Kemp announces $350 cash assistance to low-income Georgians

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp announced Monday he plans to distribute one-time $350 payments to Georgians enrolled in certain public benefit programs.  
Kemp said the total amount distributed will be more than $1 billion.  
Georgians who were actively enrolled in Medicaid, food benefits, and the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) programs by July 31 will receive the benefits.  
“This assistance will help some of Georgia’s most vulnerable citizens cope with the continued negative economic impact of the COVID-19 public health emergency and 40-year-high inflation caused by disastrous policies that were implemented by the Biden administration,” a Kemp statement said.
The funds, which came to the state through the federal American Rescue Plan Act, will be distributed through the Georgia Department of Human Services. Potentially eligible Georgians should log in to their Georgia Gateway accounts to ensure their contact information is updated, the announcement said.
Georgia has a historic budget surplus, in part due to COVID relief funds that flowed into the state from the federal government and partly due to record economic growth.  
Last week, Kemp announced that he also plans to provide income tax and property tax rebates to Georgians next year – if he is re-elected in November. Those two relief measures are expected to total $2 billion.  
A spokesman for Democrat Stacey Abrams – who is challenging Kemp for the governorship – criticized the announcement as a “political gimmick.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.  

Judge: Abortion law to remain in effect

ATLANTA – Georgia’s “heartbeat” abortion law will continue to operate while a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law is pending, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney ruled Monday.  

The order represents a setback for abortion-rights advocates who had argued the judge should immediately block the law while their case against it was pending.  

The Georgia law bans most abortions after fetal cardiac activity is detected, usually around six weeks of pregnancy.  

Though Georgia’s law was initially adopted in 2019, abortion-rights groups challenged it in federal court and prevented the law from taking effect until this year.

A federal appeals court put Georgia’s law into immediate effect last month, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court opened the way by overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion. 

The group of plaintiffs – including reproductive-rights groups Planned Parenthood Southeast and SisterSong – then turned to state courts, claiming that the abortion law violates the Georgia Constitution’s right to privacy.  

During last week’s hearing, the groups asked the court to block the Georgia law from taking effect while the lawsuit was pending.  

McBurney declined to do so Monday, stating that “the court is dismissing the motion not on its merits but because the court lacks jurisdiction to consider its merits.”  

He made clear the case will continue to examine the constitutionality of the abortion law.  

“The question of whether it is constitutional for the state to force a woman to carry to term a six-week-old embryo against her wishes, even in the face of serious medical risk, remains to be answered,” McBurney concluded his Monday order.  

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation

Lindsey Graham ordered to testify in Fulton probe of bid to overturn Georgia election

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham

ATLANTA – A federal judge Monday ordered U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham to testify before the Fulton County special grand jury investigating attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election in Georgia.

Graham, R-S.C., received a subpoena late last month to answer questions about two phone calls he allegedly made to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger after Democrat Joe Biden carried the Peach State on his way to winning the presidency over Republican incumbent Donald Trump.

Graham’s lawyer filed a motion to quash the subpoena, arguing the senator was shielded by the U.S. Constitution from being questioned about matters relating to legislative business.

As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, Graham maintained he made the calls in the course of “protected legislative factfinding inquiries” about mail-in voting and potential reforms to the process for counting Electoral College votes.

But U.S. District Judge Leigh Martin May declared in a 22-page ruling that the issues Graham raised with Raffensperger were political – not legislative – in nature.

“Individuals on the calls have publicly suggested that Senator Graham was not simply engaged in legislative factfinding but was instead suggesting or implying that Georgia election officials … potentially alter the state’s results,” the judge wrote.

Graham also argued he should not be forced to testify because he is a “high-ranking government official” and that the information he could give the jurors could be obtained elsewhere. Again, the judge disagreed.

“Senator Graham has unique personal knowledge about the substance and circumstances of the phone calls with Georgia election officials, as well as the logistics of setting them up and his actions afterward,” the ruling stated.

“Accordingly, Senator Graham’s potential testimony on these issues—in addition to his knowledge about topics outside of the calls such as his alleged coordination with the Trump campaign before and after the calls are unique to Senator Graham.”

The order for Graham to testify before the special grand jury follows the similar rejection of a motion to quash a subpoena Fulton District Attorney Fanni Willis issued to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, to appear before the panel.

Giuliani was among the witnesses who questioned the legitimacy of Biden’s win in Georgia in testimony before the state Senate  in December 2020.

He presented a video of election workers at State Farm Area in Atlanta producing “suitcases” of unlawful ballots, a video that was quickly debunked by Raffensperger’s office.  

U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Greensboro, a Trump ally who based an unsuccessful Republican primary challenge of Raffensperger on allegations of widespread voter fraud in the Georgia election, also lost a bid to quash a subpoena from the special grand jury.

Fulton Superior Court Judge Robert C.I. McBurney also has denied efforts to quash subpoenas lodged by a lawyer for 11 of the 16 Georgia Republicans who formed an alternate slate of electors for Trump in December 2020.

Pending a potential additional appeal, Graham is due to testify on Aug. 23.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Federal appellate court allows Public Service Commission elections to proceed

ATLANTA – A three-judge bench of a federal appeals court said Friday Georgia could hold Public Service Commission (PSC) elections in November as originally planned.

The appellate court’s 2-1 decision overturned a lower court’s order from last week. That initial order had blocked Georgia from holding PSC elections in two of the state’s five districts until the state changed the rules around voting for the PSC members.

The PSC regulates the state’s public utilities and sets utility rates. Under Georgia’s system, commissioners run statewide but must live in one of five districts.

The current case began when a group of prominent Black leaders sued the state, claiming the Black vote had been diluted.

A federal district court ruled in the group’s favor last week, finding Georgia’s unusual system for electing the commissioners violates the federal Voting Rights Act. The state immediately appealed.

Today’s majority appellate court opinion said recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings have made clear federal courts should not block elections close to the voting date.

“But if we are mistaken on this point, the Supreme Court can tell us,” the ruling concludes. 

By Friday evening, the plaintiffs had already filed an emergency motion asking the circuit court to reverse course and indicating they would appeal.

And lawyers for Georgia had already responded.

 “At the end of the day, the Secretary [of State] needs to know what to do: Does he include PSC races on the ballot proofs …or wait for further direction?,” the state’s response said.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.  

Senate study committee to consider education funding  

ATLANTA – The Georgia Senate Study Committee to Review Education Funding Mechanisms will meet next Friday to consider what changes are needed to how schools are funded in the Peach State.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, is chair of the committee.  
Other members of the committee are Senators Chuck Payne, R-Dalton; Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta; Blake Tillery, R- Vidalia; Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta; and Billy Hickman, R-Statesboro.  
The committee grew out of a senate resolution passed in this year’s legislative session. It will prepare recommendations for the General Assembly to consider during the 2023 session.  
The committee will likely focus on the Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula. That formula allocates school funding based on the number of students in a district and other factors. 
“Education has changed, and what we need for our students has changed, but we’re still operating off of an antiquated formula,” said Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators. “The resources should be available so we are providing a well-rounded education for every child.” 
She pointed out that teachers and schools are now asked to do much more than they were in the past.  
“The formula does not provide for enough counselors, social workers, nurses, and that is something we know is necessary,” Morgan said.  
Some key school employees – like cafeteria workers and bus drivers – are not listed in the state salary schedule, meaning it’s up to school districts to set their salaries, Morgan said.  
“We have shortages … in those support positions and part of the reason is because there is no pay scale for those positions to guarantee at least a minimum livable salary,” said Morgan.   
Some advocates are calling for the committee to look at revamping the formula to ensure districts get enough resources to help educate children living in poverty. 
Georgia is one of six states that lack an “opportunity weight,” which would provide extra funds for school districts to educate low-income students.    
“Easily the biggest blind spot our education funding system has is for those students living in poverty,” said Stephen Owens, a senior policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a progressive thinktank in Atlanta.
“The state recognizes the unique needs of students with disabilities, those learning English, kids in Career, Technical, Agricultural Education (CTAE),” Owens said.

“It’s time to support the largest challenge we have in schools: the connection between opportunity and parental income.” 

“It simply costs more money to educate a student living in poverty…to get the same academic outcomes,” explained Dana Rickman, president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, an independent nonprofit focused on improving education in the state.  
“It’s doesn’t have anything to do with their intellect or potential — it’s just they have more challenges and so you have to account for that,” Rickman said.  
Rickman said she hoped the committee would consider conducting a cost study to better understand Georgia’s education costs.  
“We have all these discussions with teachers and administrators, that we are expecting these sorts of results from our students. But we don’t know how much it would really cost to actually get the results,” Rickman said.  
“It would help guide our decisions if we understood the cost structure behind what we’re spending our money on,” Rickman said. 
Some advocates are likely to push to widen Georgia’s voucher and school-choice programs.   

“School choice for every family must become a reality for Georgia,” said Cole Muzio of Frontline Policy Council, a conservative organization. “Dollars should follow the child — allowing each individual child to reach their goals, empowering parents, and elevating education across Georgia.” 
Others – such as Terrence Wilson – disagree.  
“The funds dedicated to vouchers should be reinvested into public schools that can meet the needs of all students, particularly those with disabilities,” said Wilson, regional policy director for the Intercultural Development Research Association, a nonprofit devoted to educational equity.  
One model for the committee comes from Georgia’s neighbor to the north, Tennessee. That state revamped its education funding system earlier this year.  
The Tennessee reform effort was successful because it moved forward quickly and collected detailed feedback from stakeholders across the state, Christian Barnard wrote in a piece published Friday by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a conservative thinktank.  
“If Georgia legislators want a K-12 finance reform strategy to stick this time around, they need to focus on setting a clear vision, establishing a transparent public engagement process, and following an efficient timeline,” Barnard said.  
The study committee will meet next Friday, August 19 at 1 PM at the state Capitol. The committee also has set up a website where Georgians can livestream the meeting, sign up to testify via Zoom, and submit written testimony.  
The committee will also meet in Savannah on September 16th and Columbus on October 21.  
This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.