Georgia facing pandemic-driven jury trial backlog

Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton

ATLANTA – The suspension of jury trials in Georgia during the coronavirus pandemic has created a substantial backlog across the court system, Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton told state lawmakers Wednesday.

Melton ordered jury trials suspended last March as the virus broke out across the Peach State, the first in a series of judicial emergency orders he has issued every month since.

The backlog of cases that has piled up won’t go away, even when all Georgians who want COVID-19 vaccinations have received them and the pandemic eases, Melton told members of the state House and Senate Appropriations committees during the second day of budget hearings.

“It can easily take a year to two years to dig out of a jury trial backlog,” he said.

Superior Court Judge Wade Padgett of Augusta said it might even take as long as three years to get rid of the backlog, even though courts resumed jury trials for six to eight weeks last year at a time COVID-19 cases were on the decline.

“Whenever they’re allowed to resume, we’re going to be busier than ever,” Padgett said.

A silver lining in the suspension of jury trials is that the delays helped the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) clear nearly half of the roughly 46,000 cases backlogged in the agency’s crime lab, GBI Director Vic Reynolds told lawmakers. The backlog now stands at about 24,000 cases.

Reynolds said the GBI benefitted from outsourcing drug identification and DNA tests to private labs and shelved old cases on advice from local police agencies. GBI scientists also had more time to finish lab tests with jury trials suspended.

“That’s still too high,” Reynolds said of the remaining case backlog. “But I’m very proud of the fact that we cut those numbers down some 20,000 over the course of 2020.”

GBI’s crime lab looks to be spared any cuts to its $41.7 million  budget request, while officials have asked state lawmakers for about $4 million to replace several dozen vehicles and around $500,000 to boost the agency’s gang-fighting staff and tracking database.

Reynolds also detailed how low salaries for GBI medical examiners compared to other states and even counties like Cobb and Fulton have led to turnover that has driven up autopsy caseloads for local doctors far above national averages. Officials still have not replaced Macon’s retired medical examiner, whose departure in October forced the office to close.

“We need some help,” Reynolds said of the low salaries.

Like the GBI, the state Department of Public Safety (DPS), which runs the Georgia State Patrol, had a busy 2020 with officers tapped for guard duty at protests over racial injustice during the summer and over election results in recent weeks.

With around 1,000 sworn troopers on patrol statewide, DPS Commissioner Chris Wright said his office is working on incentive plans to pay for college degrees and offer communications training to retain more mid-career staff who have left for local police agencies.

Wright took charge last October after a cheating scandal among trooper trainees ousted former DPS Commissioner Mark McDonough. The agency is asking lawmakers to support nearly $3.2 million for a new 75-person trooper school and $56 million in bond funds to replace its Atlanta headquarters.

“Our agency has proudly served and protected during the most difficult time in modern history,” Wright said Wednesday.

With tight budgets this fiscal year and next, Georgia’s prison and juvenile detention systems are asking lawmakers to approve 10% pay raises for staff. State Corrections and Juvenile Justice department chiefs outlined plans to use existing funds and freeze vacant positions to pay for the salary hike.

“These are living wages that people can come to work and earn a decent living right now,” said Georgia Corrections Commissioner Timothy Ward.

COVID-19 has hit both agencies hard since March. Juvenile detention centers saw 413 staff members and 121 youth offenders test positive for the virus. State prisons reported 1,444 staff and 2,956 inmates tested positive, including 89 deaths.

The pandemic prompted prison officials to release thousands of low-level offenders last year, reducing the state’s roughly 55,000-inmate count in January 2020 to about 8,500 as of this month, Ward said. He expects the prison population to climb back to previous levels once the pandemic eases.

State budget restores funding for growing K-12, university enrollments

State School Superintendent Richard Woods talks to reporters at a news conference last year. (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – Full funding of student enrollment growth after a year of budget cuts would come as a great relief to Georgia’s public schools, the state’s top K-12 education official said Tuesday.

Many schools are still holding classes online to discourage the spread of COVID-19, a challenge for teachers pushing to keep students from falling behind on their coursework, State School Superintendent Richard Woods told Georgia lawmakers during a hearing on Gov. Brian Kemp’s budget recommendation for the state Department of Education.

“The learning loss continues to be something that we’re going to look at,” Woods said. “We’re committed to make sure that no child falls behind in our state.”

The governor is calling on the General Assembly to restore about 60% of $950 million cut from this year’s K-12 education budget due to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

 Enrollment is down by about 36,000 students in schools across the state, though Woods said officials are still trying to determine those numbers. He said younger pupils likely account for most of the enrollment drop.

 The pandemic showed an estimated 80,000 households statewide with children in schools lack reliable internet access, Woods said. State officials have tapped federal coronavirus relief funds to install WiFi signal extenders on local school buildings and around 3,000 school buses in a bid to close the internet gap, he said.

Georgia school districts have also served more than 111 million meals to students with help from food banks since March, making local schools “probably the largest food-delivery service in the state,” Woods said.

 On top of restoring the cuts, Woods has asked lawmakers for more money to pay school counselors.

 “The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clearer than ever that addressing students’ mental and physical health and wellbeing is an urgent need,” he said.

Woods also requested $5 million to cover costs for schools to administer year-end tests after federal officials denied Georgia’s request to skip the tests this year because of the disruption caused by the pandemic.

With state tax revenues coming in stronger than expected during the current pandemic-driven recession, Kemp also is recommending full funding for enrollment growth at Georgia’s public colleges and universities.

The governor’s $27.2 billion fiscal 2022 budget proposal includes a net increase of $131.4 million in the University System of Georgia’s operating budget. The system’s capital budget earmarks $104.2 million in bond funding for seven major building projects on campuses across the state.

Legislative budget writers also heard Tuesday from Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black, who asked for $780,000 to increase starting salaries for middle managers and rank-and-file employees in his agency.

“These heroes put on masks and went to work every day,” he said. “They didn’t stop.”

Black also requested $453,000 for Georgia’s hemp farming program. The General Assembly legalized the growing, processing and transport of hemp two years ago.

Black said the program has drawn a lot of interest from farmers but needs more funding to reach its potential.

“We’ve got to allocate the resources to make sure this program can grow,” he said.

Tuesday kicked off three days of hearings this week on Kemp’s budget recommendations. Members of the Georgia House and Senate Appropriations committees will continue hearing from department heads on Wednesday and Thursday.

Economist: Georgia employment, consumer spending still strong despite pandemic

Jeffrey Dorfman

ATLANTA – The unusual nature of the current pandemic-driven recession has put Georgia in a stronger economic position than could have been expected otherwise, the state’s chief economist said Tuesday.

Georgians have received so much money from the coronavirus relief bills Congress has passed that personal income is actually higher than before the pandemic struck last March, Jeffrey Dorfman told state lawmakers at the start of three days of hearings on Gov. Brian Kemp’s $27.2 billion fiscal 2022 budget plan.

“People have more money than they had before,” Dorfman said. “People have the money to spend. They’re just waiting until it’s safe to do so.”

A large portion of the net job losses Georgia has suffered since the pandemic began – about 113,000 – were part-time jobs occupied mostly by high school and college students or parents with child-care responsibilities, Dorfman said.

“Our labor market is about as fully recovered as it can be until the pandemic is over,” he said.

Dorfman also credited Kemp’s decision to reopen Georgia’s economy ahead of many other states and the creativity of business owners who limited their losses by adapting to the pandemic.

“Business owners in Georgia have done a tremendous job finding ways to keep their businesses operating,” he said. “The ingenuity of Georgia citizens really helped.”

As a result, consumer spending has remained strong, which has kept state sales tax revenues higher than expected, Dorfman said.

Another mark of an unusual recession has been an increase in the savings rate among Georgians, higher credit scores and a decrease in credit card debt, Dorfman said. The stimulus checks Congress has handed out since last spring have gone to Georgians whether they have lost their jobs or not.

“Our citizens have been very financially responsible at saving a lot of the money the federal government gave them if they weren’t unemployed and needed the money,” he said.

However, Dorfman warned that a long-term trend could put a dent in an otherwise positive economic forecast.

He said population growth in Georgia, which soared during the 1980s and 1990s, has been coming down since the turn of the century. The resulting reduction in available workers could threaten Georgia’s status during most of the last decade as the No.-1 state in which to do business, he said.

“We can’t keep that up if there aren’t enough workers to take jobs,” Dorfman said. “We need to grow the labor force.”

Sports betting bill introduced in General Assembly

Georgia Rep. Ron Stephens

ATLANTA – Online sports betting would come to Georgia under legislation introduced in the state House of Representatives Friday.

Under a bill sponsored by Rep. Ron Stephens, a longtime proponent of legalized gambling, at least six sports betting operators would be licensed by the Georgia Lottery Corp., paying application fees of $50,000 and annual licensing fees of $900,000.

The operators would pay a tax of 16% of their adjusted gross revenues. The money would go toward education, including the popular HOPE Scholarships program.

Supporters of legalizing gambling in Georgia argue the state is losing millions of dollars in potential tax revenue to illegal gambling.

“Georgia folks are doing it now,” said Stephens, R-Savannah. “All we’re going to do is capture the tax and put it in the HOPE Scholarship.”

Previous efforts to legalize sports betting in Georgia, as well as casinos and pari-mutuel betting on horse racing, have been handicapped by the requirement that proposed constitutional amendments receive two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate.

But this year, sports betting is being introduced as a statute rather than a constitutional change. As such, passing it only requires simple majorities in each legislative chamber.

Also, as a statute, the bill could take effect immediately upon the governor’s signature, rather than having to go before Georgia voters in a statewide referendum.

Stephens’ bill would prohibit Georgians under age 21 from engaging in sports betting. Wagering on high school or college games also would be forbidden.

Bettors would have to be physically located in Georgia to place a bet, a requirement that would be enforced with geofencing technology.

The bill is modeled after online sports betting legislation that took effect in Tennessee last fall. In November, its first month, the Volunteer State generated $131.4 million in wagers, yielding almost $2.4 million in tax revenue.

As a statute rather than a constitutional amendment, Stephens’ bill would have to go to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk rather than bypassing the governor and going straight to Georgia voters.

Kemp opposes legalized gambling and could veto the bill. However, sports betting enjoys bipartisan support in the General Assembly.

The measure’s cosponsors include three Republicans – Reps. Matt Dollar of Marietta, Lee Hawkins of Gainesville and Shelly Hutchinson of Snellville – and two Democrats, Reps. Billy Mitchell of Stone Mountain and Al Williams of Midway.

Sports betting also has the influential backing of a coalition formed by Atlanta’s four pro teams: the Braves, Falcons, Hawks and Atlanta United.

College campus building projects dominate annual state bond package

Savannah Convention Center

ATLANTA – Major building projects from Valdosta to Athens are included in the $883.1 million bond package Gov. Brian Kemp is recommending to the General Assembly.

That’s lower than the $1.13 billion in bond financing lawmakers approved last June for the current fiscal year. But the amount is likely to go higher as members of the House and Senate add projects when the legislature gets its turn at Kemp’s $27.2 billion fiscal 2022 budget plan.

The most expensive project appropriation in the package is $90 million to continue the planned expansion of the Savannah Convention Center. Lawmakers earmarked $70 million last year for the first phase of the $210 million project.

Next on the list is $56.4 million to build a new headquarters for the Georgia Department of Public Safety in Atlanta. A portion of the money would go toward tearing down the existing building.

The bond package sets aside $124.9 million for K-12 school construction and renovation, $208.2 million for construction and renovation on University System of Georgia campuses and $84.3 million for building projects at the state’s technical colleges.

Highlights include $26.8 million to build an aviation training academy at the Chattahoochee Technical College campus in Paulding County, $26.3 million to renovate the humanities building at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton and $21.7 million for Phase I of the Poultry Science Center Complex at the University of Georgia in Athens.

Athens Technical College would receive $13.1 million to build an Industrial Systems Technology Building, $12.4 million is earmarked for construction of a performing arts center at Valdosta State University, and $12.2 million would go toward a convention center at Georgia Southern University.

Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton is due to receive $11.8 million for facility improvements, and $7.6 million would be used to build a Nursing and Health Science Simulation Lab at Albany State University.

The state Department of Juvenile Justice would receive $13.7 million to add a 56-bed housing unit at the Muscogee Youth Development Campus, while the Augusta YDC would get $11.7 million for another 56-bed unit.

Members of the House and Senate appropriations committee will spend three days next week reviewing Kemp’s budget proposals.