Georgia traffic, internet needs highlighted in Biden infrastructure plan

White House officials highlighted sluggish highway traffic, slow bus travel and spotty rural internet service in Georgia Monday as part of pitch to boost support for President Joe Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure package.

The high-priced “America Jobs Plan,” which has not yet gained Congress’ approval, would take aim at road and bridge repairs to cut down on Georgia commute times that have increased nearly 11% over the past decade, according to a White House fact sheet of the issued Monday.

It would also seek to improve broadband connections in roughly 40% of Georgia where there is little or no internet access, increase housing supply for the state’s estimated 654,000 residents who struggle paying rent and contribute to the $12.5 billion needed to fix local drinking-water systems.

  • View the White House infrastructure fact sheet for Georgia here.

“The American Jobs Plan is an investment in America that will create millions of good jobs, rebuild our country’s infrastructure and position the United States to out-compete China,” read a White House news release sent Monday.

The infrastructure plan faces pushback from leading Republicans and some Democrats over its scope and proposals to fund projects by hiking the corporate tax rate. Democrats hold a majority in Congress with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote in the U.S. Senate.

State officials are “going to continue to monitor” congressional talks on the infrastructure package and potential benefits for Georgia, as well as impacts from increasing corporate taxes for transportation projects, said Josh Waller, director of policy and government affairs for the state Department of Transportation.

Calls to pass the plan come on the heels of recent approval for $1.9 trillion in COVID-19 pandemic aid, adding to last year’s $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

In Georgia, congressional leaders including Democratic U.S. Reps. Hank Johnson, Nikema Williams and Carolyn Bourdeaux have pushed the plan to shore up public transit and widen key roads in the clogged metro Atlanta area.

State transportation officials have budgeted around $2.6 billion this fiscal year and next through June 2022 for road, bridge and transit construction projects, including $10 million for broadband improvement in rural and underserved areas.

Additionally, work has been underway since 2016 to widen and reconstruct several stretches of major highways and interchanges in metro Atlanta, Macon and Savannah areas including on I-285, I-85, I-75 and I-10. Those projects are scheduled for completion between next year and 2032.

Georgia to ease COVID-19 distancing, gathering restrictions amid vaccine push

Gov. Brian Kemp announced four mass COVID-19 vaccination sites are set to open in Georgia on Feb. 18, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Gov. Brian Kemp is set to roll back longstanding COVID-19 distancing restrictions in Georgia amid a mix of relief and concern from local businesses and public-health experts.

Starting Thursday, Georgia’s months-long ban on gatherings of more than 50 people in one place will be lifted per orders from the governor, who has steadily moved to ease safety measures imposed since the virus swept the state in March last year.

Restaurants and bars will be allowed to seat patrons at least 3.5 feet from each other instead of the previous 6-foot requirement. Movie-goers can sit 3 feet from each other in indoor theaters. A shelter-in-place order for nursing homes and other elderly-care facilities also will be lifted.

Additionally, police officers will be barred from shutting down businesses that refuse to comply with the new scaled-back distancing and sanitization rules. A partial ban on mask mandates in Georgia cities and counties will also remain in effect.

Kemp’s decision comes as more and more Georgians receive their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, which was made available to everyone age 16 and older starting late last month.

Nearly 4.3 million vaccines have been administered in Georgia as of Tuesday, marking more than 2.8 million people who have received at least one of the needed two doses for most vaccines. More than 1.5 million Georgians are now fully vaccinated, according to state Department of Public Health data.

“We continue to make steady progress in our vaccine administration here in Georgia,” Kemp said this week. “The life-saving COVID-19 vaccine is our key back to normal, and with all Georgians ages 16 and over now eligible to receive the shot, we are well on our way as we head into spring and summer.”

The rollback set for Thursday drew praise from local business leaders including restaurant owners who have been hit hard by the pandemic over the past year. Roughly 20% of Georgia’s restaurants remain closed after more than half shut down temporarily in the pandemic’s early days, said Karen Bremer, president of the Georgia Restaurant Association.

Bremer noted the 6-foot distancing rule has limited restaurants to about 60% of capacity, complicating dine-in services as many restaurants turned to curbside and delivery during the pandemic. Restaurants will still have leeway to decide whether to stick with the stricter safety measures once the rollback kicks in, she said.

“Slowly but surely, we have been able to expand to a more reasonable level,” Bremer said. “I’m sure that there will be many that still require the face coverings for people to come into their businesses. It’s their prerogative as a business to do that.”

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce also backed Kemp’s rollback decision, noting local businesses “should continue to follow safety protocols and prioritize the health of customers and employees,” said Chris Clark, the chamber’s president and CEO.

However, some public-health experts have urged Kemp to pump the brakes on loosening COVID-19 restrictions until more Georgians become fully vaccinated in the next month or so.

“Too soon, way too soon,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, a leading Emory University epidemiologist who has focused on the virus since its onset last year. He pushed for waiting until at least the end of this month to start relaxing restrictions.

His stance was echoed by Isaac Fung, an associate professor of epidemiology at Georgia Southern University’s Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health. Georgia should hold off on fully reopening until about three-fourths of all residents have been vaccinated to reach herd immunity, he said.

In the meantime, restaurants can take steps like install plexiglass screens between customers and require masks to reduce risks of transmission, particularly as more infectious mutations of the virus take root in Georgia, Fung said.

“I would highly recommend Georgians to put on face masks if they speak, especially in public or when they’re meeting with friends,” Fung said. “I understand why they want that to be relaxed … but people should remain vigilant. … The pathway forward is to get as many people fully vaccinated as quickly as possible.”

Georgians can pre-register for a vaccine appointment at myvaccinegeorgia.com even if they do not yet qualify under the governor’s eligibility criteria. They will be notified once they qualify and scheduled for an appointment.

State officials have opened nine mass vaccination sites in Atlanta, Macon, Albany, Savannah, Columbus, Waycross and Bartow, Washington and Habersham counties.

As more Georgians are vaccinated, Kemp said he will not seek to require so-called “vaccine passports” for people to show proof they’ve been vaccinated in order to travel, work or frequent businesses.

“While the development of multiple safe, highly effective COVID-19 vaccines has been a scientific miracle, the decision to receive the vaccine should be left up to each individual,” Kemp said.

More than 857,000 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Georgia as of Tuesday afternoon, with more than 209,000 more reported positive antigen tests indicating likely positive results. The virus has killed 16,761 Georgians.

Georgia candidates line up early for key 2022 elections

Last year’s heated election cycle in Georgia has already drawn early candidates — including primary challengers — for 2022 races in which Republicans are looking to fend off strong Democratic campaigns for key statewide seats. (Photo by Beau Evans)

The first wave of candidates have thrown their hats in the ring for key Georgia elective offices including lieutenant governor and secretary of state amid bitter partisan battles over the state’s new election law.

With roughly 19 months until the November 2022 general election, several Democratic contenders are vying for top seats long held by Republicans, while the state’s incumbent GOP elections chief has already drawn a tough primary challenge after last year’s charged election cycle.

In recent weeks, Democratic state Rep. Erick Allen of Smyrna announced his candidacy against Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who also could draw a hardline GOP primary opponent over his appeal to the state’s moderate Republicans following last year’s election losses.

That’s the case for Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican seeking reelection against fellow Republican U.S. Rep. Jody Hice of Greensboro as well as former Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle.

A four-term congressman, Hice has lobbed many of same attacks over the party’s 2020 election losses that former President Donald Trump used to pummel Raffensperger, who repeatedly rejected Trump’s claims of voter fraud. Trump has already endorsed Hice.

“Every Georgian, in fact every American, has the right to be outraged by the actions and, simultaneously, the inaction of our secretary of state,” Hice said in his March 22 announcement.

“At the end of the day, I think people will figure out that we did follow the law,” Raffensperger said in a March 30 interview. “We’ll make sure we have fair and honest elections in Georgia.”

Democrat Manswell Peterson, a U.S. Navy veteran and former police officer from Albany, also announced last week he is running for secretary of state against Raffensperger.

Meanwhile, Gov. Brian Kemp has yet to draw an opponent from his own party after absorbing blows from Trump, who lost to current President Joe Biden by a slim margin in the first of what is expected to be many tight statewide elections over the next decade.

But Republicans are already gearing up to mark 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams as GOP public-enemy No. 1 after she helped galvanize Georgia Democrats to historic wins in last year’s presidential and U.S. Senate races.

Abrams is widely expected to run against Kemp again but has not officially declared her candidacy. If she does, Abrams will be on the Democratic ticket with recently elected U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, who is staring down another brutal campaign in 2022 after winning the final two years of retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term.

Georgia’s controversial election bill that Kemp signed into law last month looks to figure prominently in the upcoming races, with Democrats and Republicans sparring over whether the changes worsen or improve voter access, the role of Trump’s fraud claims and local business boycotts.

“The attack on our state is the direct result of repeated lies from Joe Biden and Stacey Abrams about a bill that expands access to the ballot box and ensures the integrity of our elections,” Kemp said last week.

“If the Georgia GOP cared about Georgia’s economy and the working Georgians that keep our state going, they wouldn’t have tried to steal their votes,” said Democratic Party of Georgia spokeswoman Maggie Chambers in response.

Also up for reelection next year is Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, a Republican and Trump ally. He has so far drawn a challenge from Democrat Charlie Bailey, an Atlanta attorney and former prosecutor who lost to Carr in 2018.

Democratic state Sen. Jen Jordan, an Atlanta attorney, has been floated as a possible candidate to run against Carr. She has not said whether she’ll launch a 2022 campaign but told lawmakers during debate on a prosecutor-oversight bill she opposed that it “just may mean we may need a new [attorney general].”

Additionally, Democratic state Rep. William Boddie of East Point announced this week he’ll run against Republican Labor Commissioner Mark Butler, whose office has faced backlash over slow turnaround times for processing unemployment claims during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Elections, police, COVID-19 highlight lawmakers’ work in Georgia session

Discarded bills litter the Georgia Senate floor after state lawmakers adjourned the 2021 legislative session “sine die” just after midnight on April 1, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – Elections, pandemic recovery and the echoes of last summer’s protests against police in Georgia dominated a 2021 legislative session marked by bitter divisions between Georgia’s political parties.

The session, which wrapped up Wednesday and will return next January, was the General Assembly’s first since the 2020 election cycle upended statewide politics as Democrats notched historic wins and Republicans moved to rewrite dozens of voting laws.

Both sides put off disagreements to largely repeal Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law that had been on the books since the Civil War and helped fuel protests over police brutality and racial injustice that swept the country for months starting last May.

While largely peaceful, those protests boiled over at times in Atlanta with damage done to police cars, businesses and state public-safety offices, ultimately prompting Republican lawmakers to pass a law that places tight limits on how much Georgia cities and counties can cut their local police budgets.

Budgeting was also top of mind for lawmakers this year after they slashed more than $2 billion last year from Georgia schools, troopers, prisons, mental-health and other social services due to the economic slowdown from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Piles of proposals hit a wall as lawmakers closed shop Wednesday, leaving many high-profile measures stalled. The casualty list included legislation to legalize online sports betting in Georgia and allow in-person visits between family members and loved ones at hospitals and nursing homes during emergency times like the pandemic.

Those bills that failed to reach Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk this year will have another chance to do so in 2022 for the second half of the two-year term.

Voting-rights advocates protest inside the state Capitol against Republican-led elections bills in the General Assembly on March 8, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Jim Crow or better elections?

Battle lines formed after Democrats claimed victory in the 2020 presidential election and the U.S. Senate runoffs, handing the party key statewide wins for the first time in decades and cementing the idea that years of hard campaigning and demographic changes have shifted voting patterns in their favor.

Republican leaders quickly counter-attacked by holding General Assembly hearings to air former President Donald Trump’s unfounded voter-fraud claims, which laid the groundwork for proposing broad changes to Georgia’s election system in the session.

Ultimately, lawmakers passed a measure along party lines March 25 that adds identification requirements for mail-in voting, confines absentee-ballot drop boxes inside local election offices and polling places and bans non-poll workers from handing out food and drinks to people in line to vote within 150 feet of polling places during elections.

Those changes, along with new rules allowing state election officials to take over poor-performing county election boards, sparked outrage from Democrats and voting-rights advocates who declared voter access for Black and low-income Georgians will be set back worse than at any time since the Jim Crow era.

“After witnessing the GOP gutting of voting rights and inaction on issues like expanding access to health care, Georgia voters are engaged, empowered and know exactly who’s fighting against them,” said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, who chairs the state Democratic Party. “Georgia Republicans are in for a rude awakening in 2022.”

Republican leaders – from Gov. Brian Kemp to party leaders in both General Assembly chambers to the state’s election chief, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger – have blasted Democrats’ push to frame the election changes as racist acts of voter suppression.

They argue the law changes aim to bolster confidence in Georgia elections and expand voter access, noting the now-enacted bill scraps the state’s controversial signature-verification process for absentee ballots in favor of a voter ID requirement and gives counties the ability to open polls for more hours on weekends during the early-voting period.

“This is not ‘Jim Crow,’” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton. “Nobody is getting lynched for going to vote. Matter of fact, we don’t want 60% to vote – we want 100%. … Stop with the rhetoric.”

Gov. Brian Kemp and state lawmakers detailed proposed changes to Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law on Feb. 16, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Ups and downs for criminal justice

Beyond election issues, Republican and Democratic leaders also sparred over legislation focused on guns, policing and criminal justice – many of which fell by the wayside after rounds of intense debate.

Efforts to loosen rules on interstate gun-carry permits, prosecute violent protesters and create a driver education program on how to interact with police during traffic stops all fell short of final passage amid stern opposition from Democratic leaders.

But Republican lawmakers did push through a measure that blocks most city and county governments from slashing their police budgets by more than 5% over a 5-year span, which opponents called an attempt by state authorities to strip control from local officials over how to police their communities.

Supporters argued the budget limits would help stave off any future moves by local officials to cripple their police forces, pointing out Atlanta and Athens officials nearly joined several cities outside Georgia in shrinking their police budgets after the summer’s heated protests.

Those protests prompted Democratic lawmakers to file dozens of bills on criminal-justice issues this session including more training for officers in de-escalation techniques, bans on using no-knock warrants and choke holds during arrests, a citizen-led review board for officer-involved shootings and legislation outlawing private prisons.

The only proposal to gain bipartisan support and clear the legislature was an overhaul of the citizen’s arrest law, which was scaled back so that only business owners can briefly detain people who commit crimes on their premises, as well as off-duty or out-of-jurisdiction police officers.

The repeal measure came after 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was shot dead in February 2020 while jogging near Brunswick in an encounter with two white men who suspected him of vandalizing a nearby house under construction. The pair claimed they were trying to make a citizen’s arrest.

Lobbyists packed the hallways of the state Capitol in Atlanta on the last day of the legislative session on March 31, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

COVID-19 and the pocketbook

Meanwhile, throughout the bouts of fighting and the stretches of collaboration, the COVID-19 pandemic loomed large over the 2021 session as lawmakers faced twice-weekly infection tests and sought to patch up the state’s $27 billion budget.

Taking cues from the governor, budget drafters in the state Senate and House of Representatives avoided the spending cuts imposed last year that sliced $2.2 billion from state agencies, particularly public schools that receive a huge chunk of annual tax revenues.

Lawmakers hailed Georgia’s economic rebound since the start of the pandemic more than a year ago as fuel to restore budget funding for schools with a mix of state dollars and federal emergency aid – though Democratic lawmakers pushed unsuccessfully to raise new revenues by ditching some lucrative tax breaks and raising the levy on cigarette sales. Instead, lawmakers approved even more tax exemptions.

Democrats’ calls to fully expand Medicaid benefits for low-income Georgians were also blocked by Republicans long opposed to broadening the costly program’s scope, despite a steep jump in eligible recipients amid the pandemic. Lawmakers did pass a bill to automatically enroll some 60,000 Georgia children in Medicaid who already receive food stamps.

Lawmakers also scuttled another attempt to legalize some forms of gambling beyond the Georgia Lottery by shooting down a bill to permit regulated sports betting in the state, pitched as way to raise more funding for the HOPE Scholarship program and need-based scholarships.

Also on the chopping block was a measure that would have given Georgia hospital patients and elderly-care residents isolated by the pandemic a limited window to meet in person with a legal representative or caregiver, who could be a family member. It was gutted before finally stalling on Wednesday.

The General Assembly next turns its attention to redrawing the boundaries of Georgia’s legislative and congressional districts, marking a Republican-led process that is certain to drum up the same fiery backlash seen from Democrats during the fight over election changes.

Hearings on redistricting are set to take place at the state Capitol in Atlanta sometime this fall or winter.

The state Capitol building in Atlanta stands quiet after lawmakers adjourned the legislative session shortly after midnight on April 1, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

COVID-19 family visits, elderly-care cameras stall in Georgia legislature

Discarded bills litter the Georgia Senate floor after state lawmakers adjourned the 2021 legislative session “sine die” just after midnight on April 1, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Two bills aimed at helping elderly nursing home residents in Georgia were late casualties of this year’s General Assembly session.

Legislation to allow cameras for monitoring nursing home residents and let family members visit sick loved ones in hospitals and long-term care facilities during emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic fell by the wayside Wednesday night during the session’s final hours.

A measure by Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, would have given Georgia hospital patients and elderly-care residents isolated by the pandemic a limited window to meet with a legal representative or caregiver, who could be a family member.

Pitched as a cure for human contact beyond Zoom calls and iPhones, Setzler’s bill was gutted in the state Senate and ultimately shelved after last-minute wrangling in the Georgia House of Representatives sought to salvage much of its visitation permissions.

Allowing outsiders into facilities where infectious diseases pose a high risk for spreading drew hesitancy from hospital and nursing-home groups that lamented keeping families separated but worried the fast-evolving bill might run afoul of emergency federal rules.

“Our health-care system has just gone through a shock like it’s never been through,” said Sen. Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge, a physician and hospital executive who pushed an amendment that gutted Setzler’s bill. “I’m just extremely concerned that this bill needs more work.”

But top House Republicans including Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, slammed the Senate for killing the bill, saying the chamber “let down a lot of Georgia families” and that he thought allowing visitors would be “the right thing to do.”

“I thought it was really disrespectful,” Ralston said. “I was just very disappointed that they didn’t at least give it a fair debate over there.”

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, speaks with reporters after adjourning the legislative session “sine die” just after midnight on April 1, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Setzler’s visitation bill stalled around the same time another bill hit a wall in the House that was aimed at creating rules for giving elderly-care residents the ability to install cameras in their apartments, often referred to as “nanny cams” or “granny cams.”

That bill, sponsored by Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, called for long-term care facilities to let residents and their families decide whether to install surveillance cameras in the open to curb chances for elder abuse by staff or feuding relatives.

The goal was to stave off any abuse before it happens to an elderly resident by scaring off possible predators aware they could be caught on camera and the video footage used in criminal or civil court, said Sen. John Kennedy, R-Macon, who carried Cooper’s bill in the Senate.

“That camera is the best tool to ensure that they do get the good care that they need,” Kennedy said. “Do you want to just focus on trying to catch people or do you want to prevent the abuse from happening in the first place?”

The bill was finally shot down in the House in the session’s closing hour after winding through both chambers several times, with opponents arguing that requiring cameras to be placed in the open and not hidden could alert abusers as to which seniors are not being monitored.

“The problem with that is then the abuser knows exactly which residents can be victimized,” said Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta. “You know anyone who doesn’t have that up, they are fair game.”

Both bills could still be revived in 2022 for the second half of the two-year legislative term.