Capitol Recap: Governor proposes refunds for Georgia taxpayers

Credit: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Facing reelection, Kemp goes big in spending plan

Georgia is sitting on a pile of money — including a $3.7 billion surplus from the past fiscal year — and Gov. Brian Kemp is prepared to spread it around.

That includes refunds to state taxpayers totaling $1.6 billion.

The refunds would be portioned out $250 at a time to single filers, with joint filers receiving $500.

“I believe that when government takes in more money than it needs, surplus funds should be sent back to the hardworking men and women who keep our state moving forward,” Kemp said. “Because that’s your money, not the government’s.”

The refunds would be one of the bigger cash outlays that Kemp has proposed in these early days of a legislative session and election year.

Earlier this month, he announced plans to boost state workers’ pay by $5,000 through a cost-of-living adjustment for full-time employees. The budget also includes a boost in the employer match for 401(k) contributions to a maximum of 9%.

Appeals to the wallet are a common campaign tactic, and it’s one the governor may find handy as he faces a tough road to reelection. It will begin with a fight in the GOP primary in March against former U.S. Sen. David Perdue. If he succeeds there, then a rematch is nearly certain against Democrat Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost to Kemp in 2018.

During that 2018 campaign, Kemp made a couple of promises he plans to fully fund this year.

One is to increase teacher salaries by $5,000 before the end of his first term, including a final installment of $2,000 that he’s proposing this year.

The governor also revisited his 2018 proposal to eliminate the state income tax on retirement pay for military veterans at a cost of $60 million. Most senior citizens in Georgia already don’t pay income taxes on unearned income, such as pensions.

The proposals will have to go through the state’s budgetary process, but this year money isn’t the problem it often is.

Federal stimulus dollars helped Georgia take in a record amount of revenue in fiscal 2021, which ended June 30, finishing with an enormous surplus. This fiscal year is off to a strong start, meaning Georgia is on pace to exceed those revenue numbers.

Still, some legislators are cautious about overcommitting the state’s resources.

“I’m trying to keep count of how many groups we’ve promised pay raises to — and the list gets longer every day,” House Speaker David Ralston said.

“I know that we’re in a fairly good budget situation,” he added, “but at some point, we are going to run out before we get to everybody.”

Credit: kali9/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Credit: kali9/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Governor adds crime initiatives to his things-to-do list

Rising rates for homicides and other violent crimes have hit towns and cities across Georgia, according to an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and now they command a large share of Gov. Brian Kemp’s checklist for the legislative session.

In the past week, he proposed:

— Creating an anti-gang unit in the state attorney general’s office and giving the attorney general more authority to work with state and local officials to prosecute gang-related crimes.

— Hiring dozens of technicians and upgrading equipment to ease a persistent backlog at the GBI crime lab.

— Funding the training for an additional 75 cadets this year for the Georgia State Patrol.

— Providing tuition-free education for technical college students pursuing law enforcement and criminal justice degrees.

— Cracking down further on human trafficking by adding the crime to a list of violent offenses for which superior court judges must require defendants to post bond to be released.

Some of these proposals are not new. The plan for an anti-gang unit first appeared during Kemp’s 2018 campaign.

Top Democrats have endorsed a similar initiative to help local prosecutors more aggressively combat gang members.

State legislative leaders have also proposed new anti-crime efforts. House Speaker David Ralston backed a $1,000 bonus for law enforcement officers and more funding for mental health and public safety initiatives, while Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan called for a new tax credit to help local authorities.

Kemp’s stack of campaign cash climbs to $12 million

If things go well for Gov. Brian Kemp’s reelection bid, he has two big and surely expensive fights ahead.

He’s been socking away campaign cash for back-to-back battles with a fellow Republican, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, and Democrat Stacey Abrams.

The governor has more than $12 million in his campaign account, collecting the majority of that, $7 million, between July 1 and Jan. 9.

“These numbers affirm what we’ve said from the very beginning: the Kemp for Governor campaign has the resources to win the primary and in November,” said Bobby Saparow, the governor’s campaign manager.

Kemp released his fundraising figures weeks ahead of the next reporting deadline, timing it with the start of the legislative session, when the governor faces a kinda/sorta ban on raising money.

The General Assembly decades ago banned the governor and lawmakers from raising money during sessions, in part to lessen the appearance that lobbyists could buy influence while legislators were considering bills and funding that affected their clients.

But last year the Republican-led General Assembly pushed through a bill creating “leadership committees” that allow the governor and a few House and Senate leaders to create funds that can raise unlimited amounts of money during a legislative session.

The committees come with an additional advantage not afforded to other political nonprofits: They can legally coordinate their efforts directly with a candidate’s campaign, essentially making them an arm of the campaign.

Kemp formed the first such committee, shortly after signing the legislation into law in May without any public notice.

Perdue has filed a lawsuit challenging the leadership committee law, saying it provided Kemp with an unfair advantage because GOP challengers aren’t allowed to set up their own committees unless they win the party’s nomination.

Abrams or another Democratic candidate for governor would be able to establish a committee, too, but not until after the primary, giving Kemp a one-year head start.

That’s not as big a problem for Abrams as it would be most other candidates. She is one of the most prolific fundraisers in the history of Georgia politics, and her voting rights group, Fair Fight, reported ending 2021 with $19.5 million in the bank.

If Abrams wins the Democratic nomination — and there’s little reason to believe she won’t — Fair Fight could funnel that money to her leadership committee.

After spat over Biden visit, relations improve between voting groups and White House

When the White House announced that President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were coming to Atlanta to press for passage of voting legislation now before Congress, the trip ran into opposition from supporters of those bills who were calling for “concrete action” instead of “political platitudes and repetitious, bland promises.”

But that divide narrowed following Biden and Harris’ appearance, when the president called strongly for changes to the rules of the U.S. Senate “to prevent a minority of senators from blocking action on voting rights.”

Those groups — the Black Voters Matter Fund, the Asian American Advocacy Fund, the New Georgia Project Action Fund and the GALEO Impact Action Fund — redirected their attention from the White House to the U.S. Capitol.

Joining with Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight Action, the coalition issued a statement calling on senators, specifically mentioning Democratic U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, “to head the Administration’s call to action.”

“It is past time to restore the Senate and pass the Freedom To Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act,” they wrote.

The groups are also now in closer communication with the White House, which has promised to keep them informed about progress in Washington.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Drop boxes, under new limits, see usage drop off

Drop boxes were the most popular option for absentee voters in Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton in 2020, when 60% chose to return their ballots that way rather than rely on the U.S. Postal Service to deliver them before polls closed on Election Day.

But that fell to about one-third of absentee voters in 2021, according to drop box collection forms obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

What had changed were new limitations on the boxes and their use, part of the voting law that the GOP-led General Assembly approved last year following claims by some Republicans that fraudulent use of the boxes had contributed to Donald Trump’s loss in Georgia during the 2020 presidential election. No evidence supporting those allegations has ever been made public.

As a result, there were:

— Fewer days for voting by drop box.

— Fewer hours that the boxes could be used on those days when they were available.

— Fewer drop boxes.

The new voting law limited drop boxes to early voting locations and hours, meaning voters were unable to deliver ballots in the evening or during the three days before election day.

“Many people liked that the boxes were open 24 hours a day in 2020 and right up until the closing of the polls,” Cobb County Elections Director Janine Eveler said. “There were limited hours in 2021, and also they were shut down completely by Friday before the election. The last weekend and Monday is when they’re needed most, after it becomes too late to mail the ballots.”

The law also capped the number of drop boxes at one per 100,000 active voters in each county. As a result, the number of drop boxes in Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton decreased from 87 in 2020 to 20 last year.

There also were fewer absentee voters.

About 6% of voters in Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton counties cast absentee ballots in the fall’s local elections, compared with 32% of voters in those counties in 2020. The rest either cast their ballots on election day or beforehand at early voting locations.

State Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller would like the drop boxes to see even less usage — as in zero.

The Republican from Gainesville has proposed eliminating the boxes in Senate Bill 325.

Miller happens to be running for lieutenant governor, and his stiffest competition within the GOP is coming from state Sen. Burt Jones of Jackson, who holds an endorsement from Trump.

“If you can show up to put your ballot in the drop box, you can show up to vote,” Miller said. “Drop boxes are a burden on many counties, and counties are already stretched thin.”

Gov. Brian Kemp, however, said he doesn’t want to see any more changes to what he calls “the best elections integrity act in the country.”

“I think the action we took on drop boxes to make them available is the right thing to do for Georgians, but it also needs to be a secure process,” he said. “And I think that’s what the General Assembly has done.”

Candidates, endorsements, etc.:

— Charlie Bailey began this campaign cycle seeking a rematch against Republican Attorney General Chris Carr, who narrowly beat the Democrat in 2018. But Bailey how now switched races, joining the race for lieutenant governor.

Bailey holds endorsements from former Gov. Roy Barnes, U.S. Reps. Hank Johnson and Lucy McBath, Former Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, state Rep. Al Williams and former state Democratic Party Chairman DuBose Porter.

Four other Democrats are vying for lieutenant governor: state Rep. Erick Allen of Smyrna; state Rep. Derrick Jackson of Tyrone; Bryan Miller, grandson of former Gov. Zell Miller; and state Rep. Renitta Shannon of Decatur.

Three Republicans are also running: state Sens. Burt Jones and Butch Miller, plus activist Jeanne Seaver.

The GOP incumbent, Geoff Duncan, declined to seek reelection.

— Democratic state Sen. Jen Jordan has raised more than $1.3 million in her campaign for attorney general.

U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a Democrat from Massachusetts and member of the liberal “Squad” in Congress, has endorsed U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath in her 7th Congressional District primary showdown against U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux.

— Former state Sen. Doug Stoner is aiming for a return to the Capitol, but this time it would be the House chamber. The Democrat is running for the House District 40 seat currently held by Democratic state Rep. Erick Allen, who has launched a bid for lieutenant governor. Two other state representatives from Cobb, Teri Anulewicz and David Wilkerson, are supporting Stoner’s effort.

— Democrat Phil Olaleye, a Summerhill-based executive with a nonprofit, is running in state House District 59. His candidacy has drawn endorsements from state Sen. Nan Orrock, Atlanta City Council President Doug Shipman and three members of the Atlanta City Council: Jason Dozier, Amir Farokhi and Matt Westmoreland.

— Democrat Stewart Parnacott, a nurse anesthetist and LGBTQ+ advocate, announced his candidacy in state House District 90. Michelle Schreiner, a psychologist, is also seeking the Democratic nomination from that district.

— Democrat JT Wu, a Gwinnett County businessman, is running in the newly drawn state House District 97, which includes parts of Berkeley Lake, Duluth, Norcross and Peachtree Corners. Wu has support from Gwinnett County Commissioner Ben Ku and the left-leaning Georgia Advancing Progress PAC.