Capitol Recap: Prices at the pump gain the attention of Georgia officials

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Move is on to suspend fuel taxes as conflict in Ukraine pushes up cost of gas

Like a lot of Georgians, Gov. Brian Kemp, state lawmakers and other officials spent plenty of time this past week with their eyes on the gas pump.

Metro Atlanta gas prices reached record highs as numerous countries took economic steps to punish Russia for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, including President Joe Biden’s ban on imports of Russian petroleum.

With a push from Kemp, work began quickly on legislation to suspend Georgia’s 29.1 cents-a-gallon motor fuel tax through May 31. Based on past collections, the move would save drivers about $400 million in taxes.

Speed is crucial with Crossover Day — when legislation in most cases has to pass at least one chamber to remain alive for the session — set for Tuesday.

The motor fuel tax raises money for road and bridge projects. The governor’s office said state surplus funds would be used to make up for the lost gas tax money.

Kemp — who is running for reelection this year, beginning with a fight in the Republican primary against former U.S. Sen. David Perdue — said the fuel proposal wouldn’t jeopardize his plan for a $1.6 billion tax refund.

While Kemp, with support from House Speaker David Ralston, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and other legislative leaders, focused on how to ease gas prices at the state level, Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock pursued the same concerns with a national focus.

Warnock, who also faces a tough reelection fight this year, has proposed suspending the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon until 2023.

Before Russia’s invasion, Republicans mocked Warnock’s proposal as a “cheap distraction” while the nation was in the grip of climbing inflation. The suspension of the tax was just part of a plan Warnock has advanced to combat rising prices, including a call on Biden to launch a federal investigation into “apparent price gouging” by global shipping carriers.

$1 billion tax cut moves quickly through the House

It took eight days for a $1 billion tax cut to transform from an idea announced at a press conference to a measure that won passage in the Georgia House.

Now it’s in the state Senate’s hands.

A tax cut is always a popular proposal during an election year like 2022, when all 236 seats in the General Assembly are up for grabs.

It’s even more popular if a politician can call it the largest in the state’s history, which is how House Republican leadership describes House Bill 1437.

Under the measure:

  • The state’s progressive tax system — with rates rising based on income, topping out at 5.75% — would be converted into a flat tax of 5.25%.
  • Deductions, other than those for charitable contributions, would be eliminated. That would include the current $5,400 standard deduction for single taxpayers and $7,100 for married couples filing jointly.
  • The standard exemption for single filers would go from $2,700 to $12,000. For married couples filing jointly, it would rise from $7,400 to $24,000. Dependent exemptions would remain at $3,000. That means a family of four in Georgia would pay no state income taxes on its first $30,000 of income.
  • Current exemptions for retirees would remain. Taxpayers age 65 and older now can exclude up to $65,000 of their nonwork retirement income — pensions, 401(k)s, investments — on their Georgia tax returns.

Supporters and opponents threw around a lot of numbers.

Opponents say while it’s a flat tax, the benefit is not flat — it’s bunched up at the wealthy end.

Danny Kanso, a senior policy analyst with the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said that 62% of the $1 billion saved would go to the top 20% of earners — those making at least $109,000 per year.

He also said 10% of taxpayers would see an increase, even though the bill’s backers estimate that 95% of all Georgians would pay less.

Kyle Wingfield, president and CEO of the right-leaning Georgia Public Policy Foundation, said an independent analysis done for his group said a flat tax with lower rates would promote economic activity and investment, creating roughly 21,000 more jobs after five years.

If HB 1437 wins final passage, it wouldn’t take effect until 2024. That would give budget writers time to figure out how to make up for the loss of tax revenue.

Bill would expose Facebook, Twitter to court action if they stifle viewpoints

Facebook and Twitter would no longer be allowed to delete posts or remove users based on the views they express on the social media platforms under legislation the Georgia Senate approved this past week.

Senate Bill 393, which would allow the companies to be sued in Georgia courts, has the support of Republican senators who believe social media companies have censored GOP opinions.

They allege that Facebook and Twitter — by deleting posts that the companies considered false or misleading, especially on the topics of election fraud and COVID-19 — restricted conservatives from expressing their views.

The bill would cover social media companies with over 20 million users in the United States, declaring that they can’t block messages based on their viewpoints, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability.

Social media companies would still be able to censor harassment, incitement of violence and obscenity, according to the bill.

Democrats who opposed SB 393 said it could violate companies’ free speech protections guaranteed by the First Amendment and run afoul of federal legislation, such as the Communications Decency Act of 1996, that protects websites from most lawsuits.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Greg Dolezal, R-Alpharetta, pressed a free speech defense for the legislation.

“What we are stating here is that you cannot be discriminated against for your viewpoint, for your gender, for your age ... in this 21st century public square,” Dolezal said. “What you’ve seen is numerous examples of social media companies violating the rights of those people to express those opinions online.”

Dolezal said social media should be treated like cable and phone companies that are open to the general public without making subjective judgments about content.

State Sen. Jen Jordan opposed the bill but also said that social media companies are “out of control.”

“We’ve seen its effect on elections. We’ve seen Russian propaganda used against us to try to pit each of us against each other,” said the Democrat from Atlanta. “I share the concerns, believe me. ... But this really isn’t the way to do it.”

Georgia isn’t the first state to go down this road.

Republican-led legislators in Florida and Texas have also passed measures regulating social media companies, but courts have put those measures on hold.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Senate panel weakens bill that would guide classroom discussions on race

Legislation meant to control classroom discussion on race saw significant alteration in a state Senate committee.

The amendments the Senate Education and Youth Committee made to Senate Bill 377 mean it would no longer affect Georgia’s public colleges and universities.

K-12 school districts also would no longer face financial penalties for violating provisions of the bill.

The measure would still guide discussion of race in k-12 classrooms, as well as during training for state government employees.

A similar piece of legislation, House Bill 1084, remains intact after the House voted to adopt it.

The bills, plus two others that have not yet had a hearing, identify nine concepts that could not be used in classrooms, including that one race is inherently superior, that the United States is racist and that people should feel uncomfortable because of their race.

The measures come following accusations Republican Glenn Youngkin made during his successful run for governor in Virginia that public school teachers are promoting the college-level academic concept known as critical race theory, which is used to examine the effect of racism on society. There’s no evidence it’s being taught in k-12 schools in Georgia, although critics say its tenets about systemic inequity have influenced teachers and curriculum.

Opponents call the efforts behind SB 377 and HB 1084 a cynical strategy to pump up turnout in an election year. Supporters say the bills are needed to confront what they say is a rampant problem in classrooms.

Critics say the legislation would hinder the teaching of history — including slavery and the Holocaust — but the bills’ sponsors say that is not their intent.

The language was drawn substantially from an executive order then-President Donald Trump issued in September 2020 that identified what his administration considered “divisive concepts” and banned them from federal worker training. President Joe Biden later reversed the order.

At least a dozen states have created laws or directives that govern how race can be taught in schools, according to The Washington Post.

State Rep. Will Wade, the author of HB 1084, said he drew the language in his bill from legislation in other states and from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative national group.

He told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he just wants due process for parents who think their school may have crossed a line.

Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said such legislation creates an “adversarial” relationship between teachers and parents. She worries that overworked administrators will be swamped by parent complaints and will feel political pressure to substantiate them.

House backs doubling of cap on tax credits for tuition subsidies

School voucher legislation met its end earlier in the session, after an advocacy group pushed too hard in trying to persuade Republican lawmakers to back it.

But voucher-adjacent legislation is very much alive.

The Georgia House voted to double the cap on tax credits for contributions to a program that offers tuition subsidies for private school.

Under House Bill 517, the cap would climb by $20 million a year until 2027, when it would top out at $200 million. It would stay at that level until 2032, when it would fall back to $100 million.

State Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, the primary author of HB 517, said the cutback in 2033 was made at the Senate’s request. Senators wanted to monitor the program’s performance before making such an expansion permanent, he said.

While teachers and other public school supporters consider the program a voucher, the state Supreme Court ruled five years ago that it differs from classic vouchers because the money does not go through the government.

State House Speaker David Ralston, in a statement, called the measure “a further investment to provide students and their parents with greater school choice.”

It was only a week earlier that Ralston issued the death sentence, at least for the session, for two bills that would have created true voucher programs with direct state payments to private schools. That followed Ralston’s outrage when an advocacy group, the American Federation for Children, sent mailers to conservative voters likening Republican lawmakers to liberals if they didn’t support the voucher bills.

Ralston called the move “deceitful,” plus “the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen in my career.”

Public school advocates have long maintained that vouchers — as well as the private school scholarships covered under HB 517 — harm public schools by taking money that might otherwise go to them.

Carson said the House waited until the Quality Basic Education formula for public schools was fully funded in this year’s budget before it approved expanding the cap.

The legislation now goes to the Senate.

Proposal to lengthen senators’ terms goes a long way in a short time

State Sen. Lindsey Tippins, headed for the chamber’s exit, introduced legislation that would make substantial changes to how the Senate functions, including doubling a senator’s term to four years.

Currently, all 236 members of the General Assembly serve two-year terms, including the 56 state senators.

Senate Resolution 623 would ask voters to change the state Constitution to allow senators to serve the extended terms beginning with the 2024 election. House members would still serve two years at a time.

Tippins, who is not seeking reelection, has seen his idea get off to a fast start. He proposed it on March 4, and it cleared the Senate Ethics Committee three days later. The chamber’s leadership expects SR 623 to win Senate approval by Tuesday to meet the Crossover Day deadline when bills generally must pass at least one chamber if they are to become law.

It’s less certain how it will do in the House.

Candidates, endorsements, etc.:

— State Rep. Bee Nguyen of Atlanta released a list of 100 endorsements for her bid in the Democratic primary for Georgia secretary of state. Her backers include state Sens. Nan Orrock and Elena Parent, state Reps. Park Cannon and Matthew Wilson, and Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat.

— The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. announced he is backing former state Rep. Dee Dawkins-Haigler, a Democrat, in the secretary of state race.

— Conservative television and radio host Sean Hannity is throwing his support behind Jake Evans in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District GOP primary.

Elsewhere online

Other stories about Georgia government and politics can be found at www.ajc.com/politics/.