Major changes to absentee voting in Georgia elections advance in state House

Lines were sparse outside the Cobb County Regional Library voter precinct through noon on Election Day, Nov. 3, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – A wide-ranging bill clamping down on absentee voting in Georgia that has split Republicans and Democrats moved in the state House of Representatives on Wednesday.

The roughly 60-page bill, sponsored by Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, contains more than two dozen proposals including a controversial change requiring voters seeking mail-in ballots to provide the number on their driver’s license or state identification card, or photocopies of other valid ID forms.

Fleming’s bill would also restrict ballot-casting on weekends during the three-week early-voting period, scrapping rules for polls to be open on Sundays and instead requiring counties to pick either one Saturday or one Sunday ahead of Election Day for the precincts to be open.

The bill passed the state House Special Committee on Election Integrity, which Fleming chairs, on a party-line vote Wednesday and now heads to the full House for approval.

Fleming’s bill has been panned by Georgia Democrats who call it a measure aimed at suppressing votes after the party’s historic 2020 election wins. Democrat Joe Biden carried Georgia in the Nov. 3 presidential race, and the party won both of the Peach State’s U.S. Senate seats.

Republicans are going all-in to change Georgia’s rules for voting by mail this legislative session, having filed bills in both chambers that would require at least a driver’s license number or other legally-accepted ID to request an absentee ballot – and in some cases, a printed copy of one’s valid ID as well.

The Georgia Senate passed a measure this week by Sen. Larry Walker, R-Perry, that would require absentee-ballot seekers to provide their driver’s license or state ID number, or if they don’t have those ID forms, then alternatively a copy of their passport, employee ID card, utility bill or bank statement.

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, introduced a 25-page bill with nearly two dozen election-focused proposals, including a mandate for Georgia voters to obtain a witness signature and a photo ID copy in the envelopes for absentee ballots mailed back to county elections officials.

That bill, which all but three Republicans in the Senate are co-sponsoring the bill, entails the most dramatic changes for mailing votes in Georgia that stand the best changes of passing this year in the state legislature.

“Recently, many of our citizens have expressed a lack of faith and integrity in our current election systems,” read a statement from the Senate Republican Caucus. “We have heard these concerns voiced by many – and addressing these concerns has been at the forefront of our legislative efforts this year to promote the good of the state.”

Democratic leaders have blasted the GOP-brought bills, framing their opponents’ focus on election integrity as a smokescreen for wooing conservatives still loyal to former President Donald Trump, who unleashed popular – but fundamentally unproven – claims of voter fraud after losing Georgia’s presidential election in November to Biden by 11,779 votes.

“[The] Georgia GOP is hell-bent on suppressing the vote because they can’t win when Georgians vote,” said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, who chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia. “If they wanted to restore confidence in elections, they would work with Democrats to pass common-sense legislation, not help fuel the far-right’s false election fraud narratives.”

Some local Democratic leaders have also pointed out the costs county elections officials could incur by implementing the changes in Fleming’s bill, noting a recent report from the nonpartisan Voting Rights Lab that estimates Georgia counties could be forced to spend around $57 million on the changes in the next election cycle.

“Counties should not be held responsible for dangerous unfunded mandates that do nothing to make elections ‘secure’ but instead limit access to democracy for Georgians statewide,” read a letter penned this week by local leaders in Albany, Columbus and Augusta.

Fleming’s bill passed out of his committee after four separate hearings in which several county elections officials testified about the financial impacts of the proposed changes, expressing support for some provision like tighter ID verification but opposing others such as requiring drop boxes for absentee ballots to be placed only inside polling places.

Fleming, who is heading up this year’s debate on election bills in the Republican-controlled House, has made clear he believes the proposed changes would only create challenges for about 3% of Georgia voters who lack driver’s licenses – while boosting security for millions more voters.

At the first hearing to consider his bill on Feb. 18, Fleming said his bill stemmed not only from Republican voter grievances in the 2020 elections, but also Democratic voter grievances in the 2018 election for Georgia governor when then-Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams lost to current Republican Gov. Brian Kemp amid a flurry of voter-suppression charges.

“The goal of the bill … is an attempt, to the extent that we can, to begin to remedy some of those [elections] problems … and try to bring the left and the right back to a position where they have confidence overall in our election system,” Fleming said.

Georgians could be in line for income tax relief

Georgia Rep. Shaw Blackmon

ATLANTA – The General Assembly is considering giving Georgians trying to cope with the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic some tax relief.

Legislation raising the standard deduction allowed state income taxpayers passed unanimously Wednesday in a House Ways and Means subcommittee.

Under House Bill 593, married taxpayers filing jointly would be able to add $1,100 to the state’s standard deduction, which would increase from $6,000 to $7,100. Single taxpayers would be allowed to deduct an additional $800, and married couples filing separately would get an additional deduction of $550.

The state House of Representatives approved a bill last year setting Georgia’s income tax rate at a flat 5.375%. But the Georgia Senate didn’t take up the measure after lawmakers returned to the Gold Dome from a three-month hiatus prompted by COVID-19.

“So much of this was talked about last session,” Ways and Committee Chairman Shaw Blackmon, R-Bonaire, the bill’s chief sponsor, told members of the subcommittee Wednesday. “This is an opportunity to ease back into giving folks some of that relief. … It hits the most Georgians we could get with a tax relief package.”

Blackmon said the annual fiscal impact of the tax cut on the state’s coffers would be around $150 million at most.

The bill is cosponsored by Rep. Bruce Williamson, R-Monroe, the subcommittee’s chairman; and Reps. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta; Ron Stephens, R-Savannah; David Knight, R-Griffin; and Jason Ridley, R-Chatsworth.

The legislation now heads to the full Ways and Means Committee.

Georgia Senate approves bipartisan tax reform study

Georgia Sen. Chuck Hufstetler

ATLANTA – The Georgia Senate unanimously passed bipartisan legislation Wednesday calling for the most thorough review of the state’s tax laws in more than a decade.

The 2021 Special Council on Tax Reform and Fairness for Georgians would be modeled after an advisory council of the same name the General Assembly created in 2010.

That iteration of the council led to tax reforms that eliminated Georgia’s “birthday” tax on motor vehicles, phased out the state sales tax on energy used in manufacturing and expanded an income tax exemption for married couples filing jointly.

“Georgia did something that worked really well back in 2010,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, told his Senate colleagues Wednesday. “It’s time to do that again.”

Under Hufstetler’s bill, the council would include Gov. Brian Kemp, three economists, a fiscal expert chosen by minority Democrats, the 2021 chairman of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the 2021 director of the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, two members appointed by the lieutenant governor and two members appointed by the speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives.

The council will study Georgia’s tax structure during the course of this year and report its findings and recommendations to the speaker and lieutenant governor no later than Jan. 10, 2022.

The Special Joint Committee on Georgia Revenue Structure, a panel Hufstetler’s bill also would create, would then develop the council’s recommendations into one or more bills to be introduced into the House during next year’s legislative session.

Anything that emerges from the joint committee would move directly to the floor of the House for an up-or-down vote with no amendments. The same process then would be followed in the Senate.

The 2010 council expressed interest in a similar up-or-down voting process as a way to prevent its tax reform recommendations from being watered down, but the General Assembly wouldn’t go along. As a result, the final legislation that came out of the council’s work was not as far-reaching as council members intended.

Like the council, the joint committee would guarantee representation to legislative Democrats, including the minority leaders of the House and Senate. Unlike the council, the joint committee would be limited to members of the General Assembly.

Hufstetler said Georgia was ranked as the sixth-best state in the nation in which to do business by Site Selection magazine at the time lawmakers created the council. Since then, Georgia has improved to the point that the state’s business climate has been No.-1 on the magazine’s list for eight years running.

“This is an attempt to replicate what we did 11 years ago,” Hufstetler said. “Are we going to stand still and let others pass us, or are we going to be more economically competitive?”

Senate Bill 148 now heads to the House of Representative.

Ban on defunding police in Georgia clears state House

State Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, talks about his bill to ban defunding police after a favorable House vote on Feb. 24, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

A bill aimed at preventing Georgia city and county governments from making deep cuts in the budgets of their local police agencies passed in the Georgia House of Representatives on Wednesday.

Sponsored by state Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, the bill would limit local governments from reducing funds for police by more than 5% over a 10-year span. It includes exemptions for smaller jurisdictions and for spending on equipment purchases.

The bill passed 101-69 nearly along party lines, with three Democrats voting in favor. It now heads to the state Senate.

Speaking from the House floor on Wednesday, Gaines called policies to reduce funding for police a “radical idea” that would put police officers in danger and slow response times for emergencies. 

“This legislation sends a strong message that we support our law enforcement officers and we will never defund police here in Georgia,” Gaines said. “When we have local governments that are out of control and putting lives at risk, we have to step in.”

Gaines also highlighted recent failed attempts by some Athens and Atlanta elected officials to slice millions of dollars from their police budgets amid protests over police brutality and racial injustice that swept across Georgia and the country last summer.

Critics called the funding restrictions a power grab by the state over local governments and argued it would stall efforts to fund other areas like mental health, housing and education that aim to keep people from landing in jail.

“The efforts to transfer funding from police departments is about addressing the root causes we are desperate to address,” said state Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta. “This bill would shut down the necessary discourse leaders are having with their communities.”

Opposition to the bill also came from the Georgia Municipal Association and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG), which represent city and county governments and argued police funding should be left to local officials.

Gaines’ bill comes after last summer’s protests following the high-profile killings of Black men by police officers, including the deaths of George Floyd in Minnesota and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta.

Property destruction and violence at some of those protests sparked a backlash from conservative leaders over a push by some progressive officials to curb police funding, dubbed “defund the police.” The subject took center stage as an issue for both political parties in the 2020 election cycle.

Several Republican state lawmakers traced the need for the bill directly to those protests, saying police funding decisions have been politicized as a result.

“It is as much an answer to the politicization of an issue that has been made over the past few years,” said Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell. “There’s one place you don’t need to defund and that’s public safety.”

Democratic lawmakers dismissed that way of framing the bill, arguing its intent instead is to let state officials pry into local affairs and ignore calls for more community-oriented policing in predominantly minority neighborhoods.

“This bill does absolutely nothing to increase or protect public safety,” said Rep. Renitta Shannon, D-Decatur. “There are better ways for the money to be spent and let us figure that out in our communities.”

Georgia Republicans have brought legislation in recent weeks to ease probation hardships for released offenders. Democratic lawmakers are pushing broad changes to arrest tactics like no-knock warrants, use-of-force training and civilian oversight of officer-involved shooting reviews. 

A separate measure moving in the House to overhaul Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law has drawn bipartisan support, marking the major criminal-justice reform bill most likely to pass this year.

That bill would repeal state law allowing private citizens to detain someone who commits a crime in their presence or during an escape attempt. It would also let owners and employees in businesses detain those believed to have committed a crime on their property, so long as they’re handed over to local authorities within an hour.

Gaines’ bill also joins a handful of other measures critics have slammed as state overreach into local decisions, including a bill to block locals from banning certain energy sources that passed out of the House on Monday.

Standard time measure clears state Senate

Georgia Sen. Ben Watson

ATLANTA – The Georgia Senate passed legislation Wednesday that would put the Peach State on standard time all year.

The bill, which senators approved 46-7, would do away with switching back and forth twice a year between standard and daylight time, a system studies have shown disrupts sleep patterns.

Interfering with sleep during the two weeks following time changes every March and November impacts Georgians’ health and causes mood swings, said Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah, the bill’s chief sponsor.

“There’s a significantly higher percentage of heart attacks during the spring-forward time,” he said. “We have grumpy judges due to sleep deprivation giving harsher sentences.”

While Watson’s bill would move Georgia to standard time all year, it also calls for the state to move to daylight saving time if and when Congress allows states to make that switch. Current federal law permits states to go on standard time but not daylight saving time.

Watson said surrounding states including Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee are considering similar legislation.

Sen. Kim Jackson, D-Stone Mountain, questioned the wisdom of Georgia acting now rather than waiting for Congress to let states switch to daylight time permanently. She said businesses including restaurants and concert venues prefer daylight time because it allows additional evening daylight hours.

“People like having more evening light,” Jackson said.

But Watson said observing daylight time during the winter would lead to dark mornings. The sun wouldn’t come up until almost 8:30 a.m. in December, prompting concerns for the safety of children going to school, he said.

Senate Bill 100 is cosponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore Butch Miller, R-Gainesville; Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton; Republican Sens. John Kennedy of Macon and Dean Burke of Bainbridge; and Democratic Sen. Michelle Au of Johns Creek.

The bill now moves to the Georgia House of Representatives.

‘Hidden Predator’ bill for child sex-abuse victims to sue in Georgia advances

Legislation to extend the statute of limitations for Georgians who were sexually abused as children to sue their abusers years later as adults advanced in the state House of Representatives on Tuesday.

Sponsored by Georgia Rep. Heath Clark, R-Warner Robins, the bill would extend the deadline for victims to bring suits against their childhood abusers to age 52, a steep increase from age 23 under current state law.

The bill would let victims sue their alleged abusers up to a year after realizing that past abuse has led to present-day trauma. Research shows adults often tend to recognize the impacts of childhood sex abuse decades after it happened.

Controversially, the bill would also give victims a four-year window to sue public and private organizations like the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America for harboring predators on staff who abused them as children.

Under the bill, which passed the House Judiciary Committee unanimously, victims would have to prove with “clear and convincing” evidence those organizations both knew about the abuse and let it happen under their watch.

Lawsuits could only be brought if the abuse happened since July 1, 1973, marking the year in Georgia law when organizations were first required to report abuse allegations among staff.

Trial attorneys have warned opening the lawsuit window for victims up to decades after their abuse could open a floodgate of litigation in Georgia, noting hundreds of suits were filed in New York shortly after that state passed a similar statute-of-limitations extension in 2019.

Representatives from the Boy Scouts and Catholic Church, which have both been rocked by child sex-abuse scandals in recent years, also previously opposed the bill on grounds that litigation could expose their organizations to huge legal fees.

Clark’s bill now heads to the full House for a vote. It resembles a statute-of-limitations measure he filed on childhood sexual abuse that stalled in last year’s legislative session, which was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.