Lieutenant governor hopeful Burt Jones reports robust campaign war chest

Georgia Sen. Burt Jones

ATLANTA – State Sen. Burt Jones had raised $3.75 million toward his campaign for lieutenant governor through the end of last year, the Republican from Jackson announced Friday.

Jones, who has been endorsed by former President Donald Trump, ended 2021 with $3.4 million cash on hand.

“The outpouring of support for our campaign from every corner of the state has been truly incredible and humbling,” Jones said. “From President Trump’s endorsement to support from grassroots leaders across the state, we hit the ground running from day one and never looked back.”

Jones is part of what is essentially a Trump ticket in Georgia, which also includes U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker; former Sen. David Perdue, who is challenging GOP Gov. Brian Kemp; and U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, who is running for secretary of state.

All back Trump’s allegations – disproven by the outcome of numerous lawsuits – that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from the former president.

With Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan not seeking reelection, Jones will square off in May’s GOP primary against Georgia Senate President Pro Tempore Butch Miller of Gainesville and Savannah activist Jeanne Seaver.

Democrats running for lieutenant governor include Charlie Bailey, who ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in 2018; Bryan Miller, grandson of the late Gov. and U.S. Sen. Zell Miller; and state Reps. Renitta Shannon of Decatur, Erick Allen of Smyrna and Derrick Jackson of Tyrone.

The deadline for candidates for state office to file year-end campaign financial disclosure reports doesn’t fall until the end of this month.

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

Georgia Republicans rankled by Biden’s voting rights agenda

An early voting line outside South Cobb Regional Library in Mableton (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – President Joe Biden put the spotlight on Georgia when he traveled to Atlanta Jan. 11 to pitch federal voting rights legislation stalled in the U.S. Senate.

But to the Peach State’s Republican leaders, it was unwelcome attention. They bristled at the Democratic president’s portrayal of the Peach State as ground zero for a GOP-led voter suppression movement aimed at reversing Republican losses in 2020.

“We’re the No.-1 state in the nation for election integrity,” Georgia House Speaker David Ralston said the day after Biden’s visit. “More Georgians are voting now than ever before.”

Indeed, record voter turnout in November 2020 helped Biden become the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Georgia since Bill Clinton in 1992. Two months later, another huge turnout lifted Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock to victory over two incumbent Republican senators in runoff elections.

Georgia Republicans reacted by passing sweeping election overhaul legislation last March.

Among other things, the bill requires voters casting absentee ballots to present ID. It also limits the number of absentee-ballot drop boxes, which became a popular method of voting in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic raged and vaccines weren’t yet available.

While Republicans argued such steps promote election integrity, Democrats charged they were part of an effort by the GOP to make it harder for voters – particularly voters of color – to cast ballots. Minority voters historically have supported Democratic candidates.

Warnock made a business case against the new state law and in favor of federal voting rights legislation Jan. 12 when he spoke at the annual Eggs and Issues breakfast sponsored by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. He said Georgia’s new restrictions on voting have cost the state business investment, notably Major League Baseball’s decision to pull last summer’s All-Star Game out of Georgia.

“Voter suppression is not good for business,” Warnock said. “Opening up [voter] access is the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.”

But in an election year, some Georgia Republicans are looking to double down on the election-law changes the General Assembly adopted last year.

State Senate President Pro Tempore Butch Miller, who is running for lieutenant governor, has introduced legislation to abolish drop boxes altogether and a constitutional amendment prohibiting non-U.S. citizens from voting.

Warnock said the General Assembly should not consider getting rid of drop boxes while COVID-19 is still a threat.

But Miller, R-Gainesville, noted there was no provision in state law for the boxes until the virus hit Georgia in March 2020.

“Drop boxes were introduced as an emergency measure during the pandemic, but many counties did not follow the security guidelines in place, such as the requirement for camera surveillance on every drop box,” he said last fall when he pre-filed his bill. “Moving forward, we can return to a pre-pandemic normal of voting in person.”

Miller’s constitutional amendment banning non-citizen voting won approval in the state Senate Ethics Committee last Thursday largely along party lines over objections from opponents who pointed out such a ban already exists in both state and federal law.

But the measure could be headed for trouble when it reaches the full Senate. Constitutional changes require support from a two-thirds majority in each legislative chamber, and the Senate doesn’t have enough Republicans to attain that margin without help from Democrats.

Even if Miller’s proposals make it through the Senate, their prospects in the House appear slim.

Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said the legislature has too many important priorities to tackle to get caught up in election-year politics.

“I refuse to allow this state to be used by those who would change longstanding rules for political gain,” he said.

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

Georgia readying for winter storm

Georgia Commissioner of Transportation Russell McMurry

ATLANTA – The state agencies in charge of responding to weather emergencies are bracing for a winter storm expected to hit North Georgia and metro Atlanta during a three-day holiday weekend.

Georgia Department of Transportation crews began treating interstate and state highways Friday morning with brine solution in an area stretching from the northern counties south to the line running from Columbus to Augusta.

While the forecast remained uncertain as of Friday afternoon, winter precipitation was expected to begin falling on Sunday morning, with two to five inches of snow likely in Northeast Georgia and up to eight inches at the higher elevations.

The metro region was expected to get up to one inch of snow and ice through Sunday night, James Stallings, director of the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency, told reporters during a news conference Friday.

With winds of up to 35 miles an hour possible, Stallings said fallen trees could cause power outages.

With thousands of Georgia Bulldogs fans headed to Athens Saturday to celebrate the Dawgs’ college football championship at Sanford Stadium, Stallings suggested attendees either get home Saturday night or hunker down in Athens through the weekend.

“The least amount of travel we have on the roads helps us,” he said.

Georgia Commissioner of Transportation Russell McMurry said DOT crews will start spreading salt and gravel on Saturday night along 19,500 miles of highway that will need to be plowed. Highway workers from South Georgia will be brought north to help, he said.

“This is an all-hands-on-deck response,” he said. “We’re here for the duration.”

Col. Chris Wright, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Safety, urged Georgians to stay off the roads during the weekend to allow highway crews and other emergency personnel to do their jobs without disruptions.

“Our state is going to be impacted in some manner by this storm,” he said.

Gov. Brian Kemp urged Georgians to keep up with the latest reports on the storm’s progress.

“Hopefully, the storm will under-deliver,” he said. “But it could over-deliver. … We’re throwing all the resources we have available at this.”

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

Kemp unveils record state budget request

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp is asking the General Assembly to approve a record $30.2 billon state budget heavy with new spending on schools, health care and public safety.

The fiscal 2023 budget, which takes effect in July, takes advantage of a huge revenue surplus driven by higher-than-expected state tax collections. The timing is fortuitous for Kemp, who is running for reelection this year facing both Republican primary and general election opposition.

The state’s robust financial outlook is allowing the governor to fulfill a commitment he made on the campaign trail in 2018 to give teachers a $5,000 pay raise.

The fiscal 2023 budget would include a $2,000 raise for teachers who received the first $3,000 increase three years ago.

In addition, the $29.9 billion fiscal 2022 mid-year budget Kemp is proposing would give school administrators and support staff a one-time salary supplement of $2,000, while $1,000 would go to school bus drivers, nurses, nutrition workers and part-time school employees.

Kemp’s health-care spending requests focus particularly on rural Georgia. He is recommending $1 million to support programs at Mercer University aimed at addressing a shortage of physicians in rural parts of the state.

Kemp also wants to expand Medicaid coverage for new mothers from six months to a full year.

Besides the teacher pay raise, the governor also is calling for a $5,000 increase for law enforcement personnel and other state employees.

On the crime front, he is looking to build on existing initiatives targeting street gangs by funding a new anti-gang unit in the state attorney general’s office.

Kemp also is asking for more than $7 million to upgrade the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s crime lab equipment and hire 32 additional staff in the crime lab and medical examiner’s office to handle their increased volume.

The state’s coffers also are healthy enough to pay for a nearly $1.3 billion package of bond projects.

Highlights include $80 million toward the expansion of the Savannah Convention Center, a $210 million project that already has received substantial bond funding.

The bond package also puts $37.1 million toward Phase I of the Science Hill modernization project on the campus of the University of Georgia in Athens, $28.5 million to build a Technical and Industrial Education building at Southern Regional Technical College in Moultrie and $28 million for the Gateway Building at Georgia Gwinnett College.

The mid-year and fiscal 2023 budgets will get a first airing next week at joint hearings of the Georgia House and Senate Appropriations committees.

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

East Cobb cityhood bill clears legislative committee

The proposed city of East Cobb would center around the Johnson Ferry Road corridor.

ATLANTA – Legislation calling for the formation of a city of East Cobb cleared a committee in the Georgia House Thursday despite concerns raised by representatives of Cobb County.

The Republican-controlled House Governmental Affairs Committee approved House Bill 841 mostly along party lines and sent it on to the House Rules Committee to schedule a floor vote.

The bill calls for a referendum this November to let East Cobb residents vote on whether to form a city.

Supporters of cityhood told committee members their goal is to create a level of government as close to them as possible.

“This is not a criticism of Cobb [County] or its leadership,” said Craig Chapin, a member of the Committee for East Cobb Cityhood. “Where we’re coming from is an ability to have local control over issues that are closest to us.”

But Cobb County Commission Chairman Lisa Cupid and county department heads who accompanied her to the committee meeting said cityhood for East Cobb would have financial and service impacts residents should know about before they vote.

While the legislation calls for the new city to provide zoning and code enforcement services, other related services including business licensing and permitting would stay with the county, Cupid said. That could mean longer wait times, she said.

“Without having these included in the city of East Cobb, there’s dependency on the county to cooperate with the city,” she said.

Cobb Public Safety Director Randy Crider said fire protection in East Cobb could suffer because the proposed city’s fire department would only have two fire stations, compared to six in Marietta and five in Smyrna. Fewer than 1% of fire departments in the country have the level of certification of Cobb’s department, Crider said.

“I’d be curious to know how their residents are going to have a better fire department than the one they currently have,” he said.

Bill Volckmann, Cobb’s chief financial officer, said the rest of Cobb County would lose significant tax revenue from the county’s general fund, fire fund and 911 fund if East Cobb becomes a city.

Some committee members questioned the proposed structure of the East Cobb city government, which calls for six council members who would elect a mayor among themselves rather than let the residents vote.

“As a former mayor, I always like to see the executive branch elected separately from the legislative branch,” said Rep. J Collins, R-Villa Rica.

But Rep. Matt Dollar, R-Marietta, the bill’s chief sponsor, said some cities have seen mayors elected by voters independently of city councils become too powerful and try to force their agendas through without consensus.

“I really wanted this to be a true city council,” he said. “The mayor would be first among equals.”

Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, said he supported the bill because it would give East Cobb residents a chance to decide the issue for themselves.

“We’re not going to be the final say-so on this,” he said. “The people of this area will vote on whether or not they want to become a city.”

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