Coronavirus relief funds to rescue Georgia’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund

Gov. Brian Kemp

ATLANTA – The federal government is stepping up with $1.5 billion to replenish Georgia’s depleted Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, Gov. Brian Kemp announced Wednesday.

The money, which will come through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, will repay funds the state has borrowed to provide unemployment benefits to Georgians who lost their jobs during the pandemic.

“COVID-19 has brought unprecedented challenges to nearly every business – large and small – and upended the lives of millions of Georgians,” Kemp said. “Through no fault of their own, thousands of people became unemployed overnight, businesses were shut down, and countless families suffered.

“Today’s announcement will save Georgia employers millions of dollars in state and federal unemployment taxes, prevent significant layoffs, and save the state millions of dollars in interest payments.”

By allocating up to $1.5 billion in coronavirus relief funds to avoid raising state and federal unemployment taxes, the average Georgia employer will save about $350 per year for each employed worker.

But the state still won’t be out of the woods. With benefit payments projected to outpace tax revenue, Georgia will have to continue to borrow federal funds to pay benefits.

After the Great Recession of 2008-2009, it took three years until tax revenue outpaced benefit payments.

Unless the state raises employers’ tax rates for unemployment insurance or provides an injection of capital through another means, Georgia would have to borrow an additional $1 billion by 2023 to keep up with benefits payments, according to state Department of Labor estimates.

“Without the transfer of funds, the state will have to increase unemployment tax rates for employers between 300% and 400% to make headway on paying off the loan,” Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler said Wednesday. “This reallocation of federal funds will allow more employers across the state to focus on the growth and success of their businesses without having the additional pressure of a rising unemployment tax.”

Police funding, trust in Georgia focus of talk by law enforcement leaders, NAACP

Panelists in a virtual talk led by U.S. Attorney BJay Pak discussed criminal justice issues in Georgia on Aug. 25, 2020. (Screenshot of event)

How to rebuild trust in Georgia communities between police officers and local residents was a focus of talks Tuesday between representatives from metro Atlanta law enforcement agencies, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the state chapter of the NAACP.

Spearheaded by U.S. Attorney BJay Pak of the Northern District of Georgia, the virtual town hall-style talk touched on how officer-involved shootings are investigated, what can be done to improve officer training and the impact of calls for reduced police funding in local communities across the country.

“We have to acknowledge that right now we’re hurting,” Pak said. “We have to show some empathy and some patience, condemn the violence and talk to each other to find a common solution that all of us can agree with and buy into.”

The talk was held amid a backdrop of continuing protests against police brutality and racial injustice sparked by the officer-caused killing of George Floyd in Minnesota in late May and the local arrests of two men involved in the February shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick.

Protesters have also decried the fatal shooting of Rayshard Brooks by an Atlanta police officer in June shortly after nationwide protests gained steam. His killing prompted the resignation of Atlanta’s police chief at the time.

And new protests broke out in Kenosha, Wis., Sunday night after 29-year-old Jacob Blake was shot in the back by police while trying to get into his SUV as his three children inside the vehicle looked on.

Several communities nationwide have pressed for reducing funds for local police departments in recent months, marking a policy that has drawn sharp denouncement from many politicians including President Donald Trump.

James Woodall, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Georgia chapter, said the conversation around police funding requires more nuance than a wholesale call for fewer law enforcement dollars.

He said funding should be driven by local decisions based on the needs of individual communities, not by political talking points on either side of the partisan divide.

“We have to be having these conversations about what’s happening on the ground and not listen to the national voices and the national movements that are trying to underwrite what’s actually happening at the grassroots level,” Woodall said.

Chief Rodney Bryant, who now heads the Atlanta Police Department in an interim capacity, said he disagrees with efforts to reduce police funding given the increased resources departments like his will need to improve training. But he agreed funding decisions should be kept strictly at the local level.

“I think it’s important to recognize that it should lie with the community itself to make that determination,” Bryant said.

Bryant added he aims to have Atlanta officers evaluated more regularly to identify potential training shortcomings and to incorporate peer intervention in training programs so that it is ingrained in officers to report misconduct from their colleagues, rather than turn a blind eye for fear of being ostracized.

“You will have to do it,” Bryant said of peer intervention. “And if you don’t, you will be held accountable.”

Bryant also backed efforts by state lawmakers to evaluate whether Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law should be changed, calling it “a very dangerous situation for both parties, especially when it goes wrong.”

Chief James Conroy, who heads up the Roswell Police Department, echoed remarks from others during Tuesday’s talk that local jurisdictions need more recourse to assist persons with mental health issues via professional services, rather than by calling police.

To that end, Conroy also highlighted the importance for citizens to involve themselves more in community engagement in order to better partner with law enforcement agencies and identify specific, local points of improvement for police to make.

“Relationships are the key to successful and effective law enforcement,” Conroy said. “If we don’t have strong relationships with our community built on trust and transparency, we’re going to fail.”

Cobb County District Attorney Joyette Holmes, whose office is prosecuting the two men arrested in the Arbery fatal shooting, noted communication between law enforcement and many different community groups is critical to build trust between officers and residents.

“It really takes all of us recognizing what our blind spots are,” Holmes said.

Legislature gives final OK to ballot measure protecting dedicated funds

ATLANTA – Georgia voters will decide this fall whether to require that dedicated state funds be spent on their intended purpose.

The state Senate voted unanimously Monday to put the proposed constitutional amendment on the statewide November ballot, giving final passage to a measure that originated in the Georgia House of Representatives.

Committing dedicated state money such as Georgia’s Solid Waste and Hazardous Waste trust funds to their intended use was a longstanding priority of the late state Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, who died unexpectedly last November. As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and later the Rules Committee, Powell opposed the legislative practice of diverting those monies into the state’s general fund budget absent a financial emergency.

“It would bring a level of accountability to these fees and truth in taxation back to the dedication of these fees,” Rep. Andrew Welch, R-McDonough, said on the House floor last week.

Although the Senate at one point in this year’s session favored limiting the legislation to the Solid Waste and Hazardous Waste trust funds, senators on Monday agreed to a House proposal applying the constitutional amendment to all dedicated revenues derived from state fees or taxes.

The legislation includes substantial limits to make sure dedicated funds don’t grow too large and can be put to general use in emergencies.

Under the constitutional amendment, dedicated funds could not exceed 1% of total state revenues from the previous year. In a financial emergency, the governor and General Assembly would have the authority to temporarily suspend the dedication of funds.

“This is true middle ground in the appropriations process,” Welch said.

As a constitutional amendment, the legislation does not go to the governor to be signed into law. Its passage Monday guarantees its placement on the general election ballot Nov. 3.

Environmental group releases annual Dirty Dozen report

ATLANTA – The Georgia Water Coalition’s annual Dirty Dozen report highlights a combination of broad concerns over pollution of the state’s rivers, streams and groundwater and threats posed by specific projects.  

The report, released Tuesday, also includes items that have appeared previously on the list and remain unaddressed as well as newly identified issues.

Topping the seven returning concerns are a coal ash pond at Georgia Power’s Plant Scherer that residents of nearby Juliette say is polluting their drinking water, pollution of the Altamaha River from the Rayonier Advanced Materials chemical pulp mill in Jesup, a proposed titanium mine adjacent to the Okefenokee Swamp and Spaceport Camden, a proposed rocket launching facility in Camden County opposed by property owners on nearby Little Cumberland Island as a safety hazard.

Another issue back on the coalition’s list not tied to a specific project is the Right to Farm Act, which drew opposition in the General Assembly this year from environmental advocates who argued it would make it easier for large animal-waste generating livestock operations to locate in Georgia. While the bill failed to make it through the legislature this year, supporters are vowing to reintroduce it in 2021.

New items that made the list include the discharge of untreated sewage in the Chattahoochee River in Columbus within a popular whitewater paddling run, a proposed landfill that has drawn opposition in Brantley County and a proposed $20 million development within the floodplain of Little Lotts Creek near downtown Statesboro.

One past item from the list was addressed this month when Georgia voters overwhelmingly approved a  constitutional amendment prohibiting the diversion of tax money from environmental trust funds that are supposed to be used to clean up hazardous waste sites and illegal tire dumps.

“That amendment is the first step in keeping millions of dollars dedicated to their intended purposes, and we hope we never spend ink on that issue in this report again,” said Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman, executive director of the Coosa River Basin Initiative in Rome.

“This is our tenth annual report, and the goal each year is to correct these issues so that they’ll never be considered for the Dirty Dozen again.”

Georgia voters pass three ballot questions by wide margins

The Georgia Capitol building in Atlanta (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – While high-profile races in Georgia remained uncertain on the morning after Election Day, voters have overwhelmingly approved two constitutional amendments and one statute on this year’s statewide ballot.

A constitutional change requiring that state fees and taxes collected for a specific purpose are spent as intended passed with 81.4% of the vote.

A second constitutional amendment  prohibiting the state and local governments from using the legal doctrine of “sovereign immunity” to avoid citizen lawsuits won approval from 74.3% of the voters.

Georgia voters also authorized a tax exemption for property owned by charitable organizations for the purpose of building or repairing single-family homes. House Bill 344 was endorsed with 73% of the vote.

The General Assembly put Amendment 1 on the ballot in honor of the late state Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, a longtime leader of the effort to ensure that fees collected for Georgia’s Hazardous Waste and Solid Waste Trust funds are spent cleaning up hazardous waste sites and tire dumps.

Georgia governors and legislatures have a history of redirecting the revenue those dedicated fees collect into the general fund during tight economic times.

The sovereign immunity amendment stems from a 2014 Georgia Supreme Court decision that essentially granted the state blanket immunity from citizen lawsuits in a case brought by the Center for a Sustainable Coast. The group had filed suit alleging the state Department of Natural Resources was illegally allowing alterations to private property in fragile coastal wetland areas protected by state law.

To discourage the filing of frivolous lawsuits, the amendment prohibits plaintiffs from recovering monetary damages or attorney fees.

Supporters pushed House Bill 244 as a way to help grow the stock of affordable housing in Georgia, particularly in small cities and rural communities.