Capitol Recap: Raises, bonuses and refunds move ahead in Georgia Legislature

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Budget proposal sees some tweaking in state Senate

Pay raises, bonuses and refunds all made steady progress in the Legislature this past week, good news for state workers, teachers and taxpayers.

A beefed-up midyear budget saw a few alterations in the state Senate, but it still promises to put lots of money in people’s pockets this election year.

The midyear budget is normally used to update the books, accounting for additional expenses tied to rising school enrollment and increased costs for Medicaid, the state-federal health care program for the poor, disabled and nursing care.

But this is not a normal year.

The state is sitting on a $3.7 billion surplus from fiscal 2021, which ended June 30, and that’s just for starters. Revenue — mostly in the form of income and sales taxes — has continued to pour in, running 17.9% ahead of last year’s strong numbers for the first seven months of fiscal 2022.

With that kind of money piling up, Gov. Brian Kemp saw a chance to go big in his fiscal 2022 midyear budget.

Kemp — who is running for reelection this year — proposed $1.6 billion in state income tax refunds, giving single filers $250 and joint filers $500. The state House approved a bill outlining that, and the Senate included it in its version of the budget this past week.

The governor also proposed $5,000 raises for state workers and University System of Georgia employees, plus bonuses of $2,000 for full-time k-12 employees and $1,000 for part-timers. (Educators are also in for a $2,000 raise in Kemp’s spending plan for fiscal 2023, which would allow him to fulfill a 2018 campaign promise to boost their pay by $5,000 overall.)

The Senate did some tinkering with the proposed raises.

That was good news for guards and not so good news for lawmakers, statewide officials and judges.

The panel took that $5,000 raise for state workers and bumped it up even further, to $9,000, for officers in the Department of Corrections and the Department of Juvenile Justice, two agencies facing heavy turnover.

But it shot down most of the $5,000 increase for state legislators, statewide officials and judges.

It was a matter of timing.

Kemp wanted the cost-of-living increase for state workers to kick in later in this fiscal year, which ends June 30, so his plan called for giving employees $3,750 in April and then award the rest in May and June as a pay raise.

The House approved that proposal, but the Senate panel saw that first installment, in the case of lawmakers, statewide officials and judges, as an unconstitutional bonus. Instead, it cut their proposed pay increase to $1,250 this fiscal year.

The Senate and House will have to work out some agreement before the final gavel falls on the session in April.

Republicans serve up plan for $1 billion tax cut

All 236 seats in the General Assembly are up for election this year, which made it highly likely a proposal would be coming seeking a big tax cut.

Georgia House Republican leaders came through this past week, producing a plan they estimate would save taxpayers $1 billion a year.

The state’s progressive income tax, which tops out at 5.75%, would be converted into a flat rate of 5.25%.

But there’s more.

The standard exemption would increase from $2,700 for single filers to $12,000 and from $7,400 for married couples filing jointly to $24,000. Dependent exemptions would remain at $3,000.

Deductions would go away, except for charitable contributions. That would include the current $5,400 standard deduction for single taxpayers and $7,100 for married couples filing jointly.

Retirees, fear not. Your current exemptions 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.

The proposal comes with a start date of 2024, giving budget writers time to figure out how to make up for the loss of tax revenue.

Naturally, top income earners would be the biggest winners under this plan. But House Speaker David Ralston’s office estimates 95% of Georgians would pay less in taxes under the proposal.

Sounding a note of caution was Danny Kanso, senior policy analyst at the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. He pointed to a bit of recent history, when the General Assembly had to cut spending by 10% two years ago because of slow collections.

“The recent volatility in Georgia’s revenue collections that only months ago forced billions in budget cuts demonstrates the necessity of preserving our state’s ability to fund health care and public education, without overtaxing low- and middle-income families, who are disproportionately people of color,” Kanso said.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Judge upholds Georgia’s new political maps — at least for now

Georgia’s newly drawn political maps will stay in place for this election cycle.

U.S. District Judge Steve Jones, deciding it’s too close to the state’s May 24 primary, said this year’s elections will use the lines that the GOP-led General Assembly settled on during a November special session.

But he left the door open to changes for future elections.

“The court cautions that this is an interim, non-final ruling that should not be viewed as an indication of how the court will ultimately rule on the merits at trial,” Jones wrote in a 238-page order.

Jones is overseeing a case in which the plaintiffs have argued that Georgia’s redistricting discriminated against Black voters by weakening their ability to elect candidates who represent them.

Demographic shifts in the new maps mean Republicans are likely to gain an additional seat in the U.S. House, where they currently hold an 8-6 majority among the state’s representatives.

Nonwhite voters make up the majority in four of the state’s 14 congressional districts. That’s the same as before redistricting, even though the state’s Black population has surged by 16%, or nearly 500,000 people, since 2010. The state’s white population fell by 1% over the same period.

The plaintiffs are seeking creation of another Black-majority congressional district.

Jones found that the plaintiffs have satisfied many of the factors required to prove the state’s maps violated the federal Voting Rights Act. Those factors include a state’s history of voting discrimination, whether there are enough Black voters to constitute an additional district, and evidence that bloc voting by the majority denies the minority’s ability to elect its preferred candidates.

Change now, though, would have been too complicated.

“The court finds that the public interest of the state of Georgia would be significantly undermined by altering the election calendar and unwinding the electoral process at this point,” Jones wrote. “Elections are complex and election calendars are finely calibrated processes, and significant upheaval and voter confusion can result if changes are made late in the process.”

Candidate qualifying for the primary election begins Monday, and then voters will be mailed notifications of their new congressional, state and county districts before early voting in the state primary begins May 2.

Greene appearance at white nationalist rally spurs backlash

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene faced harsh words and even some action following her recent appearance at a white nationalist rally where attendees cheered Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and chanted Vladimir Putin’s name in appreciation.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker announced that he would no longer attend a gun rally in Rome that Greene organized.

Walker had been set to speak at the event alongside Florida U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, strategist Steve Bannon and other far-right figures.

Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who is challenging Gov. Brian Kemp in the GOP primary, said he still planned to attend.

Otherwise, the response was mostly verbal to Greene’s speech at the America First Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida.

Greene took the stage following an introduction by white nationalist Nick Fuentes during which he praised “young white men” and encouraged applause for Russia following its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The Republican congresswoman pleaded ignorance, telling CBS News after the rally that she did not know Fuentes, had never heard him speak and didn’t know his views.

But she also issued a statement saying she wouldn’t disavow the white nationalist group over a “few off color remarks” by its organizer.

What followed were condemnations from U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other top Republicans. Some were similar to responses when Greene stirred up other controversies with hateful, xenophobic and anti-Semitic remarks, or messages posted on social media endorsing violence against political opponents.

McCarthy said Greene should have ditched the event as soon as Fuentes called for a “round of applause for Russia” and the crowd chanted Putin’s name in support.

McConnell said “there’s no place in the Republican Party for white supremacists or anti-Semitism,” though he didn’t single out Greene or Arizona U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, who also spoke at the rally.

Utah U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, the GOP nominee for president in 2012, was tougher.

“Morons. I have morons on my team,” he said on CNN, referring to Greene and Gosar.

Possibly more important to Greene, she lost a fan closer to home in conservative radio host Shelley Wynter. A Greene defender in the past, he was set to give airtime to her three long-shot Republican challengers on his show on News 95.5 and AM 750 WSB. “Enough is enough,” Wynter said on Twitter.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

House backs permit-less carry of handguns

Republicans in the state Senate passed legislation allowing most Georgians to carry a concealed handgun without first getting a license.

Supporters of Senate Bill 319 said it would remove an unnecessary barrier to their constitutional right to carry handguns. Opponents said the proposal would eliminate one of the only checks to ensure people carrying weapons have a legal right to do so.

The law prevents people from carrying a gun if they have prior drug convictions; they have been convicted of a felony or are facing felony charges; they have been treated for mental health issues or substance abuse issues within the past five years; or they have been involuntarily committed to a mental health hospital.

Georgians wishing to carry a handgun currently must apply for a license with their local probate court or sheriff’s office, depending on the county; get fingerprinted; submit to a background check; and pay a fee up to $75.

Under SB 319, background checks would still be required when buying a handgun from a store or a dealer.

Background checks would not be required, however, for personal sales or transfers, something state Sen. Michelle Au, a Johns Creek Democrat, wanted changed.

She cited a 2017 study by the Annals of Internal Medicine that found 1 in 4 gun sales and transfers were completed without a background check.

“This leaves a huge hole in our safety net, further exacerbated by the fact that with the passage of SB 319, this background check at the point of sale would be the first and only way to weed out those who should not have legal access to firearms,” she said.

Her attempt to amend the bill, however, failed.

Gun rights advocates have pushed for years to rid the state of the licensing process. Their efforts got a boost this year when Gov. Brian Kemp — who faces a stiff GOP primary fight for reelection — supported passing permit-less carry legislation.

An Atlanta Journal Constitution poll found in January that about 70% of Georgia voters surveyed believe gun owners should be required to get a license before carrying a concealed handgun. That included 54% of Republicans.

SB 319 now heads to the state House.

Candidates, endorsements, etc.:

— Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler announced that he will not seek reelection to a fourth term.

— Saira Draper, who heads the state Democratic Party’s voter protection initiative, announced that she is running for the open seat in state House District 89. The district is currently represented by state Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta, who is running for secretary of state.

— Republican leaders in the Georgia Senate announced the creation of Citizens for a Greater Georgia and the Georgia Republican Senatorial Committee, under legislation the GOP-led General Assembly approved last year to allow party leaders in both chambers, among others, to establish “leadership committees” that can raise money during legislative sessions and ignore the contribution limits placed on candidates.

Lawmakers, however, are considering Senate Bill 580, legislation authored by state Sen. Greg Dolezal, R-Alpharetta, that would prohibit leadership committees from raising money during legislative sessions.

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/: