Capitol Recap: Voting still the prime issue of Georgia legislative session

(Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
(Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

Massive election bill gains House approval

Voting has been the dominant issue, so far, of the legislative session, and this past week saw one of the biggest of all such bills clear the House.

House Bill 531, among other things, would limit ballot drop boxes to locations inside early voting locations, reduce “Souls to the Polls” voting events to one Sunday during early voting, and require some form of ID to request absentee ballots.

Lawmakers in 43 states are considering over 250 bills that would increase restrictions on voting, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a policy institute at New York University, and Georgia can count itself as a national leader with dozens of such bills in the works.

The bills were spurred by a nationwide debate over election access and security rooted in Republican Donald Trump’s false claims of election fraud following his failed bid for reelection as president. Legislative Republicans in Georgia who support Trump’s claims have expressed no problems with the results of their own General Assembly races held during the same election.

Election officials, including Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, have said there’s no evidence of widespread fraud that could have overturned the election, and the results were verified by recounts and audits.

HB 531 won passage in the House on a vote along party lines of 97-72.

Democrats who opposed HB 531 said it would suppress voting.

“Republicans in the Georgia General Assembly are trying to change the rules of the election here in Georgia, rules that you wrote, because you were handed defeat,” said state Rep. Kimberly Alexander, a Democrat from Hiram.

GOP legislators countered that HB 531 is needed to restore faith in the state’s elections by increasing their security.

“The way we begin to restore confidence in our voting system is by passing this bill,” said state Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem. “There are many commonsense measures here to begin that process.”

He’s right that there are many measures in HB 531. It would:

  • Limit Sunday voting to one optional Sunday in each county.
  • Restrict the use of ballot drop boxes by requiring them to be located inside early voting locations.
  • Require a driver’s license number, state ID number or copy of photo ID to vote absentee.
  • Set a deadline to request absentee ballots 11 days before election day
  • Disqualify provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct.
  • Ban outside funding of elections from nonprofit organizations.
  • Prohibit governments from mailing unsolicited absentee ballot applications.
  • Create instant-runoff voting for military and overseas voters.
  • Schedule runoffs four weeks after election day rather than the current nine weeks.
  • Prevent free food and drinks for voters waiting in line to vote.
  • Restrict early voting buses to emergencies.

Income tax cut moves forward without opposition

The state House voted 171-0 to give Georgians a little more folding money by increasing the standard deduction taxpayers take when filing their income tax returns.

The $140 million proposal would have a small impact — less than $100 for a married couple filing jointly.

House Ways and Means Chairman Shaw Blackmon, R-Bonaire, the sponsor of House Bill 593, called it “a modest first step.”

More money could potentially be headed back to Georgians. If Congress passes a massive new $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package that includes more federal aid to states, it could pave the way for a bigger tax cut.

Blackmon’s bill would increase the standard deduction for a single taxpayer by $800. The deduction for married couples who file a joint return would be $1,100. Georgians over 65 or blind would get an additional $1,300 deduction.

The proposal now moves to the Senate.

A Georgia House panel voted in favor of legislation that would require health care facilities to allow at least one person to have access to a patient for at least one hour a day, even under conditions that could foster the spread of the coronavirus. Ryon Horne/RHORNE@AJC.COM
A Georgia House panel voted in favor of legislation that would require health care facilities to allow at least one person to have access to a patient for at least one hour a day, even under conditions that could foster the spread of the coronavirus. Ryon Horne/RHORNE@AJC.COM

Credit: rhorne@ajc.com

Credit: rhorne@ajc.com

Bill advances that would ensure visitations to hospitals, nursing homes

Legislation moved forward this past week to make hospitals and nursing homes allow visitors despite concerns it could spread the COVID-19 virus.

House Bill 290 would require health care facilities to allow at least one person to have access to a patient for at least one hour a day. It also would bar the governor from imposing any limitations on visits — including during a health emergency such as the current COVID-19 pandemic.

The House Human Relations and Aging Committee backed the bill on a 12-6 vote.

House Science and Technology Chairman Ed Setzler, an Acworth Republican and the sponsor of HB 290, said allowing a “legal representative” to visit ensures that the patient is getting the best care possible.

Opponents have expressed concern that allowing an additional person into health care facilities no matter the circumstances — such as during a health emergency — could further exacerbate the problem.

The bill would prevent anyone from suing a health care facility if he or she got sick or was harmed because the hospital or nursing home allowed patients to receive visitors. It would also allow a patient to sue a health care facility that banned guests.

Panel gives green light for ‘granny cams’

With help from the Georgia Supreme Court, “granny cams” now have a chance of gaining approval in the General Assembly.

The House approved House Bill 605, which would set rules and restrictions for families to place the cameras within senior care homes.

The bill would:

  • Allow a resident or family member to install a camera to monitor a room after disclosing the plan to the senior care home.
  • Prevent use of a hidden camera.
  • Require, in cases where the senior has a roommate, that person’s permission.
  • Set guidelines for authorizing when a camera can be turned off, such as when a resident is being dressed or bathed, or when the resident is meeting with a spiritual adviser or attorney.

Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, said she introduced the “compromise” bill to balance the interests of residents, families and long-term care homes after a high court ruling suggested residents could install hidden cameras for security purposes.

Some advocates worried, though, that the bill favors the interests of the long-term care industry over the residents and families. A particular concern was that staff might turn off the camera inappropriately.

Panel backs gender requirement in high school sports

Students participating in high school sports would have to compete according to the gender that appears on their birth certificate under a proposal moving up in the Georgia Senate.

The biggest impact from Senate Bill 266 would apparently apply to transgender girls.

Sen. Marty Harbin, a Tyrone Republican and the sponsor of SB 266 said it “protects the level playing field.”

“Forcing girls to play against biological males limits the ability of young women in the state of Georgia to win competitions, receive scholarships and to achieve the highest levels of success and in their sports,” Harbin said.

Harbin was unable to list any instances where a transgender girl either took the spot of another student or received a scholarship that another young athlete could have received in Georgia. But he said it was important to get ahead of the issue.

Jen Slipakoff said the legislation would leave her 13-year-old transgender daughter unable to participate in sports.

“It’s not dangerous for my daughter to be on the same sports team as her girlfriends,” said Slipakoff, who described her lacrosse-playing daughter as 4 feet 6 inches tall and weighing 60 pounds. “She’s not taking the spot of another more deserving girl — as if my daughter deserves less. She’s not a threat. Rather, she’s a teenager that has worked for the last decade trying to help people understand who she really is.”

The bill would require schools to define a student’s gender based on “a person’s reproductive biology and genetics at birth.” A young athlete who could prove she was deprived of an opportunity that was given to a transgender girl, or was harmed by a transgender girl while playing a sport, could then sue the school or school system for damages.

Opponents of the bill warned that it could lead to increased suicide attempts by transgender children. They also said it could cost the state money by jeopardizing its ability to hold large events, such as those put on by the NCAA.

The Senate Education and Youth Committee approved the measure on a party-line vote of 5-3, with Republicans voting in favor of the bill.

Jim Beck has been under suspension as Georgia's insurance commissioner since mid-May following an indictment on charges alleging that he swindled a previous employer of $2 million. He has continued to receive a state paycheck while on suspension. (PHOTO by EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com)</p>
Jim Beck has been under suspension as Georgia's insurance commissioner since mid-May following an indictment on charges alleging that he swindled a previous employer of $2 million. He has continued to receive a state paycheck while on suspension. (PHOTO by EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com)</p>

Credit: � 2019 Cox Media Group.

Credit: � 2019 Cox Media Group.

Effort underway to stop paying indicted officials

Jim Beck hasn’t been to work since mid-May 2019, but that hasn’t stopped him from cashing $343,000 in paychecks.

Beck has been on suspension as Georgia’s insurance commissioner following his indictment on charges alleging that he swindled his former employer out of $2 million. He has said he’s not guilty.

Legislation is now working its way through the Senate that would make sure officials in similar positions in the future don’t continue to receive pay.

The Senate Government Oversight Committee has given its blessing to Senate Bill 218 and Senate Resolution 134, which Sen. Larry Walker, R-Perry, filed a few weeks after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that by the end of the fiscal year, the state will have paid about $400,000 in salary and benefits to Beck.

SB 218 would deal with local officials, such as district attorneys. Paulding County District Attorney Dick Donovan was recently indicted on charges of bribery, violation of oath by public officer, and two counts of false swearing. He has denied the charges, and Gov. Brian Kemp has placed him on suspension.

SR 134 more closely relates to cases like Beck’s situation. It would apply to state officials who are indicted on charges related to their performance in office. It would require a constitutional amendment, meaning voters would have to give it final approval in 2022.

Beck, himself, would not be affected. First, he’s expected to go to court later this year to face trial on charges alleging that he stole money to pay personal credit card bills and taxes, and pump money into his 2018 campaign for insurance commissioner. Also, his charges involve activity before he took office.

If Beck is cleared of the criminal charges, he is entitled to move back into his job, and he could run for reelection in 2022.

Meanwhile, the state will continue to pay two insurance commissioners: Beck and Kemp’s choice to replace him, John King.

A Georgia Senate panel gave its approval for legislation that would allow restaurants to sell two cocktails per entree to go in sealed containers. Cocktails offer restaurants a high profit margin, which could provide some help to eateries struggling while many of their customers continue to stay at home during the coronavirus pandemic.
A Georgia Senate panel gave its approval for legislation that would allow restaurants to sell two cocktails per entree to go in sealed containers. Cocktails offer restaurants a high profit margin, which could provide some help to eateries struggling while many of their customers continue to stay at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

Stat of the Week: COVID-19 shut down 3,800 Georgia restaurants

The state’s restaurant industry took a $5 billion hit in 2020 as diners stayed home to avoid contracting COVID-19, said Karen Bremer, president of the Georgia Restaurant Association. That forced the closure of 3,800 eateries and cost 100,000 employees their jobs.

So cocktails are in order, she told a Georgia Senate committee.

Bremer was speaking in support of Senate Bill 236, which would allow restaurants to sell two cocktails per entree to go in sealed containers.

The Senate voted in support of the measure.

Cocktails offer the highest profit margins for restaurants that sell them, Bremer said, and “would be something that would bring back hope to some of the restaurants that are teetering right now.”

Speaking against the bill was Mike Griffin, a longtime lobbyist for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, who said it seems as if the alcoholic beverage industry wants to continually erode any restrictions.

“It’s like we’ll never be satisfied from the industry side unless it’s sold 24/7 and from every lemonade stand,” he said.

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