lived, and he urged the state to be careful with any surplus.

England said the state will “be OK” this fiscal year, but he added: “I think that’s when the headwinds end up settling on us. I think we are going to all of a sudden wake up one morning and realize that inflation has hit.”

He added, “I don’t know that it goes negative, but I think you will see the pace (of growth) fall off significantly.”

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Search for chancellor suffers setback

The state Board of Regents pushed the reset button on its search for a new leader of the University System of Georgia following the exit of the company it had hired to head the process.

If no candidate is found by June 30 — when the current chancellor, Steve Wrigley, is scheduled to retire — the regents will name an acting chancellor to take the reins.

Parker Executive Search, the company that had been hired to conduct a national search for a new chancellor, wrote in an email to Wrigley last week that “misinformation throughout the search no longer allows us to fulfill our obligation, and it is with great disappointment we resign from the Chancellor search going forward.” The company offered no specifics in the email about the misinformation and said it would not publicly discuss its work.

It’s unclear how this setback affects the potential candidacy of former Gov. Sonny Perdue to become chancellor.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported in March that some members of the Board of Regents wanted to make Perdue chancellor. That quickly met resistance from many students and faculty who cited his lack of experience in higher education leadership. The AJC has reported there wasn’t yet enough support among the 19 regents to hand the post to Perdue, who was most recently secretary of agriculture in the Trump administration.

The anti-Perdue faction warns that such a highly political choice to run the state’s public campuses — one of the most influential and best-paid jobs in state government — could hinder the recruitment of top-notch applicants for some of the premier posts in the University System.

But Perdue supporters see this lull in the process as an opportunity to drum up more support among the regents for the former governor.

Credit: Steve Schaefer for the AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer for the AJC

Ossoff, Warnock take aim at ban on distribution of food, water to voters

Georgia Democratic U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock have both filed legislation to stop states from banning volunteers from handing out water or food to voters waiting in line.

The measures are a response to Georgia’s new voting law, which makes it a crime for volunteers and organizations to give out refreshments as they did during last year’s primary election, when lines in some areas lasted over three hours.

U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, filed similar legislation last month.

While the new state law restricts volunteers from distributing food and water, it allows poll workers to set up self-service water receptacles.

“This is about decency — basic decency. This is about the health and well-being of a senior citizen who’s being made to wait six hours in line to vote and allowing a volunteer to hand that senior citizen a bottle of water without facing up to a year in jail,” Ossoff said during a press conference on Zoom.

Ossoff, a member of the Senate Rules Committee, also tried to amend the For the People Act — a major overhaul sought by Democrats that would bring great changes to campaign finance rules and states’ redistricting processes — to include a provision that would block state bans on the distribution of food and water. But it failed on a 9-9 party-line vote in the committee.

Senators also voted that way on the full 800-page election bill.

Despite the tie vote, the overhaul isn’t necessarily finished. Under Senate rules, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., can still bring the bill to the Senate floor for consideration.

He has also indicated he could change the Senate’s filibuster rules to get to a vote for the legislation, since it’s highly unlikely that 10 Republicans would vote with Democrats to end an expected GOP filibuster of the bill.

Carter at center as drug bill runs into problems over bipartisanship

This past week, a drug problem was eclipsed by a history problem ... a voting history problem.

U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, was set to lead a bipartisan effort this past week to pass what was supposed to be a noncontroversial bill addressing opioid addiction.

But earlier this year, Carter had voted with many other Republicans to block the Electoral College votes of Pennsylvania for Joe Biden as president. Voting officials and the courts, through numerous cases, had already confirmed the results of the election and rejected the claims advanced by supporters of then-President Donald Trump that fraud and mismanagement had determined the outcome.

That didn’t seem too bipartisan to Democrats, who removed Carter as the leader on the bill.

Carter then voted against the bill, Politico’s Olivia Beavers reported, and many other Republicans — including Georgia’s seven other GOP members of the U.S. House — joined him in solidarity.

It then became a math problem. The final vote was 250-168, but that wasn’t enough to gain approval.

The measure was a “suspension bill,” meaning rules and procedures were suspended to streamline its passage. Under those conditions, to pass, a bill needs a two-thirds majority of the members present. It was 29 votes short.

“My GOP colleagues just voted against allowing new treatments for opioid use disorder because they weren’t named leaders on the bill,” U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pennsylvania, wrote on Twitter after the vote. “They voted against certifying a fair election after an insurrection because their guy didn’t win. What are they voting for? Their ego?”

Carter did not back down.

“Democrats chose partisan political games and their Trump Derangement Syndrome over advancing what should have been bipartisan legislation in a bipartisan way,” Carter wrote on Twitter. “I refuse to apologize for standing up for my values and I’ll never stop fighting to make sure hardworking Georgians are heard on the floor of the House.”

Clyde: U.S. Capitol riot not an ‘insurrection’

Republican U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde of Athens, speaking at a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on the Jan. 6 riot on the Capitol, found fault with descriptions of the event as an “insurrection.”

Nearly 500 people have been arrested and charged with breaching the Capitol or other related crimes that day after hundreds of people marched from a rally supporting Donald Trump to the Capitol, where Congress was in the process of confirming the Electoral College vote to elect Joe Biden as president.

Many forced their way past law enforcement and into the Capitol, and four people in the crowd died, including a Georgia woman who was crushed and another woman who was shot by police.

Clyde, though, said it all could have easily been mistaken as tourism.

“To call it an insurrection, in my opinion, is a bold-faced lie,” Clyde said. “Watching the TV footage of those who entered the Capitol and walked through Statuary Hall showed people in an orderly fashion staying between the stanchions and ropes taking videos and pictures. You know, if you didn’t know the TV footage was a video from Jan. 6, you’d actually think it was a normal tourist visit.”

Clyde did acknowledge that “there was an undisciplined mob, there were some rioters and some who committed acts of vandalism.” He even said he helped barricade the door to the House chambers.

The congressman’s comments drew some attention, including that of Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a fellow Republican, but one with a different view on the riot.

“Hard to believe any elected official could be this oblivious to reality,” Duncan wrote on Twitter. “It’s this type of blind ignorance that got our party into this mess to start with.”

Candidates, endorsements, etc.

— After weighing a run for the U.S. Senate against Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr launched a campaign to hold onto his current job. Two Democrats are already running to challenge the Republican: former prosecutor Charlie Bailey, whom Carr beat in a close election 2018, and state Sen. Jen Jordan, a suburban Atlanta lawyer.

— Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock’s bid for reelection next year gained support from a left-leaning coalition, End Citizens United and Let America Vote. Each group praised Warnock’s decision to not accept funding from corporate political action committees. The coalition’s president also singled out Warnock’s support for anti-corruption measures and the For the People Act election bill.