Capitol Recap: Push seeks changes to how Georgia votes

A Fulton County elections worker prepares to count absentee ballots for Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoff elections in January at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta. Proposed legislation would significantly limit who would be able to cast an absentee ballot in Georgia in the future. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
A Fulton County elections worker prepares to count absentee ballots for Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoff elections in January at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta. Proposed legislation would significantly limit who would be able to cast an absentee ballot in Georgia in the future. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

Bills target absentee voting, registration and drop boxes

Numerous bills filed this past week focus on how Georgia votes.

That set off concerns about who would be able to vote.

Republican state senators filed the bills after a series of allegations concerning irregularities in November’s presidential election, even though machine recounts, a manual audit of every ballot, an audit of voting machines and an audit of absentee ballot envelope signatures all validated the results of the contest.

There was one notable irregularity, as in it doesn’t happen often: Democrats won statewide races. Joe Biden’s win marked the first time Georgia had voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1992. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock followed that up with victories in January’s U.S. Senate runoffs, making them the first Democrats to win a statewide office since 2006.

Probably the most significant of the measures, Senate Bill 71, would roll back a 2005 state law allowing no-excuse absentee voting. The new legislation would limit absentee voting to those over 75 years old, voters with disabilities or anyone required to be absent from his or her precinct.

Absentee voting proved popular in November’s election, with more than 1.3 million people — about one-quarter of all voters who participated in that contest — casting absentee ballots. Of course, many of them might say they had an excuse to vote absentee, considering the election occurred in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Other measures of note would prevent voters from being automatically registered to vote when they get their driver’s licenses and end the use of drop boxes for collecting absentee ballots, requiring that they be returned through the mail or at county election offices.

Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, a Republican from Gainesville and co-sponsor of the bills, said they’re needed because “we’ve got to restore confidence in the ballot box.”

A new Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll showed, however, that most Georgians — 58% — said they believed no widespread fraud occurred during the election.

The same poll showed that 55% opposed placing limits on absentee voting, and 59% favored keeping the drop boxes.

Respondents to the poll could get behind another proposal, which would require that a request for an absentee ballot include a copy of a voter’s ID, a driver’s license number or a state ID number. It would actually be less restrictive than a proposal introduced earlier in the session that would have required voters to submit a copy of their photo ID twice, both when they apply for absentee ballots and when they return them.

The poll showed 74% of respondents support requiring that an absentee ballot be accompanied by either a copy of a photo ID or other documentation.

Democrats found problems with all the bills, saying they would reduce voting access.

“It’s voter suppression,” said Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, a Democrat from Stone Mountain. “If you restrict access, then people get discouraged and they don’t vote. They don’t come back.”

Public health gets a booster shot from Senate

Public health would see an additional injection of funding under the version of the midyear budget now working its way through the state Senate.

The House was the first to boost funding for the Department of Public Health after critics said Gov. Brian Kemp’s original spending plan didn’t do enough for the agency.

House budget writers added money for a chief medical officer, deputy commissioner and chief data officer, plus $18 million to quickly modernize the computer system that tracks immunizations.

The Senate upped the ante, bumping up the spending on the computer system to $27 million in its budget for the rest of the fiscal year, ending June 30. The Senate plan would also add positions for a senior programmer and a financial manager.

Georgia’s public health system, including county health agencies, has seen its workload grow in recent years. Advocates have long complained about inadequate funding for AIDS/HIV prevention, as well as efforts to control chronic illnesses and meet other needs.

The full Senate is expected to approve the midyear budget in the coming week. Overall, it increases spending by about $650 million.

The sponsor of Georgia's distracted driver law is now seeking a repeal of one provision in the legislation that allows first-time offenders to avoid charges if they purchase a hands-free driving device. AJC file photo
The sponsor of Georgia's distracted driver law is now seeking a repeal of one provision in the legislation that allows first-time offenders to avoid charges if they purchase a hands-free driving device. AJC file photo

End could be near for ‘get-out-of-jail card’

Georgia’s “get-out-of-jail-free card” could soon be out of existence.

State lawmakers will consider eliminating a provision in Georgia’s distracted driving law that allows thousands of offenders to avoid fines.

Three years ago, Georgia prohibited motorists from holding cellphones while driving. But the law required that charges be dropped if first offenders brought a receipt to court showing they had purchased a hands-free driving device.

Lawmakers call it the “get out of jail free card.”

Tracking who plays that card is inconsistent. Many local courts don’t keep records on its use or share the information with each other. But in 2019, nearly 7,500 hands-free citations were dismissed in Atlanta alone — nearly all of them because the offenders brought a receipt to court.

Prosecutors say it’s difficult to know whether someone using the provision has been cited before.

Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, who sponsored the distracted driving law three years ago, has proposed House Bill 247 to eliminate the provision.

He sponsored a similar measure last year, but it also would have doubled the fines for offenses. That apparently hurt its chances with lawmakers concerned that it wasn’t a safety measure but a means to raise revenue. It did not pass.

HB 247 would leave fines as is. A first offense costs up to $50 and one point on your driver’s license (motorists who accumulate 15 points in a 24-month period lose their license). A second offense costs up to $100 and two points, and a third costs up to $150 and three points.

Senators vote to scrutinize tax breaks

Georgia senators voted 51-0 to find out whether some of the tax breaks that they help hand out each year actually do what they’re supposed to do.

Generally, that means whether they created or retained jobs.

Senate Bill 6 would allow the chairmen of the Legislature’s tax committees — the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee — to request independent economic impact reviews of a handful of tax breaks each year.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, has pushed similar measures in recent years, only to see them vetoed by Gov. Brian Kemp or fail to win final passage before the legislative session ends.

Tax breaks — which cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each year — often pass based on testimony or data from industry lobbyists or other parties that would benefit.

They also tend to work their way through the legislative process in the final hours of a session, when lawmakers are taking hundreds of votes and have little time to review what they are voting on.

Sports betting bill wins in first round

Legislation to legalize online sports betting came up a winner in a House committee vote.

House Bill 86 would put the Georgia Lottery in charge of managing an online sports wagering system, with some proceeds going to fund HOPE college scholarships.

HB 86 would require sports betting companies to pay a 14% tax on their income, with all the revenue going to the HOPE scholarship. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, said that would amount to about $40 million a year.

The bill faced some opposition in Stephens’ House Tourism and Economic Development Committee, passing by a vote of 20-6. Among other things, opponents of expanded legalized gambling in Georgia say it is immoral, addictive and can breed crime.

Georgia lawmakers announced opposing plans this past week regarding Stone Mountain Park. One would likely protect Confederate imagery at the state-owned park, while another would push for removal of tributes to the Rebels who sought to break up the Union.
Georgia lawmakers announced opposing plans this past week regarding Stone Mountain Park. One would likely protect Confederate imagery at the state-owned park, while another would push for removal of tributes to the Rebels who sought to break up the Union.

A new battle begins over Stone Mountain

Stone Mountain sits once again in the middle of a fight over Confederate monuments.

Democrats have filed legislation to remove most monuments to the Confederacy and slavery across Georgia, and that includes eliminating restrictions on the Stone Mountain Memorial Association’s ability to make changes to Confederate imagery at the park.

The memorial association is a state authority charged by law with maintaining an “appropriate” tribute to the Confederacy at the park.

Meanwhile, Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, has filed House Bill 220, which would ensure that a group interested in maintaining tributes to the Rebels who fought against the United States, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, would have two members on the memorial association’s 13-member board. Two other seats would belong to the Georgia Civil War Commission.

Countering is Stone Mountain Democratic Rep. Billy Mitchell’s plan to give the memorial association more leeway in making changes at the park, the home of a massive carving of Rebel leaders Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

Mitchell appeared at a press conference with Rep. Shelly Hutchinson, D-Snellville, who filed House Bills 237 and 238, which would not only remove the protections for Confederate monuments in current Georgia law but expressly prohibit tributes that are “related to the Confederate States of America, slave owners or persons advocating for slavery” on public property. Exceptions would be made for museums and Civil War battlefields.

Efforts to weaken protections for Confederate monuments would likely face a difficult fight in the Republican-dominated Legislature, but the Democrats are confident in their cause.

“The reality is, it’s not a matter of if these symbols come down,” Mitchell said. “It’s just when.”

Kemp makes move to add teachers

Gov. Brian Kemp is backing legislation aimed at boosting the number of teachers in the state’s workforce.

Kemp’s proposal would clear the way for retired teachers to work full time in regions where they’re needed. Other measures would make it easier for veterans to become teachers, and teacher colleges would receive help in recruiting more minority students.

Teacher shortages have been an acute issue during the coronavirus pandemic, but Stephen Pruitt, executive director of the Southern Regional Education Board, said they are also a long-term problem. Rural areas, in particular, have had difficulty finding teachers for math, science and special education. Pruitt, whose group advises Georgia and 15 other states, said some states are beginning to find trouble filling openings in elementary schools.

Retired teachers are already allowed to return to classrooms, but if they are drawing a pension, they are limited by state law to work only part time. Kemp’s proposal, which has the support of state School Superintendent Richard Woods, would remove that restriction.

Stat of the Week: 81 centenarians in state pension program

That apple for the teacher certainly had some long-lasting benefits.

While reporting that the Teachers Retirement System had seen a strong recovery following devastating losses at the beginning of the pandemic recession, Executive Director Buster Evans told a legislative panel that of the 137,000 former educators receiving pensions, 8,590 were age 85 or older.

That included 81 retirees over age 100, Evans said.

He noted that only one is a man.

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