Capitol Recap: Special Fulton County grand jury to investigate Trump

A special grand jury will be impaneled in Fulton County to investigate whether Donald Trump violated the law in his efforts to reverse the outcome of Georgia’s 2020 presidential election. (Doug Mills/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

A special grand jury will be impaneled in Fulton County to investigate whether Donald Trump violated the law in his efforts to reverse the outcome of Georgia’s 2020 presidential election. (Doug Mills/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)

Probe to focus on efforts to overturn results of Georgia’s presidential election

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has won approval to set up a special grand jury to investigate whether former President Donald Trump violated any laws in his efforts to reverse the outcome of Georgia’s 2020 election.

A majority of the county’s Superior Court judges OK’d the request that Willis’ office submitted earlier this month.

The special grand jury will be impaneled May 2 and can pursue its investigation up to a year.

Willis launched her criminal probe nearly a year ago, with the focus on a Jan. 2, 2021, phone call Trump made to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger urging his fellow Republican to “find” the 11,780 votes needed to overcome Democrat Joe Biden’s victory in Georga.

She has indicated that her team is also examining the abrupt resignation of former Atlanta-based U.S. Attorney BJay Pak; a November 2020 call that South Carolina Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham placed to Raffensperger; and false claims that Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani made during a hearing before the Georgia Senate Judiciary Committee.

Willis has told state officials in the past that her office was probing potential violations of Georgia law including criminal solicitation to commit election fraud, intentional interference with the performance of election duties, conspiracy and racketeering.

The district attorney has said that a special grand jury is necessary because a “significant number of witnesses and prospective witnesses have refused to cooperate with the investigation absent a subpoena requiring their testimony.” She said that includes Raffensperger, who would presumably be a star witness.

Raffensperger has said his office has been cooperative, and he has accused Willis, a Democrat, of trying to score political points. But he also told Fox News that he would “follow the law and come before a grand jury and testify.”

Trump has called his phone call to Raffensperger “perfect” and said that a special grand jury should instead be looking into his false claim that “large scale voter fraud” occurred during the state’s election.

Three ballot counts have verified Biden’s victory, and multiple investigations have found no evidence of a coordinated effort to change votes.

Willis said recently that a decision on whether to bring charges against Trump could come in the first half of 2022.

Fulton prosecutors are sharing information with investigators in New York and on Capitol Hill, where Trump is facing other local, state and federal probes.

Ralston takes rare step in push to improve state’s mental health services

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston has rarely placed his name on a bill during his time as head of the chamber, but he’s putting his shoulder behind legislation to increase access to mental health services.

House Bill 1013 aims to increase the number of mental health professionals in the state, require insurance companies to cover mental health the same way they cover physical health, give first responders help when they’re called into a mental health crisis, and improve data and transparency in the sector.

“Mental health issues touch almost every family in this state,” Ralston said. “Mental health intersects with public safety. It drains our economy of productivity. At its most basic level, it allows hopelessness to win the battle for the future and bring pain to those who are left to suffer the consequences.”

Mental health also plays a role in a number of sad statistics:

Georgia ranks last for the number of mental health professionals per capita.

— The state has only eight psychiatrists per 100,000 children, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, which says a ratio of 47 per 100,000 would be more appropriate.

— Overdose deaths in the state totaled 2,036 from April 2020 to April 2021, a 36% increase over the previous year.

— The Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities reported that its Georgia Crisis and Access Line saw a 24% increase in calls, texts and chats from state residents.

— That agency also lost 1,096 of the 3,837 employees over the past two years, meaning 185 beds at psychiatric hospitals couldn’t be filled because of a lack of staffing.

While some other statistics don’t reflect on Georgia as a whole, they are just as alarming. That includes an 8% increase in suicides in rural areas between 2019 and 2020, even as the state’s overall rate declined.

Ralston’s bill is rooted in a report from the Georgia Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission that produced more than 50 recommendations to change Georgia’s laws.

Ralston has lined up bipartisan support for HB 1013, and Gov. Brian Kemp is also a backer.

Suit seeks work requirement for some who would receive Medicaid

Georgia is taking the Biden administration to court again, this time seeking permission to impose a work and activity requirement on some Georgians seeking coverage under Medicaid, the state-federal public health program for the poor, disabled and elderly living in nursing homes.

The suit aims to put in place Gov. Brian Kemp’s proposal that gained approval as the Trump administration neared its end, before it was rejected by the Biden administration.

Under Kemp’s plan, some Georgians receiving the benefits would either have to work at least 80 hours a month, attend certain school programs or engage in other specific activities.

The Kemp administration has estimated that his plan would cover about 50,000 poor adults in Georgia. Earlier estimates showed that a full Medicaid expansion could cover 400,000 Georgians in need of health insurance.

The governor’s plan would not cover, for example, someone who is a full-time caretaker for a relative with Alzheimer’s disease or someone who does volunteer work that’s not registered with an approved nonprofit.

Courts have also ruled against work requirements, saying they do not meet the Medicaid law’s objective to provide health coverage. The Kemp administration maintains that the engagement requirement is not a work requirement.

Georgia is one of 12 states that have not expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

Medicaid expansion is sure to be an issue in this year’s race for governor, but it’s actually not up to the governor. The Georgia Legislature passed a law in 2014 giving itself the power to determine whether to expand the program.

The lawsuit is at least the 12th that Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr has filed or joined accusing the federal government of overreach since he was appointed to the position in 2016. They include making Georgia the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging President Joe Biden’s mandate that all federal contractors be vaccinated against COVID-19.

State Sen. Bo Hatchett, R-Clarkesville, said he plans to file a bill that will ensure students don’t learn lessons in school that make them feel guilty or inferior based on their race. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

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Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

Republican senators target critical race theory as a top priority for session

GOP legislators have vowed to block the teaching of “critical race theory” in Georgia’s schools.

First, though, they have to figure out what it is.

“In order to have an honest dialogue, we have to define the terms,” state Sen. Bo Hatchett of Clarkesville said at a Senate Republican Caucus press conference to discuss its priorities. “We believe that there are concepts that are being taught in Georgia colleges and universities and seeping down into our k-12 schools — concepts that an overwhelming majority of Georgians outright reject.”

Critical race theory is used in higher education to examine the effect of racism on society. Public school leaders say the theory itself is not taught in k-12 classrooms, but critics say its tenets about systemic inequity have influenced teachers and curriculum.

Hatchett, one of Gov. Brian Kemp’s floor leaders, is backing bills that he said will ensure students don’t learn lessons in school that make them feel guilty or inferior based on their race.

“We can uphold free speech and academic freedom while ensuring that our history — with all of its shining moments and its painful stains — is something we are to learn from, not something that is stamped into our DNA,” he said.

Critical race theory, or CRT, became a national issue after Republican Glenn Youngkin used it to drum conservatives to the polls in his successful campaign for Virginia governor. Once he took office, one of his first official acts was to sign an executive order banning the use of CRT in schools.

Three other priorities that the caucus identified were increasing penalties on those involved in violent protests, investing in the expansion of apprenticeship programs and pushing to stop social media organizations from banning politicians and political candidates.

State Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, who is running for lieutenant governor, proposed a constitutional amendment that would bar noncitizens from voting in Georgia. It failed to win the two-thirds majority it needed to advance out of the state Senate. Georgia already has a law that blocks noncitizens from voting, but Miller said his proposal would prevent it from being changed in the future. (Photo: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta-Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nathan Posner

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Credit: Nathan Posner

Senate knocks down constitutional amendment to block noncitizen voters

The state Senate denied a proposed constitutional amendment the two-thirds majority it needed to block noncitizens from voting.

Georgia already has a law that limits voting to U.S. citizens

A constitutional amendment, however, would have prevented the General Assembly from someday passing a bill permitting noncitizens to participate in elections, as New York City recently did, allowing its 800,000 noncitizens to vote in local elections. Nobody in the Georgia General Assembly has made a move to follow New York City’s lead.

The Senate vote fell along party lines at 33-14, five short of what’s needed in the 56-member chamber to advance a proposed constitutional amendment. Eight Democrats and one Republican didn’t vote.

The state constitution says that citizens are entitled to vote. State Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller’s proposal, Senate Resolution 363, would have changed the constitution’s language to say that only citizens can vote.

Miller, a Gainesville Republican running for lieutenant governor against an opponent backed by former President Donald Trump, said SR 363 would block potential changes in the future.

In his race for the state’s No. 2 job, Miller faces competition from a Republican colleague in the Senate, Trump-backed state Sen. Burt Jones of Jackson, who voted for the resolution.

Democrats said the resolution was all about that race between Miller and Jones, designed to motivate conservative voters.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, another Republican who faces a tough election this year, has also called for a constitutional amendment to bar noncitizens from voting.

Allegations of noncitizens voting in Georgia elections are extremely rare. The State Election Board in February imposed a $500 fine on a woman who was not a citizen when she voted in Gwinnett County in 2012 and 2016.

Even if the Senate had passed SR 363, it would have needed to clear the House by a two-thirds majority before being placed on a ballot with final approval requiring a majority of Georgia voters.

Bill would block mailing of abortion pill

A Republican state senator has filed legislation that would prevent delivery of an abortion pill through the mail.

Senate Bill 351 follows a decision by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allowing mail delivery of the drug mifepristone to those who hold a prescription.

The bill, introduced by state Sen. Bruce Thompson, R-White, would require pregnant women to see a doctor in person before being able to get the drug.

The legislation, which has 24 Republican co-sponsors, would also require pregnant women to sign an “informed authorization consent form” that tells a patient, among other things, that medication abortions can be reversed. Medical groups have said the science does not support assertions made in recent years by anti-abortion activists that medication abortions are reversible.

Courts in states such as Tennessee and Indiana have ruled against requirements instructing abortion providers to tell patients that medical abortions are reversible.

Six states have passed laws that ban the mailing of the abortion pill.

The Biden administration, as the coronavirus caused a rise in doctor’s visits by phone or online, temporarily waived a requirement in April that pregnant women have in-person visits to gain access to the abortion pill. Last month, the FDA made the temporary allowance permanent.

“When the Biden administration authorized the mail order of the abortion pills without having a physician involved in that process, we feel that that is putting women in grave danger,” said Thompson, a candidate for labor commissioner.

The FDA guidelines still require doctors to prescribe the abortion pill before it can be sent through the mail.

Candidates, endorsements, etc.:

— Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock reported raising $9.8 million in the last three months of 2021, and he has about $23 million in the bank to fund his reelection campaign.

Republican Herschel Walker, who is running to unseat Warnock, reported raising $5.4 million during the past quarter, and he is expected to disclose in his campaign filing that he has about $5 million in cash on hand.

—The left-leaning End Citizens United/Let America Vote has endorsed Democrat Stacey Abrams’ second run for governor.

— Former state Rep. Scott Hilton, a Republican who served in the Georgia House from 2017 to 2019, is challenging Democratic state Rep. Mary Robichaux in a newly drawn district that stretches from Peachtree Corners to Roswell.

— Republican Rich McCormick, an emergency room physician who lost a close race in 2020 to Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux in the 7th Congressional District, has once again gained the endorsement of Club for Growth PAC. This time, the Washington-based political action committee is supporting McCormick’s run in the newly drawn, GOP-friendly 6th Congressional District.

— Former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn is backing Democratic U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux in her 7th Congressional District primary against U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath. Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has endorsed McBath.