Capitol Recap: Kemp wants to accelerate cuts to income tax rate

Gov. Brian Kemp said this past week that he will push during next year's legislative session to cut the state's top income tax rate to 5.39%. The rate was already set to fall to 5.49% on its way to a decline to 4.99% by 2029. If the cut to 5.39% goes through, officials say it could save Georgia taxpayers $300 million annually. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Gov. Brian Kemp said this past week that he will push during next year's legislative session to cut the state's top income tax rate to 5.39%. The rate was already set to fall to 5.49% on its way to a decline to 4.99% by 2029. If the cut to 5.39% goes through, officials say it could save Georgia taxpayers $300 million annually. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Rate was set to go down to 5.49%, but governor is pushing for 5.39%

Georgia is set to reduce its income tax rate to 5.49% next year, but Gov. Brian Kemp is calling for a deeper cut.

The governor said this past week that he will back legislation to push the rate down next year to 5.39%.

If the reduction wins approval, it will save Georgians about $300 million annually in taxes, officials said.

Kemp last year signed House Bill 1437 to gradually reduce the income tax rate from 5.75% to 4.99% by 2029 and increase exemptions when Georgians file their tax returns. Supporters say that once the measure fully kicks into gear, taxpayers could save $1 billion or more a year.

The cut to 5.49% next year was part of that gradual reduction.

Now, Kemp wants to step on the gas.

What helps make it possible is the $16 billion that the state has in “rainy day” and undesignated reserves after three years of massive surpluses: $3.7 billion for fiscal 2021, $6.6 billion for fiscal 2022 and $5.3 billion for fiscal 2023, which ended June 30.

Those same surpluses allowed Kemp and lawmakers to approve income tax rebates the past two years, sending checks of $250 to $500 to Georgia taxpayers. Homeowners got back a little more money this year after lawmakers approved a property tax break.

Georgia drivers have also saved about $2 billion since March 2022 through two suspensions of the state’s motor fuel tax, again a product of the surpluses.

In 2018, lawmakers voted to reduce the top state income tax rate from 6% to 5.75% in response to federal tax changes that, officials thought, would force many Georgians to pay higher state taxes. The cut saved Georgians more than $500 million a year.

That measure set up a second vote, in 2020, to lower the rate again to 5.5%, but then COVID-19 hit, the General Assembly suspended its session and the state faced a brief recession.

However, the state’s economy came back strongly, getting a boost from waves of federal COVID-19 relief money that Congress approved almost as soon as the nation’s economy shut down to fight the pandemic.

Then came HB 1437.

Once fully implemented, House Ways and Means Chairman Shaw Blackmon, R-Bonaire, said last year, the changes under HB 1437 would save a family of four with an income of $75,000 about $650 a year.

HB 1437 delays the phase-in of lowered rates any year the state doesn’t have enough money in reserve to pay for it, any year state tax collections don’t grow at least 3% or if collections are lower than any of the five previous years.

One of those conditions could occur this year because revenue increases have slowed during much of 2023.

Lt. Gov. Burt Jones has called for eliminating the state income tax.

That would be difficult, however, because it’s the source of about half of the money the state uses to pay for schools, public health care programs, policing, prisons and dozens of other things.

Kemp, though, said that “if there is a plan to get down to zero, we just need to see the plan and we can get to work on that.”

Georgia House Redistricting Chair Rob Leverett, R-Elberton, points to the voting board before the chamber approved a new map of its districts. Democrats saw six of their members paired up in three districts so only half of them have a chance of returning after the next election. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Special session seemed especially hard on Democrats

Georgia Democrats have to wonder what was so special about the special legislative session for redistricting.

The purpose of the session was to redraw the lines of the state’s congressional and legislative districts after federal Judge Steve Jones rejected the maps the GOP-led General Assembly produced in 2021, ruling that they had illegally weakened Black voting power.

Jones ordered the legislators to produce new maps adding majority-Black districts — one for the U.S. House, two for the state Senate and five for the state House.

In Georgia, white voters tend to support Republicans and Blacks overwhelmingly back Democrats.

But Democrats have found little to celebrate in the outcome of the session, realizing minimal gains in the maps that Republicans drew this time.

The state’s new congressional map still maintains the 9-5 advantage Republicans hold in the state delegation to the U.S. House.

In the state Senate, Republican mapmakers protected every incumbent in the chamber. But a pair of Democratic state senators from Atlanta — Jason Esteves and Elena Parent — saw significant alterations to their districts, turning them from majority-white to majority-Black and potentially making it harder for each of them to win reelection.

The state House map also dealt a blow to Democrats, forcing six of them into three districts, meaning at least half of them won’t return after the next election. Only two Republicans saw a similar pairing.

Whether the maps pass muster is a question Jones will have to answer after a hearing he scheduled for Dec. 20.

But the session wasn’t just about maps.

Republicans also forced votes on two issues that test Democratic unity: Israel and the city of Atlanta’s planned public safety training center.

The resolution supporting Israel in its war with Hamas easily cleared both chambers, although Democrats criticized it because it made no mention of the growing Palestinian humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.

The tally in the House was notable because about 30 of the 78 Democrats in the chamber abstained, and more than two dozen others were marked “excused” from the vote.

The public safety center resolution also won by wide margins.

But Democrats accused Republicans of using the measure for “political gamesmanship.”

“If Democrats vote ‘yes’ on this, we give no weight to the legitimate concerns about the center and about our right to protest. But if we vote ‘no’ on this, you’ll say we’re against public safety,” Democratic state Rep. Saira Draper said. “You’ve probably got the attack ads drafted up and ready to print for 2024.”

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Rome, faces more than $100,000 in fines after she chose not to abide by U.S. House rules during the coronavirus pandemic. Greene is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear her appeal to waive the fines. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

Greene appeals to Supreme Court for relief from mask fines

Facing heavy fines after she refused to abide by U.S. House rules during the coronavirus pandemic, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene is appealing for help from the Supreme Court.

Greene and Reps. Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Ralph Norman of South Carolina declined to mask up during floor votes in 2021, and they were fined under an escalating system of penalties that then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put in place.

They are all urging Supreme Court justices to take up their case.

While Massie and Norman protested only briefly, Greene pressed on, showing up for votes without a mask for most of 2021 and part of 2022. The Rome Republican eventually accumulated more than $100,000 in fines, which were taken out of her $174,000 annual salary.

Greene has downplayed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and said she never got vaccinated against the coronavirus. She has accused Democratic elected officials of abusing authority during the period of lockdowns and mandates, and she currently serves on a House select committee reviewing the government response to COVID-19.

In March 2022, a U.S. district judge in Washington threw out the lawmakers’ case. The judge rejected their argument that the fines amounted to an illegal reduction in their annual salary and said Pelosi and her staff cannot be sued for decisions made in their government capacity.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld that ruling in June.

Now, their attorney is making some of those same arguments to the Supreme Court in hopes that enough justices will agree the case deserves another look.

Greene & Co. face steep odds. The court receives 5,000 to 6,000 petitions for case reviews each term. Usually, it agrees to hear only 60 to 70 of them.

Georgia Democrats request more time for Atlanta to use funds to aid migrants

Three of the state’s congressional Democrats are seeking an extension for Atlanta to spend millions of dollars in federal money to provide humanitarian aid to an estimated 46,000 migrants who have come to the city after crossing the nation’s southern border.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced in May that Atlanta would receive a grant of $6.9 million to feed and shelter the migrants. The city was given a deadline of Dec. 31 to spend that money.

Democratic U.S. Reps. Hank Johnson, Lucy McBath and Nikema Williams have asked FEMA to give Atlanta an additional year to use the money.

“Georgia continues to receive historic numbers of migrants seeking asylum, and with other cities having limited resources, there is no doubt that the metro-Atlanta will continue to be impacted,” the lawmakers wrote.

They noted that “grant management hurdles” had delayed Atlanta’s dispersal of the FEMA money, which the city has portioned out to four local organizations that serve migrants: the Latin American Association, Casa Alterna, Inspiritus and the International Rescue Committee.

The money is part of a $332.5 million allocation, and Atlanta and one nonprofit in Miami are the only recipients of the FEMA aid in the Southeast.

The bulk of the money went to local governments and organizations in Arizona, California and Texas.

Over the past 2 1/2 years, Border Patrol agents have apprehended record numbers of migrants illegally crossing the southern border. In fiscal year 2023, those border apprehensions totaled 2.5 million, surpassing the previous record of 2.2 million set in 2022.

The largest share of the migrants came from Latin American countries including El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

FEMA announced in late summer that an additional $368 million would be given to communities nationwide through a new Shelter and Services Program. That included a second grant of $4.8 million for Atlanta to cover services including shelter, food, transportation and acute medical care.

The deadline to spend that money is Sept. 30, 2025.

Republican U.S. Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Rome and Rich McCormick of Suwanee during happier times. CNN was the first to report the two were recently involved in a confrontation during which Greene said McCormick touched her in an aggressive and inappropriate manner. McCormick said that when he touched her on the shoulders, it was meant to be a "friendly gesture" and that he apologized when Greene said she was offended.

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Encounter between two Georgia Republicans turns into accusations

She said he touched her in an aggressive and inappropriate manner.

He said the contact was a “friendly gesture” and that he meant no harm.

Now, Republican U.S. Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Rome and Rich McCormick of Suwanee are not talking.

CNN first reported the exchange, the most recent sign of tensions within the House Republican caucus.

Greene and McCormick have been at odds since at least early last month after he joined 22 other Republicans in voting to table her motion to censure Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan for her criticism of Israel, essentially killing the proposal.

Greene responded by going to social media to attack McCormick and the other Republicans, calling them “pathetic” and “feckless.”

Then McCormick introduced his own resolution to rebuke Tlaib, the only Palestinian American in Congress.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution confirmed much of CNN’s reporting about the incident, which occurred days after the House passed McCormick’s motion.

That day, McCormick said, he tried to speak with a Republican from another state who had opposed his censure measure. That member declined to talk to him.

Then — and again, this is McCormick’s version of events — he by coincidence noticed Greene nearby. He said he approached her, touched her on her shoulders and commented about how, despite their own disagreement, he felt they were still able to communicate.

Those shoulders turned cold.

Greene, according to CNN, recoiled immediately and told McCormick she didn’t appreciate him touching her. McCormick also said she pulled away and that he apologized, telling Greene he didn’t mean to offend her.

CNN reported that Greene later told House Speaker Mike Johnson that she viewed McCormick’s behavior as aggressive and threatening. Greene’s office did not return requests for comment from the AJC.

McCormick’s office, however, issued a statement that made clear he and Greene are avoiding each other.

“I understand why there would be a lot of raw emotions following the censure vote given that her censure was tabled and mine passed,” McCormick said. “My intention was to encourage her by making a friendly gesture. I said to her, ‘At least we can have an honest discussion,’ to which she said she did not appreciate that. For that I immediately apologized and have not spoken to her since.”

Postal Service delivers bad news to Gainesville about city’s main facility

Gainesville isn’t happy with the message it received when the U.S. Postal Service reversed its decision to move the city’s main post office.

And neither is the messenger, U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde.

Officials have pushed for decades to move the facility, citing traffic concerns along Green Street, The Gainesville Times reports.

“As the local community, we should have some say, some input in the matter in which we’ve had little to no say here in the last few years,” Gainesville Mayor Sam Couvillon told WDUN.

The city learned about the change in plans from Clyde, a Republican from Athens.

“For decades, Gainesville residents and local leaders have advocated for relocating the Green Street post office — a move the USPS supported back in 2018,” Clyde said in a statement. “Yet after years of inaction on this matter, the USPS unilaterally decided to reverse course and retain the location. This severely misguided determination completely disregards our community’s position, plans, and thoughtful proposals.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Collins, R-Jackson, became the first member of the freshman class of lawmakers in Congress to see one of their bills be signed into law. Collins' measure involves research into synthetic opioids. (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

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Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Collins goes to head of class as ‘zombie drug’ bill gets signed into law

U.S. Rep. Mike Collins became the first member of this year’s freshman class of federal lawmakers to see one of their bills signed into law.

The legislation directs the National Institute of Standards and Technology to deepen its research into synthetic opioids, particularly xylazine, a type of tranquilizer that is called a “zombie drug” and is often added to fentanyl.

“By funding research into detection methods for these dangerous substances, we are helping local law enforcement and Border Patrol protect themselves when they encounter dangerous narcotics like the Zombie Drug in the field,” Collins, a Republican from Jackson, wrote in a press release.

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