Perdue: Politics blocking progress on coronavirus aid measure

U.S. Sen. David Perdue speaks at the State Capitol after qualifying for the 2020 election on March 2, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – The federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)  has given the economy a critical boost by letting financially struggling small businesses keep their employees, U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., said Tuesday.

But presidential politics is getting in the way of attempts to deliver more federal aid to small businesses, Perdue told an online audience of Georgia business and political leaders at the annual Congressional Luncheon sponsored by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

“In the middle of a presidential year, I’m hopeful but not optimistic a deal will get done,” he said.

Perdue said the PPP – part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act Congress passed back in March – saved about 1.5 million jobs in Georgia through loans to small businesses averaging $103,000.

Nationally, about 50 million Americans remained on payrolls because of the legislation, added Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who appeared on the chamber program as Perdue’s guest. The bill played a major role in reducing U.S. unemployment from a peak of 15% in April to 10.2% last month, Scott said.

“The PPP is like a friend showing up when you’re down,” he said. “Had we not stabilized those businesses, we would have lost those 50 million jobs.”

But Perdue said the current effort to put together another aid package in response to various impacts of COVID-19 is in trouble, with majority Democrats in the U.S. House, the Republican majority in the Senate and the Trump administration a long way from reaching agreement.

For his part, Perdue is trying to get legislation he introduced last month to help schools affected by COVID-19 included in the next coronavirus relief package. Legislation being offered by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seeks about $104 billion for schools, $74 billion for K-12 and $30 billion for colleges and universities.

“We don’t want our children to lose six months or a year in educational progress,” he said.

Perdue said the need to reopen schools safely during a pandemic is particularly critical for at-risk students on the edge of failing and for children who live in rural communities without broadband access.

As he stated in a recent campaign ad, Perdue also called for policing reforms that while stopping short of de-funding police agencies, would include increasing the recruitment of minority officers, stepping up de-escalation training and improving databases used to track complaints of abuse.

“People want the law to be enforced,” Perdue said. “But we also have to have confidence that our police officers are one of us.”

Police reform legislation Scott is sponsoring in the Senate is another victim of the political polarization rampant in an election year. Scott said some House Democrats have expressed a willingness to work with him on the bill, but the effort has been sidetracked in the Senate.

The congressional luncheon, held every August in Macon, was conducted virtually for the first time. The program concluded with a video tribute to the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, a youth leader during the Civil Rights Era, who died last month at the age of 80.

Board of Regents seeking funding for eight university building projects

Georgia Southern University

ATLANTA – The University System of Georgia is proposing an ambitious list of building projects for the next fiscal year, despite the state’s tight budget constraints.

The system’s Board of Regents Tuesday approved a fiscal 2022 capital budget request of $266.9 million, including $137 million for eight major construction projects on campuses across Georgia.

The General Assembly set aside $182.5 million for the university system in the state’s $1.13 billion bond package for fiscal 2021, which began last month.

The list of major projects the regents are seeking for the next fiscal year includes:

  • $36.7 million for a convocation center at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro.
  • $26.3 million to renovate the Humanities Building at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton.
  • $21.7 million for Phase I construction of a Poultry Science Complex at the University of Georgia in Athens.
  • $12.4 million for a performing arts center at Valdosta State University.
  • $12.2 million for renovations and infrastructure improvements at Fort Valley State University.
  • $11.8 million for improvements at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton.
  • $8.3 million to renovate the Bandy Gym student recreation center at Dalton State College.
  • $7.6 million for a Nursing and Health Science Simulation lab at Albany State University’s West Campus.

The new capital budget requests also recommends $12.1 million to design four construction projects, including $3.5 million for a Gateway Building on the campus of Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, and $15.1 million for equipment for three building projects the legislature already has funded, including $6.2 million for a planned convocation center at Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta.

The board’s capital spending recommendations will be included in the fiscal 2022 budget request the regents submit to the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget this fall.

Gov. Brian Kemp will present his budget proposals for next year to the General Assembly in January.

Senate challenger Ossoff raises nearly $3 million in July

Jon Ossoff

ATLANTA – Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff raised $2.9 million last month, the investigative journalist’s campaign reported Tuesday.

About $1 million of that money came during a five-day stretch at the end of July immediately after news coverage of a digital ad run by incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue’s campaign that appeared to alter Ossoff’s image by enlarging his nose.

The Democrat complained the ad was an anti-Semitic attack on Ossoff, who is Jewish. While denying that Ossoff was being targeted and describing the altered image as an accident, the Perdue campaign deleted the ad.

Ossoff’s campaign received 28,000 contributions from first-time donors in July. Thus far, the Democrat has received donations form 150 of Georgia’s 159 counties.

About 97% of the contributions to Ossoff last month were less than $200.

“Jon is building a massive grassroots movement across the Peach State, bringing Georgians from all walks of life together to fight for a government that works for the people,” said Ellen Foster, Ossoff’s campaign manager. “The wind is at our backs here in Georgia, and we’re ready to win in November.”

In a news release, the Ossoff campaign cited two recent polls that show Ossoff and Perdue virtually tied, within the polls’ margin of error.

The Washington, D.C.-based Cook Political Report recently moved the race from “leans Republican” into the “toss-up” column.

Georgia among 44 states pushing to reimburse elderly victims of coronavirus-related fraud

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr

ATLANTA – Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr and 43 of his colleagues around the country are urging Congress to make elderly victims of fraud eligible for federal assistance during the coronavirus pandemic.

The bipartisan group of attorneys general is pushing to include a provision for senior fraud victims in the latest COVID-19 relief package now before lawmakers.

“Scam artists are preying on seniors because they know this group is especially at risk from COVID-19,” Carr said. “Bad actors are targeting seniors as they are isolated at home, separated from families and support networks.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has warned that scammers are offering COVID-19 tests to Medicare recipients in exchange for personal information.

The attorneys general are proposing an amendment to the Victims of Crime Act of 1984 to make elderly victim of fraud eligible for reimbursement through the Crime Victims Fund, which is administered by the states. The bill also calls for depositing penalties and other fines collected from perpetrators of senior fraud into the fund.

The legislation would incentivize states to provide compensation to fraud victims but would not require them to do so.

Congressional Democrats and the White House remain far apart on how to craft a new coronavirus relief package. Disagreements include how much in weekly unemployment benefits to pay unemployed workers through a federal program that expired at the end of last month and whether aid to state and local governments should be included in the legislation.

Coronavirus-wary Georgia college students, teachers worried about return to in-person classes

ATLANTA – Students at more than half of the University System of Georgia’s 26 colleges and universities will return to classes next week with one eye on their studies and another on a widening global pandemic.

As the number of deaths from coronavirus in Georgia surpassed 4,000 last week and the number of confirmed cases passed 200,000, students and teachers worried a decision by the system’s Board of Regents to press ahead with in-person instruction this semester could have grave consequences.

That concern was dramatized Thursday when about four dozen students and teachers held a “die-in” demonstration at the University of Georgia’s main campus in Athens.

“The Board of Regents is a terrible obstacle to the health and safety of the students and faculty of the state,” said Janet Murray, associate dean at the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts at Georgia Tech, the top signatory to a statement early last month signed by 865 Tech faculty members. “They have not acknowledged we’re in a state that’s having spiking rates of infection.”

A system spokesman said the campuses are taking every precaution to make sure students, faculty and staff can return safely.

“We have been stressing the best public health practices,” said Lance Wallace, associate vice chancellor for communications. “We’re not taking any measures we have not discussed with the Georgia Department of Public Health. We’re letting public health experts guide us. … We can’t eliminate all risk, but we’re working very hard in order to make it as safe as possible.”

The university system shut down in-person instruction in mid-March as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in Georgia. Classes continued to be held online throughout the remainder of the spring semester and during the summer.

But by July, system and campus administrators had decided to resume in-person instruction for the fall semester.

“Resuming in-person classes this fall will be a difficult but important task, and it is one we are committed to achieving, as it serves the best interests of our students and the state of Georgia,” 25 of the 26 campus presidents wrote in a joint letter to the Board of Regents. “The campus experience is an essential part of the educational growth that is critical for the overall success of our students.”

“The reason students go to college is to be in an environment, inside and outside of class, where they can have conversations that lead to growth and development,” Wallace added. “You can’t replicate that online.”

But Murray dismissed such arguments as “sentimental nonsense” that is inappropriate while a global pandemic rages. Besides, there’s no way for students to realistically realize the benefits of a campus atmosphere during these difficult times, she said.

“The college experience is going to be very different,” she said. “It has to be. To say it’s better to meet with masks on in a distanced classroom is wrong-headed.”

While administrators at each campus have put together plans to resume in-person classes that fit their individual needs, certain key elements will apply throughout the university system.

“The plan calls for the things we’ve been stressing: wash your hands for 20 seconds, use hand sanitizer, disinfect frequently touched surfaces, stay home if you feel sick, practice social distancing, wear a mask,” Wallace said.

The system has purchased and made available 50,000 COVID-19 test kits, with testing available at all 26 campuses, Wallace said. Also, each campus has a liaison who will work with a local public health office to ensure contact tracing is being carried out, he said.

Students and teachers say they appreciate the system’s decision to impose a mask-wearing mandate on all students, faculty, staff and visitors to the 26 campuses.

But Bhavin Patel, president of the College Democrats of Georgia and a rising sophomore at Kennesaw State University, said there’s been a lack of communication from administrators about specifics of the reopening.

He cited as an example a lack of information on how fraternities and sororities will be affected.

“Many of these organizations are planning to host mass gatherings for recruitment,” Patel said. “Knowing college students, we need to have proper guidelines set in place for Greek life.”

Patel called on the Board of Regents to make attendance at in-person classes optional, so students could take their courses online if they choose.

But Wallace said the benefits of in-person instruction to students are so great it’s worth doing everything possible to make it happen and ensure it can be done safely.

“Our mission as a state agency is to educate,” he said. “We can’t back away from our mandate to perform our mission even though a pandemic makes it harder.”