Capitol Recap: Growing revenue points to an improving Georgia economy

BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Funding picture brightens for programs that saw deep cuts

Georgia’s economy continues to move in a positive direction, and that’s good news for the people who decide how the state government spends money on things such as k-12 education, road construction and health care programs.

The state saw its overall tax collections in November up 8.3% over the same month in 2019. Through the first five months of fiscal 2021, which began July 1, the state is $551 million ahead of the same period last year.

It’s a marked change since June, when the General Assembly, watching the beginning of the COVID recession, passed a budget that cut more than $2 billion in spending — including $950 million in basic k-12 school funding. Gov. Brian Kemp has remained relatively optimistic that the state will see a strong recovery in 2021, and he told state agencies they wouldn’t have to endure more budget cuts next year. Following his lead, agencies requested more than $700 million in new spending next year.

The state got a big boost from individual income tax collections in November, which jumped 14.3% over the same month in 2019. Gross sales taxes were also up over that same time by 6%. Gains in those two taxes tend to mean the economy is growing.

The state also saw an intoxicating increase of 5.2% in alcoholic beverage tax collections in November. That’s a trend that started with the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. It may be benefiting now from a law legislators passed in June to allow home delivery of beer, wine and liquor, although many of the big retailers still have not started the service.

While the pandemic provided a boost for booze, it continues to hammer the state’s hospitality industry. Hotel/motel fees were off by almost 30% in November.

Ethics Committee sanction-free since 2007

U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue often respond to accusations that they used insider information to profit off the pandemic by pointing to findings of no wrongdoing by the Senate Ethics Committee.

That’s not all that special, it turns out.

The Ethics Committee — maybe because its membership is evenly split with three Democrats and three Republicans — rarely finds wrongdoing.

How rare?

An analysis of the 1,189 complaints filed with the committee from 2007 to 2019 shows not a single disciplinary sanction.

Perdue and Loeffler have used the committee’s findings to counter attacks made against them heading into their Jan. 5 runoff elections against Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, respectively.

Among the unimpressed is Meredith McGehee, the executive director of Issue One, a Washington-based watchdog group that has studied the committee’s work.

“A senator saying he or she has been cleared by the Senate Ethics Committee should be taken with a grain of salt,” McGehee said. “The Senate Ethics Committee manages to find ethics violations about as often as an NBA referee manages to call a traveling or palming violation.”

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Georgia GOP Chairman David Shafer traded jabs this week over job performance involving the presidential election and the Jan. 5 U.S. Senate runoffs. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Georgia GOP Chairman David Shafer traded jabs this week over job performance involving the presidential election and the Jan. 5 U.S. Senate runoffs. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

GOP-smacked: Intraparty fights continue

Soon, we can expect one Georgia Republican to yell at another that “Mom always liked you best.”

Some of the worst fights occur within families, and the state GOP — locked for much of the year in a quarrel over whether Kelly Loeffler or Doug Collins should represent the state in the U.S. Senate — appears to be entangled in another intraparty battle.

This time it involves efforts to overturn the results of the presidential election in Georgia.

Main combatants include Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Georgia GOP Chair David Shafer. Neither one thinks the other is living up to the duties of his position.

After announcing that he and the Republican National Committee are suing Raffensperger, ostensibly for blocking Republicans from observing absentee ballot signature verification during the state’s ballot count, Shafer said on Twitter that he’s suing to get the secretary and other elections officials “to do their job and obey the law.”

Raffensperger then returned fire, saying that Shafer had been told repeatedly that Georgia’s signature verification is public and he and Republicans could always have watched it happen.

He then suggested that Shafer should be doing more about an upcoming election, the Jan. 5 U.S. Senate runoffs.

“From one Republican to another, please start focusing on what matters,” Raffensperger said. “If you put as much effort into the January runoffs as you have put on blaming others for your failures, we can’t lose.”

Trump takes aim at Duncan

President Donald Trump also continued to engage in GOP-on-GOP combat.

He set his sights on Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, saying in a tweet that his fellow Republican is “Too dumb or corrupt to recognize massive evidence of fraud in GA & should be replaced!”

Duncan’s national profile has been ascending, mostly through numerous appearances on CNN where he has said the election is over and Trump lost.

But the lieutenant governor responded to Trump’s tweet attack by choosing the role of peacemaker.

“Thank you for 4 years of conservative leadership @realdonaldtrump,” Duncan wrote, highlighting things he thought Trump had accomplished while in office. “Let’s agree that re-electing @kloeffler & @sendavidperdue should be your top priority.”

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, left, and outgoing U.S. Rep. Doug Collins could face off in a 2022 GOP primary if President Donald Trump has anything to do with it. Trump, whose endorsement of Kemp in 2016 helped him win the GOP nomination for governor, backed Collins in a tweet this week. Collins has not publicly expressed interest in the job.  (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, left, and outgoing U.S. Rep. Doug Collins could face off in a 2022 GOP primary if President Donald Trump has anything to do with it. Trump, whose endorsement of Kemp in 2016 helped him win the GOP nomination for governor, backed Collins in a tweet this week. Collins has not publicly expressed interest in the job. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

President steps up feud with governor

President Donald Trump has also continued to maintain pressure on Gov. Brian Kemp, who earlier this month said no to the president’s pleas to toss out Georgia’s presidential election and turn over the task of selecting the state’s electors to the Legislature. Kemp told Trump that would be illegal.

Trump followed up by saying he was embarrassed he had endorsed Kemp in 2016, a factor in his winning the GOP nomination for governor that year.

The president took it a step further Thursday, endorsing outgoing U.S. Rep. Doug Collins as a potential primary challenger in 2022 against Kemp.

“How does Governor @BrianKempGA allow certification of votes without verifying signatures and despite the recently released tape of ballots being stuffed?” Trump said in a tweet. “His poll numbers have dropped like a rock. He is finished as governor! @RepDougCollins.”

The Georgia GOP filed complaints against Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff with both the Federal Election Commission and the U.S. Senate Ethics Committee.
The Georgia GOP filed complaints against Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff with both the Federal Election Commission and the U.S. Senate Ethics Committee.

Georgia GOP vs. Ossoff, Part I

The Georgia GOP has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging that Democrat Jon Ossoff has improperly coordinated with a super PAC that is supporting his bid against Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue.

The complaint cites a memo that Ossoff’s campaign released in mid-November accusing Perdue of taking advantage of insider knowledge to profit from the coronavirus pandemic, an accusation that the senator has denied.

A few weeks after the memo’s release, The Georgia Way super PAC targeted Perdue with a similar message.

“Based on the timing, messaging, conduct, and context of the campaign update and the advertisement, Jon Ossoff for Senate is coordinating its message against Senator Perdue,” said Stewart Bragg, executive director for the Georgia GOP.

It wasn’t a new angle of attack, though: Ossoff has hit Perdue for months about his stock transactions and even called the senator a “crook” during a debate in October.

Super PACs often form their attacks based on publicly available information.

Georgia GOP vs. Ossoff, Part II

As long as it’s generating paperwork, the Georgia GOP also filed a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee alleging that Democrat Jon Ossoff “knowingly and willfully” failed to disclose in a May campaign financial report that his investigative journalism firm received payments from a Hong Kong-based firm with ties to the Chinese government.

Ossoff’s campaign says the candidate, in the interest of transparency, did report the payment from PCCW Media Limited in an amended filing in July even though it was for less than the reporting threshold of $5,000.

The timing is important, according to the complaint, because the amended filing came weeks after Ossoff won a seven-candidate Senate primary, which the Georgia GOP says means voters were “in the dark” about the candidate’s finances at the time of the vote.

“We’re asking the Senate Ethics Committee to look into this further because we believe this was an intentional effort to conceal information from the people of Georgia,” said Stewart Bragg, the Georgia GOP’s executive director.

Ossoff’s campaign said his company, which produces investigations for news agencies, received around $1,000 through a distributor for two investigations it made on Islamic State war crimes that were rebroadcast by PCCW in Hong Kong.

It’s just the latest move in a series of attacks aimed at Ossoff over the payments. During a debate in October, Perdue pulled out a document that he claimed showed Ossoff was trying to hide the business relationship with the Hong Kong firm, whose executives have ties to the Chinese government.

“He needs to own up to it because sooner or later we need somebody in the United States Senate that will stand up to Communist China,” Perdue said.

Ossoff’s campaign called the complaint “utterly false and desperate.”

“David Perdue’s fever dream that Jon Ossoff is some kind of Chinese Communist agent because a TV channel in Hong Kong once broadcast two of his company’s films exposing ISIS war crimes is one of the most laughable smear campaigns in Georgia history,” Ossoff spokeswoman Miryam Lipper said.

Cobb cut in early voting sites spurs criticism

Democrats have raised issue over Cobb County’s decision to reduce early voting sites for the Jan. 5 Senate runoffs from 11 to five.

Cobb Elections Director Janine Eveler said her department has had trouble finding experienced poll managers to work over the winter holidays.

State Rep. Teri Anulewicz, a Democrat from Smyrna, seemed sympathetic, noting the toll on election officials and workers after counting votes for a third time in the presidential race. But she also expressed frustration that Cobb appears to be the only metro Atlanta county making such a deep cut in early voting sites.

“I definitely, 100%, believe that the poll workers are exhausted and it’s probably hard to recruit enough folks,” she said. “At the same time ... I don’t know why we seem to be having a harder time of that in Cobb County.”

Democratic U.S. Senate candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff noted in a joint statement that the cutbacks will have the biggest effect on communities of color. Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight group said the same thing and asked the Cobb elections board to reconsider before early voting starts Monday.

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