Logistics exec: Georgia’s freight capacity needs will require private investment

The Appalachian Regional Port near Chatsworth was built by the Georgia Ports Authority, Murray County and CSX Corp. as a public-private partnership.

ATLANTA – Georgia is going to need $135 billion to $150 billion during the next 30 years to keep up with the demand for freight capacity of a fast-growing state, a logistics industry executive said Wednesday.

That’s far too much money for the state government to cover, Brad Skinner, a board member at Denver-based freight railroad operator OmniTrax, told members of the Georgia Freight & Logistics Commission. Georgia is going to have to turn to the private sector for help, he said.

“There’s not enough money to do some of the things Georgia needs to do,” said Skinner, who also serves as a member of the commission. “You have to find private investors with deep pockets.”

Georgia has experience with public-private partnerships in the transportation sector. The interstate toll lanes that have begun to pop up across metro Atlanta during the last several years are being built and financed by private consortiums that are recovering their investments from toll revenues.

Another example is the Appalachian Regional Port near Chatsworth, an inland terminal built by the Georgia Ports Authority, Murray County and CSX Corp.

A subcommittee headed by Skinner recommended Wednesday that the commission submit legislation to the General Assembly expanding the role of the State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA) – which oversees the toll lanes – to negotiating public-private partnerships for freight infrastructure projects across the state.

“There’s a lot of money out there that I believe can be captured,” Skinner said.

Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, one of the commission’s co-chairmen, said financing freight infrastructure improvements through public-private partnerships would give the state a new economic development tool.

“Expanding the role of SRTA could really be a game-changer, especially for rural Georgia,” he said.

While the state courts private investment in freight projects, some public funding will also be required.

Tanner said he and state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, the commission’s other co-chairman, plan to meet with officials from the Georgia Department of Revenue this month to talk about potential sources, including creating a dedicated trust fund for freight improvements.

But Stephanie Smith, senior vice president of supply chain and delivery for The Home Depot and a commission member, warned against imposing any taxes that might damage the state’s reputation for welcoming corporate investment.

“Georgia is a very business-friendly state,” she said. “We need to be careful not to do anything that makes Georgia less competitive.”

The commission, formed last year to look for ways to move freight more efficiently through Georgia, is expected to deliver its recommendations to the General Assembly before the 2021 legislative session begins next month.

Raffensperger backs election manager’s criticism of President Trump, Georgia senators

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger defended his top election manager Wednesday, one day after Gabriel Sterling criticized President Donald Trump for continuing to pursue claims of massive fraud in last month’s election.

“He spoke with passion and he spoke the truth,” Raffensperger told reporters during a news conference at the Georgia Capitol. “It’s about time more people out there were speaking the truth.”

Sterling, a Republican, took Trump and Georgia’s two GOP U.S. senators, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, to task on Tuesday for not doing more to calm a political atmosphere that has led to threats against elections workers.

Despite losing to President-elect Joe Biden in Georgia by more than 12,000 votes, a result that was formally certified last week, Trump has continued to post claims on Twitter of massive fraud. Perdue and Loeffler have called for Raffensperger’s resignation.

“This is exactly the kind of language that is at the base of a growing threat environment for elections workers who are simply doing their jobs,” Raffensperger said. “We will continue to do our jobs, follow the law and follow the process.”

Raffensperger, also a Republican, suggested it’s time to move forward to the Jan. 5 runoff elections for Georgia’s two Senate seats. He said his office has received 983,735 requests for absentee ballots thus far.

“I  believe Jan. 5 is where people should be expending their energy” he said. “We need to look ahead. Control of the United States Senate and a [state] Public Service Commission seat are at stake.”

Perdue and Loeffler are being opposed by Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, respectively, in next month’s runoffs. The results will decide whether Republicans keep their majority in the Senate.

Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, a Republican member of the Public Service Commission, is also on the runoff ballot. He is being challenged by Democrat Daniel Blackman.

Also on Wednesday, Raffensperger announced he has launched an investigation into several groups he said have repeatedly and aggressively sought to register ineligible, out-of-state, or deceased voters ahead of the runoffs.

“I have issued clear warnings several times to groups and individuals working to undermine the integrity of elections in Georgia through false and fraudulent registrations,” he said. “We have received specific evidence that these groups have solicited voter registrations from ineligible individuals who have passed away or live out of state.

“I will investigate these claims thoroughly and take action against anyone attempting to undermine our elections.”

The targeted groups include America Votes, Vote Forward and The New Georgia Project. All three groups have denied the secretary of state’s allegations.

‘It has to stop’: Top Georgia election official slams Trump, senators over fraud claims

Gabriel Sterling, Georgia’s election system implementation manager, gives an update on the presidential election recount on Nov. 18, 2020. (Secretary of State video)

Georgia’s top election manager ripped into President Donald Trump Tuesday, as well as U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, for not doing more to tamp down unfounded claims of voting fraud after a local election worker was threatened with a noose.

Gabriel Sterling, the state’s election implementation manager, called on the Republican president and Georgia’s GOP senators to “step up” after Trump supporters took video of a 20-year-old election-system contractor, threatened him with a noose on Twitter and tracked down home addresses for members of his family.

“I can’t begin to explain the level of anger that I have right now over this,” Sterling, who is a Republican, said of the recent threat. “And every American, every Georgian, Republican and Democrat alike, should have that same level of anger.”

Sterling also denounced threats that have been made against his supervisor, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, including “sexualized threats” sent to Raffensperger’s wife’s cell phone.

“This is our elections,” Sterling said. “This is the backbone of our democracy. And all of you who have not said a damn word are complicit in this. It’s too much.”

Raffensperger and his family have been threatened several times recently including when someone broke into a home owned by a family member, his office said. Caravans of Trump supporters waving flags from pickup trucks have also been cruising around and honking horns in Raffensperger’s neighborhood.

On Monday, Raffensperger said certain people are misleading Trump and his supporters with “fantastic claims” of election fraud aimed at “exploiting [their] emotions.”

A top deputy in Raffensperger’s office, Sterling has held multiple news conferences in recent weeks as state and county election officials worked through two separate recounts of the 2020 presidential election results in Georgia. The second recount is on track to wrap up by midnight Wednesday.

Certified election results show Trump lost to President-elect Joe Biden in Georgia by 12,670 votes, a margin that narrowed by around 1,500 votes after uncounted ballots were located during the state’s first recount. That margin is not likely to shrink enough to reverse the final outcome, Sterling has said.

That has not stopped Trump from taking to Twitter repeatedly in recent days to slam Raffensperger and pressure Gov. Brian Kemp to intervene in the president’s favor. Attorneys allied with Trump have filed federal lawsuits seeking to de-certify the election that contain claims echoing many of his mail-in ballot and voting-machine fraud allegations.

In an impassioned plea, Sterling on Tuesday urged Trump to back off the divisive language he’s used to spread doubt about the election results while the second recount continues and lawsuits wind through court, adding: “Mr. President, it looks like you likely lost the state of Georgia.”

“Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence,” Sterling said. “Someone’s going to get hurt. Someone’s going to get shot. Someone’s going to get killed. And it’s not right.”

Sterling also lashed out at Perdue and Loeffler, both staunch Trump supporters who called for Raffensperger’s resignation last month and have refused to back off that position. Their push for Raffensperger to resign prompted Trump to describe Georgia’s secretary of state as “an enemy of the people.”

On Tuesday, Sterling said those actions by the Trump, Loeffler and Perdue worked to incite violence and helped open a “floodgate of crap” related to fraud conspiracies and threats.

“We need you to step up,” Sterling said, singling out Perdue and Loeffler by name. “And if you’re going to take a position of leadership, show some. It has to stop.”

Campaign spokespersons for Loeffler and Perdue said both senators condemn violence but added they also would continue pushing for “accountability” of Georgia’s election system.

“Like many officials, as someone who has been the subject of threats, of course Senator Loeffler condemns violence of any kind. How ridiculous to even suggest otherwise,” said Loeffler campaign spokesman Stephen Lawson.

“We also condemn inaction and lack of accountability in our election system process – and won’t apologize for calling it out.”

Perdue and Loeffler are competing against Democrats Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock in runoff elections set for Jan. 5.

Georgia Senate to hold hearings on 2020 election ‘processes’, ‘improprieties’

Top Republican state lawmakers announced Tuesday they plan to hold hearings later this week on the integrity of Georgia’s election system and to take testimony on alleged “elections improprieties” stemming from the 2020 general election.

Back-to-back hearings have been scheduled for Thursday by the Senate Government Oversight Committee to “evaluate the election process” and the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee to field election-impropriety claims.

The two meetings come as officials in Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office continue to dismiss claims of widespread voter fraud by allies of President Donald Trump, who certified results show lost the Nov. 3 presidential election to President-elect Joe Biden in Georgia by 12,670 votes.

In particular, Trump’s allies have homed in on how Georgia verifies signatures on the roughly 1.3 million mail-in ballots cast in the presidential election and have urged Raffensperger’s office to launch an audit aimed at matching those signatures with registration information.

Raffensperger’s office has signaled it is unlikely to do so without a court order, though the secretary of state has called for the General Assembly to pass legislation that would toughen up Georgia’s voter ID laws. A handful of federal lawsuits challenging the election’s certification are still winding through the courts.

Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, have also called for passing tighter voter ID rules during the legislative session that starts next month.

State election officials have highlighted claims of individual voting fraud or irregularities as part of more than 250 ongoing investigations as well as management stumbles from a few local election boards like Fulton County. Raffensperger’s office has also launched investigations into groups allegedly attempting to register out-of-state voters ahead of the U.S. Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5.

None of those issues are likely to overturn the ultimate outcome of the presidential election, state officials have said. Raffensperger’s office expects a second recount of the more-than 5 million ballots cast in the presidential election to wrap up by midnight Wednesday.

The state Senate meetings were announced jointly by the chamber’s majority caucus leaders including President Pro Tempore Butch Miller, R-Gainesville; Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton; Majority Whip Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega; Majority Caucus Chairman John Kennedy, R-Macon; Majority Caucus Vice Chairman Larry Walker III, R-Perry; and Majority Caucus Secretary Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge.

Lt. Gov. panel pegs telehealth as long-term boon for Georgia providers

Expect state lawmakers to focus again on health-care and telehealth bills amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Georgia when the General Assembly meets next month to kick off the 2021 legislative session, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan told health-care and technology administrators Tuesday.

Duncan, who led a task force on health-care access and costs in 2019, gave few details on any upcoming legislation other than possible measures to curb unnecessary emergency-room visits and “ways to create opportunities for better delivery” of Affordable Care Act-related services.

Panelists at a health care-focused summit in Rome Tuesday – including two top Georgia Senate members who also work in health care – signaled they would like to see Georgia expand its use of telehealth services that have been critical to providing primary care during the pandemic.

“I don’t think we’re just creating patterns and health habits around [COVID-19],” Duncan said. “I think long-term, we’re going to watch digital health play out [and] telehealth play out in a more formidable format.”

Georgia opened up more telehealth options in 2019 with passage of a bill sponsored by state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, which set legal definitions for telehealth services and required insurers to cover care provided via real-time, remote means.

Health-care providers have leaned more on video chats and other telehealth options to continue treating patients in the nearly nine months since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Georgia, forcing new distancing habits and the need for greater care to limit viral exposure in hospital settings.

Telehealth has been a boon for hospitals and health-care providers who have needed tighter coordination between themselves and their patients at a time when close contact is challenging, said Sherrie Williams, chief operating officer for Waycross-based nonprofit Global Partnership for Telehealth.

“If anything good came out of the pandemic … it’s the collaborative piece,” Williams said Tuesday. “And telehealth has really made it an easy thing to do.”

Many providers are now eyeing telehealth and telemedicine services as essential for hospitals and health-care organizations to continue treating patients, said Dr. Kenneth Jones, chief medical officer at Floyd Medical Center.

“That’s probably a lot of the future of medicine is the ability to access your physician and get care provided in a quick, prompt way,” Jones said Tuesday. “I think it’s going to change how we provide health care of the next five to ten years.”

Health-care and insurance-related legislation was a top priority for state Senate leaders during this year’s session, which saw passage and signing of several bills to curb unexpectedly high “surprise” hospital costs, tamp down runaway prescription-drug prices and boost insurer transparency.

State Sens. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, who is an anesthetist, and hospital administrator Dr. Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge, both of whom brought bills on those subjects as well as co-sponsored Unterman’s 2019 bill on telehealth, said the pandemic has highlighted ongoing health-care issues like insufficient broadband internet in rural parts of the state that the legislature still needs to tackle.

“We have a lot of tools available that we haven’t had before, but they’re unfortunately not all available,” Burke said. “I think the pandemic has given us a lot of transparency on what we have been able to do well and also what some of our deficiencies are.”

The 2021 legislative session kicks off Jan. 11 at the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta.

Kemp turns to Fulton County for Georgia Supreme Court pick

Shawn Ellen LaGrua

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp announced Tuesday he plans to appoint Fulton County Superior Court Judge Shawn Ellen LaGrua to the Georgia Supreme Court.

LaGrua will succeed former Justice Keith R. Blackwell, who left the bench last month to join his former law firm.

Before serving as a Superior Court judge in Fulton County, LaGrua was the inspector general for the Georgia Secretary of State’s office. She also served as DeKalb County’s solicitor general and worked as a prosecutor in the Atlanta, Stone Mountain, and Tallapoosa judicial circuits.

“Judge LaGrua has spent a 30-year career serving her fellow Georgians,” Kemp said. “I am confident that she will bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the bench.”

“We are delighted that Governor Kemp has chosen Shawn LaGrua to join our court,” Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton added. “She is an excellent choice among a number of excellent choices the governor had available to him.”

Blackwell stepped down from the state Supreme Court after eight years to become senior counsel for Atlanta-based Alston & Bird LLP’s Litigation and Trial Practice Group.