Capitol Recap: Get ready, Georgians, the money is coming

Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law the state's midyear budget this past week, paving the way for tax refunds, raises for state workers and University System of Georgia employees, and bonuses for public school educators. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law the state's midyear budget this past week, paving the way for tax refunds, raises for state workers and University System of Georgia employees, and bonuses for public school educators. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images/TNS)

Kemp signs midyear budget full of tax refunds, pay raises and bonuses

Taxpayers, you can start thinking about how you’re going to spend that money the state is sending your way now that Gov. Brian Kemp has signed into law Georgia’s $30.2 billion midyear budget.

State workers and University System of Georgia employees, you’ll be sitting on fatter wallets, too, thanks to pay raises of $5,000 or more.

K-12 employees, don’t fret. You have bonuses coming, with promises of a raise when the new fiscal year kicks in.

Taxpayers could see their money in six to eight weeks, when single filers will receive state income tax refunds of $250 and joint filers get $500.

The budget set aside $1.6 billion for the refunds, although the true cost is now expected to be closer to $1.1 billion.

Typically, the midyear budget updates the books, accounting for additional expenses tied to growing school enrollment and increased costs for Medicaid, the state-federal health care program for the poor, disabled and nursing care.

But Kemp, who is running for reelection this year, saw an opportunity to do more thanks to a rush of cash. First, the state saw a $3.7 billion surplus for the fiscal year that ended June 30, partly because of massive federal COVID-19 relief funding. Then tax collections continued to climb in the current fiscal year, running 16% ahead of last year for the first eight months.

So the governor proposed the tax refunds, as well as raises for state workers and university employees. State officials hope the extra pay will help stem the high turnover rate among state workers, including many who have seen little or no salary boost in recent years.

Turnover is at its worst in the Department of Corrections and the Department of Juvenile Justice — in the DJJ, the rate is about 90% — so officers in those agencies will see raises of $7,000.

Kemp also couldn’t forget k-12 teachers and other school staff who will receive $2,000 bonuses.

More money should be coming to teachers in the fiscal year that begins July 1. Kemp has proposed giving them $2,000 raises, allowing him to fulfill his 2018 campaign promise to up their pay by $5,000 during his first term.

State Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, speaks on behalf of a bill during Crossover Day on Tuesday at the Georgia Capitol. Legislators voted on more than 100 bills that day to meet a crucial deadline in the state's legislative process. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Lawmakers’ pay and elections among top bills to meet Crossover Day deadline

The General Assembly worked late into the night this past Tuesday, trying to beat the legislative deadline that is Crossover Day.

In all, they voted on more than 100 measures, including bills involving the legislators’ own pay and pensions, as well as election rules.

Bills generally have to win passage in at least one chamber by Crossover Day to have a chance of becoming law. It’s not an absolute death sentence, though — a measure could see new life if its language is inserted into another bill that got through one chamber.

The Senate cleared 45 bills; the House passed 60.

One of the big things House members did concerned lawmakers’ pay. But they want you to make the final decision.

House Resolution 842, which won passage on a vote of 136-33, would put a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot setting pay for legislators at 60% of the median household income of Georgians, starting in 2025.

If voters approve, lawmakers would never again have to vote on their own pay, which is always a bad look. Lawmakers currently receive $17,342 a year, although they’re in for a $5,000 raise in coming months. It was 2008 the last time they got a cost-of-living raise.

State Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, estimates that if HR 842 becomes law, legislators’ pay would rise to about $36,000. In Alabama, where a similar law basing legislator salary on median income is in effect, legislators receive more than $51,000.

The House also voted 151-17 to increase lawmakers’ pensions up to 38% while quadrupling what House Speaker David Ralston could receive.

House members also revisited elections, building on the overhaul the GOP-led General Assembly pushed through last year in Senate Bill 202 after Democrat Joe Biden narrowly defeated Republican Donald Trump in Georgia in 2020.

The new Republican-backed measure, House Bill 1464, would authorize the GBI to investigate voting fraud, allow public ballot inspections and restrict nonprofit donations to county election offices.

HB 1464 sparked a lot of opposition, including a coalition of organizations that launched a seven-figure ad campaign to remind Georgians that Kemp and his allies had promised they wouldn’t adopt more election-related measures this year after SB 202 stirred up so much controversy last year.

Georgia's medical marijuana program remains snagged in a dispute involving companies that were not awarded licenses to manufacture and distribute a low-THC cannabis oil for patients on a state register. The state House and Senate both approved bills on Crossover Day that attempt to move the licensing process forward. (BITA HONARVAR/SPECIAL)

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House, Senate go separate ways in trying to revive medical marijuana program

Lawmakers moved this past week to kick-start Georgia’s stalled medical marijuana program with the aim of enabling patients to finally be able to legally obtain the drug the state first allowed them to use in 2015.

But the legislators went in different directions.

Three years ago, the General Assembly passed a law to authorize six companies to sell a low-THC cannabis oil to the 20,000-plus patients on a state register to use the drug to treat severe seizures, Parkinson’s disease, terminal cancers, and other illnesses and conditions.

But the licensing process hit a snag after the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission tentatively approved six companies to manufacture and distribute the oil.

Sixteen other companies that were denied licenses filed complaints alleging that the process was unfair.

Without the General Assembly’s intervention, some have warned that the licensing process could take three years or more.

“I wish I could say that we’re in a good spot, but we’re not,” said state Rep. Bill Werkheiser, a Republican from Glennville. “If we do nothing, we’re in a bad position, and if we do something, it’s not so great either. But I think we’ve got something that will move the process forward.”

Werkheiser and other House members voted 169-5 to approve House Bill 1425, rebooting the licensing program and discarding the tentative awards to the six companies that were announced last year. An independent third party would grade bids instead of leaving that to political appointees on the cannabis commission.

The Senate took a separate course of action. It voted 52-0 to pass Senate Bill 609, legislation that would set a May 31 deadline for the cannabis commission to authorize six companies that had previously applied for licenses, but not necessarily the six selected in July.

It’s not a sure thing either bill would allow registered patients to buy cannabis oil anytime soon.

SB 609 would disrupt an ongoing licensing process, risking the possibility of lawsuits that could delay cannabis oil production.

HB 1425 doesn’t set a deadline for issuing licenses, and a bidding process would take months before companies could be selected. And more lawsuits would be possible.

The House and Senate have until April 4 to agree on one approach before the session ends.

State Republican Party Chairman David Shafer caught heat from within his party after repeating a quote from a Kremlin tweet that foreign policy experts said attempted to justify the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta-Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta-Journal-Constitution

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Credit: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta-Journal-Constitution

State GOP chairman faces criticism within party over ‘Russian propaganda’

Georgia GOP Chairman David Shafer is facing accusations of “spreading Russian propaganda” — and even a call for censure within the party — after he quoted a Kremlin tweet that foreign policy experts described as an attempt to justify the invasion of Ukraine.

The tweet was part of an effort to portray Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine as a mission aimed at “denazifying” the smaller country.

“This resolution,” Shafer wrote on Twitter, “gives context to Putin’s bizarre claim that the Russian invasion was motivated by anti-Nazism and leaves me thinking that (U.S. President Joe) Biden and (Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelensky fell into a somewhat obvious trap in opposing it.”

The “somewhat obvious trap” that Shafer described is the same stance the U.S. has taken against the Russia-backed U.N. resolution each time it has come up for a vote since 2005 — including in 2019 and 2020 during the Trump administration.

The resolutions, U.S. officials say, are “thinly veiled attempts to legitimize Russian disinformation campaigns denigrating neighboring nations.”

Conservative commentator Erick Erickson responded to Shafer’s tweet by accusing him of passing along “Russian propaganda.” Jason Shepherd, a former Cobb County GOP chairman who lost a bid last year to become the state chair, said he’ll push to censure Shafer.

“There is no excuse for Shafer to keep that tweet up, especially once he was told this policy has gone back to 2005 and was supported by both the George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump administrations,” said Shepherd, now a member of the party’s state committee.

Shafer, who has also praised Zelenskyy’s leadership, said he initially thought the tweet from Russia’s U.N. mission was a “lie or a hoax, but apparently not.”

He then tried to turn the criticism toward Biden, saying his “foreign policy weakness has emboldened the world’s predators and made the planet a less safe place.”

Former Republican state Rep. Scot Turner didn’t buy it.

Turner, who used to represented a deeply conservative district, accused Shafer of trying to deflect attention by attacking Biden.

“We can be concerned about those things,” Turner said of Biden’s record, “at the same time that we are concerned that our party chairman is spreading Russian propaganda.”

Democrat Stacey Abrams returned to the campaign trail this past week for the first time since she formally announced she was making another run for governor.

Credit: Tamara Stevens

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Credit: Tamara Stevens

Abrams returns to the campaign trail with focus on Medicaid

Democrat Stacey Abrams got back on the campaign trail for the first time since formally entering this year’s race for governor.

She began by touching on many of the same issues she pushed during her first bid for the state’s top job in 2018. Expanding Medicaid is at the top of the list.

Abrams started in Cuthbert, where the Southwest Georgia Regional Medical Center shut down in late 2020.

Supporters of Medicaid expansion say it could help Georgia’s struggling rural hospitals, which often treat uninsured people for free.

A nurse introduced Abrams by describing how the woman’s aunt died after the Cuthbert medical center closed. An ambulance couldn’t get her to the closest hospital — a facility in Alabama — in time.

Abrams called that “inexcusable.”

“If we had expanded Medicaid the first time, the second time or at any point during the times that Brian Kemp was putting together a plan to do less for fewer people, we could have saved her life,” she said.

Kemp has pursued an alternative to a full expansion of Medicaid, seeking instead a “waiver” program that would allow Georgia to impose a work and activity requirement for some Georgians to qualify for coverage under the state-federal public health program for the poor, disabled and elderly living in nursing homes.

It wouldn’t be nearly as many Georgians as would receive coverage under a full Medicaid expansion.

Kemp’s administration estimates that his plan would cover about 50,000 of the state’s poor adults, while a full Medicaid expansion could cover at least 400,000.

The governor’s plan won approval in the waning days of the Trump administration, but it is now on hold after President Joe Biden’s top Medicaid official rejected the work and activity requirement. Kemp is now suing the federal government to reverse the decision.

Abrams’ call for Medicaid expansion — which would make Georgia the 39th state to take that step under the Affordable Care Act — was met by Kemp’s campaign with an accusation that she’s out of touch with Georgia’s interests.

“Brian Kemp beat her once and saved our state from her radical agenda — and he will do it again this November,” Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said.

You can expect Abrams to keep talking about Medicaid.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in 2019 showed nearly three-quarters of Georgians said the state should expand the program.

It’s not a popular idea, however, with a significant number of GOP primary voters, a group Kemp needs to keep in his camp. Before he faces Abrams, he will have to beat back a challenge in the GOP primary from ex-U.S. Sen. David Perdue.

Candidates, endorsements, etc.:

— U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock picked up the support of Giffords PAC, a political group that former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords formed to focus on gun control.

State Sen. Tyler Harper of Ocilla, the lone Republican running for agriculture commissioner, gained an endorsement from Gov. Brian Kemp.

— Former Gov. Nathan Deal endorsed GOP state Sen. Bruce Thompson for labor commissioner.

— Alpharetta Mayor Pro Tem Dan Merkel and two of the city’s councilmen, Douglas DeRito and Donald Mitchell, are backing Republican Jake Evans in his run in the 6th Congressional District.

— Mallory Staples, a Republican running in the 6th Congressional District, won the backing of U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina, Veterans for America First and Christian author Erik Metaxas.

— End Citizens United/Let America Vote, a group that supports an overhaul of campaign finance laws, is backing U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath in Georgia’s 7th Congressional District contest.

— Former state Sen. Vincent Fort, who is challenging U.S. Rep. David Scott in the 13th Congressional District’s Democratic primary, picked up support from Nina Turner, a congressional candidate in Ohio.

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