Capitol Recap: Georgia governor pushes bill to add opt-out to school mask mandates

Cartersville Middle School Spanish teacher Omar Nunez wears a mask and face shield while interacting with students who are also masked in his classroom. Gov. Brian Kemp is backing legislation that would let parents decide whether their children need to wear masks in school. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Cartersville Middle School Spanish teacher Omar Nunez wears a mask and face shield while interacting with students who are also masked in his classroom. Gov. Brian Kemp is backing legislation that would let parents decide whether their children need to wear masks in school. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Bill would let parents decide whether children need face coverings in class

The time has come to let parents choose whether their children should wear masks in school as protection against the coronavirus, Gov. Brian Kemp said.

Kemp is backing Senate Bill 514, legislation that would take that decision away from the state’s 180 school districts, even though only about one-quarter of them still have mask mandates without an opt-out for parents.

The coronavirus has thrived in the classroom.

This academic year has seen 14 school districts in metro Atlanta record more than 80,000 cases of COVID-19, according to data posted on their websites.

Cases peaked in mid-January, during the omicron surge, but the numbers are now down significantly.

“This isn’t going to just end and be gone forever,” Kemp said. “We’re going to have to deal with this, but we’ve got tools to deal with it now. This isn’t saying that parents can’t make the decision to mask their kids. It’s just giving parents an opt-out.”

The Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says masks should be discretionary outside a school building, but it still recommends universal masking indoors. The federal government also requires masks on school buses.

“Once inside the school facility, the impact on other children must be considered by school officials,” said Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, which opposes the proposal.

Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers and also the federation in Atlanta, described herself as “indifferent” to Kemp’s proposal, although she said she wishes people would voluntarily wear masks.

“We can’t enforce it,” Turner said of mask mandates. “It’s not a police state.”

Masks are already optional in most metro Atlanta school districts, although Atlanta Public Schools and school systems in Clayton, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties still require them.

Kemp, who faces reelection this year, moved to repeal school mask mandates after Democrat Stacey Abrams, who is also running for governor, was pictured in a Decatur classroom without a face covering. Everyone else in the photo, students and adults, wore masks.

The governor called it “hypocrisy” that schools require students to wear masks but allow visitors to enter without one.

Abrams apologized after facing a heavy criticism, including condemnation by Kemp and former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, the governor’s competitor in the GOP primary

“Protocols matter, and protecting our kids is the most important thing,” Abrams said. “And anything that can be perceived as undermining that is a mistake.”

Former Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue, left, and Democrat Stacey Abrams, who are both running for governor, oppose legislation backed by supporters of Gov. Brian Kemp that would prevent challengers from raising money while the General Assembly is in session.

Credit: AJC

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Credit: AJC

David Perdue, Stacey Abrams both fight plan to limit challengers’ fundraising

Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue has said the only reason he is running against Gov. Brian Kemp in the GOP primary is because he is the only one who can beat Democrat Stacey Abrams.

This past week, Perdue found himself on the same side as Abrams. They were both opposing legislation supported by some of Kemp’s GOP allies that would ban campaign challengers from raising money while the General Assembly is in session.

Legislators and other statewide officials, such as the governor, are already barred from fundraising during a legislative session.

Supporters of House Bill 333 say it would even the playing field. They say out-of-office contenders should face the same time restraints on fundraising as their competitors working in the Capitol and various other government office buildings in the shadow of the Gold Dome.

HB 333′s opponents, however, can make a strong case that the field is already tilted in the other direction.

The power of incumbency is particularly potent when it comes to fundraising. State officials and lawmakers typically raise much more than their challengers. Kemp, for example, has raised roughly 18 times more than Perdue.

Perdue called HB 333 a brazen “incumbent protection act.” Meanwhile, Abrams’ campaign team said it’s ready to fight legislation it views as “clearly unconstitutional.”

State Sen. Jeff Mullis rewrote HB 333 after a federal judge placed restrictions on a special fundraising committee, known as a “leadership committee,” that had allowed the governor to raise unlimited amounts of campaign cash while the General Assembly was in session.

U.S. District Judge Mark Cohen ruled that Kemp couldn’t use the leadership committee money against Perdue in the primary. If Kemp wins the nomination, however, he could use the money for the general election.

Kemp has not publicly endorsed HB 333, but his campaign could benefit from it.

First, it might slow Abrams’ fundraising juggernaut. She only entered the race in December, and in two months she raised $9.2 million. That was about $2 million more than what Kemp took in over seven months.

Second, any more restrictions on fundraising would hit Perdue hard. He launched his bid against Kemp just days after Abrams joined the race, but he had managed to collect only $1.1 million in campaign contributions by the end of January.

The state Board of Regents voted to make former Gov. Sonny Perdue the sole finalist to become chancellor of the University System of Georgia.

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Following long wait, Sonny Perdue will become University System chancellor

Sonny Perdue appears set to add another entry on his resume.

The state Board of Regents this past week named the former governor the lone finalist to lead the University System of Georgia, its 340,000 some students and roughly 48,000 employees.

The board must wait 14 days before making its selection official, which means Perdue will take the reins as the University System’s chancellor in early March.

Perdue had said little publicly about what he wants to do in the job beyond a brief June interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, when he talked about bringing more conservative values to the University System.

Following his selection as the finalist, Perdue said, “I want to make a difference by providing leadership and resources so that faculty can thrive in their teaching, research and service, and students are inspired and supported so they graduate, find rewarding careers and become productive citizens.”

Perdue’s supporters have highlighted his eight years as governor, plus four years as secretary of agriculture in the Trump administration, as evidence he can run large, complex organizations. They also see his name recognition as an asset for raising money and building relationships with state and federal lawmakers.

But resistance has followed ever since Perdue’s name first surfaced in March as a replacement for retiring Chancellor Steve Wrigley.

Students and faculty members rallied in opposition, saying he had no experience as an administrator in higher education.

Then an influential accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, expressed concerns about the selection process being politicized. It warned that the University System could be found “out of compliance,” which could have prevented students from receiving federal financial aid. (Following Perdue’s selection, however, the group said it had no plans to review the regents’ choice.)

Early on, following the faculty and students’ protests, the regents were unable to find enough support for Perdue or any other potential hire.

Then in May, the search process saw a reboot after a firm charged with recruiting for the post abruptly quit.

In July, the regents handed the job of acting chancellor to Teresa MacCartney, a veteran state financial official.

But even if regents seemed uncertain about Perdue, he had a steady backer in Gov. Brian Kemp, whose early political career saw similar support from Perdue.

Kemp — even though he faces a challenge in the GOP primary from Perdue’s first cousin, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue — helped pave the way for the selection, replacing four members of the 19-member board this year with political allies who were expected to support Sonny Perdue’s candidacy.

The regents’ ambivalence then disappeared. This past week’s vote passed without any dissent.

Georgia Secretary Of State Brad Raffensperger is asking that the Georgia State Patrol help provide security at more than 2,000 polling places during this year's elections. (Christine Tannous/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

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Credit: TNS

Raffensperger seeks additional security for polling places

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger wants the Georgia State Patrol to help local sheriff’s offices secure more than 2,000 polling places during this year’s elections.

“Every indication is that we’re going to have close races,” Raffensperger said. “With that environment, it only makes sense to provide additional resources for election security so that everyone can have confidence in the results.”

His request comes as former President Donald Trump and his supporters continue to make false allegations that the 2020 election was rife with fraud. Accusations like those have in turn led to hundreds of threats against election workers across the country.

For example, the FBI last month arrested a Texas man accused of threatening to shoot and kill Georgia election officials the day before the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Andrew Pinson is Gov. Brian Kemp's choice to fill an upcoming vacancy on the state Supreme Court.

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Governor makes a quick pick for high court

Gov. Brian Kemp moved with speed to fill a seat on the state Supreme Court that will open when Chief Justice David Nahmias steps down in July.

Several of the state’s prominent attorneys and jurists were preparing to submit their names in what’s usually a lengthy selection process when they found out Kemp had waited only three days to name Judge Andrew Pinson to the post.

It was the second time Kemp had appointed Pinson since August, first naming him to the state Court of Appeals.

Pinson is a former law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and he also has served as solicitor general, heading appeals and multistate litigation for the state attorney general’s office.

Kemp called Pinson “a brilliant jurist, having learned from some of our nation’s top legal minds.”

Pinson had been a contender the last time a spot opened on the state’s highest court, when he was shortlisted by the Judicial Nominating Commission. That appointment went to Verda Colvin, who became the first Black woman appointed by a Republican governor to the state Supreme Court.

Kemp also filled Pinson’s soon-to-be-vacant seat on the Court of Appeals, picking Superior Court Judge Ben Land of Columbus for the job.

Legislation advanced this past week in the state Senate that would allow people to sue Facebook and other social media platforms over the removal of posts because of the viewpoints they express. (Dreamstime/TNS)

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Bill advances that would limit how social media platforms can treat posts

A bill moved forward in the state Senate that would permit legal action against social media companies over the removal or alteration of posts because of the views they express.

Senate Bill 393′s supporters say it would prevent Facebook, Twitter and other companies from censoring conservative political views — a position some Republicans have expressed following the deletion of thousands of false or misleading social media posts about election fraud, COVID-19 vaccines and other topics.

The bill’s opponents say it would make it harder to take action against harmful content, such as bullying, racism, hate speech and spam.

SB 393 — which the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee advanced on a 6-to-5 vote — aims to treat social media platforms like telephone companies, railroads and other “common carriers” whose services are so vital that they should be limited in their ability to discriminate against customers. Supporters say the companies would still be able to ban pornography and other unlawful content.

Adam Candeub, a Michigan State University law professor who represented a white nationalist in a lawsuit against Twitter after it banned him, told the panel that the bill would stop social media companies from discriminating “against certain kinds of viewpoints, for example, those who are skeptical of the public policy response to COVID.”

But Chris Marchese, counsel for the tech industry group NetChoice, testified that “the government cannot compel private companies to carry speech that they otherwise would not carry.”

Federal courts have blocked similar laws in Texas and Florida, where a judge said that state’s statute likely violated free speech rights.

Candidates, endorsements, etc.:

— Gov. Brian Kemp has gained the endorsement of the Police Benevolent Association of Georgia in his bid for reelection.

James Haygood, a railroad foreman from Rydal, announced his candidacy on Facebook, making him the fourth GOP challenger to run in the 14th Congressional District against U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Rome.

— Rich McCormick, the emergency room physician running as a Republican in the 6th Congressional District, picked up a pair of endorsements. One is from SEAL PAC, a conservative political committee that supports veterans. The other is from the Republican Main Street Partnership, a group that was initially created to support moderates in the party.

— Jeremy Hunt, who is running as a Republican in the 2nd Congressional District, won the support of SEAL PAC.

— Republican Tim Fleming, a former chief of staff to Gov. Brian Kemp, is running for an open seat in state House District 112. State Rep. Dave Belton, who currently represents the Covington-based district, is retiring.

— Mitchell Kaye, who served in the Georgia House from 1993 through 2003, is running as a Republican in the April 5 special election in state House District 45 to fill the seat that state Rep. Matt Dollar vacated to become the deputy commissioner of the Technical College System of Georgia.

More can be found online

Here’s a sample of other stories about Georgia government and politics that can be found at www.ajc.com/politics/:

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