Georgia Power service shutoffs to resume mid-July

Georgia Power and Atlanta Gas Light are poised to resume shutting off service in July for customers who do not pay their bills following months of abstaining from disconnections during the coronavirus pandemic.

The two energy companies, which provide gas and electricity to millions of Georgians, pushed pause on service disconnections March 14 as Gov. Brian Kemp placed the state under a public health emergency stemming from the pandemic.

Georgia Power will be able to resume service shutoffs for delinquent payments on July 15, giving customers some time to work with the company on possible alternative-payment plans. Atlanta Gas Light marketers can resume service shutoffs on July 1.

Those dates were approved Tuesday by the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities in the state. Commissioners also backed letting Georgia Power seek to recoup lost costs from the shutoff moratorium in future negotiations over rate changes.

The two energy providers, which are both subsidiaries of the regional power provider, Southern Company, were among dozens of utilities across the state that pressed pause on penalizing customers amid the pandemic. The virus-induced social distancing and economic slowdown has prompted roughly 2 million Georgians to file unemployment claims since mid-March.

Some utilities are set to resume disconnecting service and collecting late fees later this month and in July. Most, however, have not set dates for ending disconnection moratoriums.

Social and business restrictions have eased in recent weeks per orders from the governor, who is keen to jumpstart the state’s struggling economy in the face of billions of dollars in lost tax revenues since March.

The shutoff resumption follows Georgia Power’s decision last week to reduce fuel rates by about 17% over the next two years, saving customers $5.32 on their average monthly bills. The PSC-approved decision resulted from lower prices driven by increased natural gas supply.

Georgia Power, which is the state’s largest energy provider, previously gained PSC approval for a rate increase last December that will raise the average residential customer’s bill by $168 per year.

Georgia cities rocked by protests against police brutality

Protesters gather outside the Governor’s Mansion in Atlanta on May 30, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Intense protesting against police brutality and racial injustice rocked several Georgia cities over the weekend as local officials imposed nightly curfews and Gov. Brian Kemp ordered National Guard members to help quell bouts of property destruction.

Demonstrations in Atlanta, Athens, Savannah and Gainesville coincided with nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died after a white officer kneeled on his neck for several minutes during an arrest last week in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Protests in the state also followed the arrests last month of two white men in the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man who was gunned down in the Satilla Shores neighborhood near Brunswick on Feb. 23.

Many influential Georgia politicians were swift to condemn the violence seen during the weekend protests while simultaneously expressing outrage over Floyd’s death, which was recorded on video and spread rapidly via social media.

“I know your pain, your rage, your sense of despair and hopelessness,” said U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the prominent civil rights leader from Atlanta. “Justice has, indeed, been denied for far too long. Rioting, looting and burning is not the way. Organize. Demonstrate. Sit-in. Stand-up. Be constructive, not destructive.”

In Atlanta, three nights of protests starting Friday devolved at times into attacks on buildings in the downtown area, vehicles set ablaze and hundreds of arrests. Largely peaceful demonstrations became into scenes of riot as some elements in crowds hurled bottles, rocks, knives and fireworks at Atlanta police officers, who in turn fired tear gas cannisters.

The protests in Georgia’s largest city prompted the governor to declare a state of emergency for all 159 Georgia counties on Saturday and order the deployment of 3,000 Georgia National Guard troops to several sites including Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park, the Governor’s Mansion, several malls in the Atlanta area and to Savannah, where protests Sunday night led to 16 arrests.

In remarks Saturday, Kemp said he sent out National Guard members at the request of local officials in Atlanta, noting cities across the state were grappling with protests at the same time the coronavirus pandemic remains a serious concern.

“While life is more valuable than property, we do not want the destruction of either,” the governor said. “What we witnessed was outrageous, and we will do our part in conjunction with local leaders to plan, mobilize and respond appropriately to threats that undermine public safety.”

On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union’s Georgia chapter urged Kemp and mayors to tread cautiously when enforcing curfews, arguing authorities should use their arresting powers as a last resort and only “to facilitate compliance rather than to punish non-compliance.”

“In this time when thousands of our citizens are exercising their First Amendment rights to protest police misconduct, it is imperative that the government’s response be measured and appropriate rather than further police misconduct and increased militarization of our streets,” said the Georgia ACLU’s executive director, Andrea Young.

In all, nearly 300 people were arrested in Atlanta in connection with the protests from Friday through Sunday, with more than half arrested Saturday night. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms placed the city under a third consecutive citywide curfew Monday night.

Atlanta also saw the injury of an officer who was hit by an ATV during Saturday night’s protest in the downtown area. Additionally, two officers were fired from the city’s police department for using excessive force to make curfew-related arrests.

More arrests were made during protests in Athens and Savannah on Sunday night, though officials noted those cities saw less property destruction than Atlanta.

In Savannah, 16 people were arrested including two active military members, said the city’s police chief, Roy Minter. Savannah Mayor Van Johnson said Monday no property was damaged and no one was injured in the protests.

“Our city has shown that peaceful demonstrations can be done peacefully,” Johnson said at a news conference Monday.

Tear gas and non-lethal ammunition were used on protesters in Athens, according to the Athens-Clarke County Police Department. Graffiti was also drawn on the Confederate-era “soldier’s monument” in downtown Athens, authorities said.

Gainesville also saw protesting Sunday night in which 10 arrests were made, according to the Hall County Sheriff’s Office. Additionally, authorities said a Gainesville man was arrested for allegedly vandalizing the city’s “Old Joe” Confederate monument with paint.

Pay cuts for judges, state attorneys floated amid COVID-19

Georgia lawmakers again Monday raised the idea of imposing salary reductions instead of furloughs for some state employees and elected officials like judges and attorneys amid the need for spending cuts spurred by the coronavirus pandemic.

With state prosecutors, public defenders and judges facing weeks of furlough, some members of the Senate Appropriations Judicial Subcommittee on Monday floated temporary pay cuts as a way to trim spending without impairing the court system’s ability to speedily process cases.

“We may have to think outside of the box a little bit,” said Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, who chairs the subcommittee. “Would this be better with a salary reduction as opposed to a furlough?”

“It’s just how are we going to do this and what mechanisms are we going to use to get there,” Ligon added.

Salary reductions were mentioned last week as a possible option for the state’s preschool teachers to shoulder some of the financial burden as lawmakers look to cut between $3 billion and $4 billion from the 2021 fiscal year budget. But that notion drew pushback from some lawmakers opposed to pulling wages from teachers.

The General Assembly is set to reconvene later this month and has until July 1 to pass a budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Proposed furloughs were outlined Monday amounting to between 13 and 44 days for state prosecutors, 40 days for superior court judges and their staff, 13 days for Georgia Supreme Court justices, 18 days for District Attorney Chris Carr’s office and 24 days for the Georgia Public Defender Council.

With those furlough days, judges and attorneys critical to the court system would be forced to take several days off work at a time when cases have piled up and defendants awaiting trial have stayed imprisoned longer amid the coronavirus pandemic, several state agency heads said Monday.

In practice, judges would likely still report for duty to help clear the case backlog even if furlough days are implemented, said Henry County Superior Court Chief Judge Brian Amero. He told lawmakers Monday thousands of criminal defendants are currently in jail who need to have their day in court.

“If you furlough [judges], that will just be a word on paper,” Amero said. “We will not be working less. We will be working more.”

“The extent to which this avalanche of work is about to hit superior court judges cannot be overstated,” he added.

Simply slicing salaries could be complicated since doing so would have a secondary effect of reducing an employee’s retirement contribution, which would not happen with furloughs. Also, some elected positions like judges cannot have their compensation changed during their terms in office.

For that reason, justices on the state’s highest court are willing to take voluntary pay cuts, said Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton.

“We can voluntarily decline pay,” Melton said. “That’s what we’re doing.”

Amid the complications, some lawmakers at Monday’s meeting still pressed agency heads on whether pay reductions could help judges and attorneys keep working to clear their case backlog instead of having them take days off.

Rep. Andrew Welch, who chairs the House Appropriations Public Safety Subcommittee, wondered whether temporary salary reductions could provide more savings since the state would not have to contribute as much to retirement plans. But he acknowledged the trickiness of reducing salaries for judges as opposed to furloughs.

“Neither of these are desirable,” said Welch, R-McDonough. “We respect the Constitution but at the same time, I think that’s why we’re asking about alternatives and voluntary need of judges to participate in perhaps that [salary] rate reduction.”

Meanwhile, the state Public Defender Council urged lawmakers Monday to be spared from budget cuts as rising unemployment in the state has driven up the number of cases for public defenders in recent months.

The council’s executive director, Omotayo Alli, said adopting furlough days and other spending cuts needed to meet a 14% budget reduction would impair the ability of Georgia’s public defenders to handle their growing caseloads.

“The criminal justice system is going to crash,” Alli said. “And that is no one’s wish.”

Receiving an exemption from the cuts may be wishful thinking as some lawmakers Monday highlighted the importance for all state-funded agencies and employees to absorb the pain of the coronavirus-prompted budget cuts.

“We’re all in one boat called the state of Georgia,” Ligon said. “Each agency has an oar for keeping that board moving in the right direction and staying above water as we navigate these dangerous rapids caused by [coronavirus].”

Georgia schools given guidelines for reopening amid COVID-19

Georgia school officials released guidelines Monday on how to reopen the state’s public schools for the 2020-2021 school year amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The guideline document, called “Georgia’s Path to Recovery for K-12 Schools,” outlines steps local schools should take to prevent the highly infectious virus from entering classroom environments and to curb its spread if an outbreak occurs.

Georgia’s school districts halted in-person classes in more than 2,200 schools starting in late March as concerns ramped up over coronavirus. The state’s roughly 1.7 million students were left to finish the remainder of their spring-semester coursework via online means.

In recent weeks, Gov. Brian Kemp has moved to reopen sectors of the state’s economy and social activities, including summer school classes that can be held starting this month. Summer schools would have to keep students separated in classrooms and routinely sanitize facilities.

The 10-page guideline document released Monday leaves it to school districts whether to close school buildings in the event the virus spreads. It also calls for districts to participate in contact tracing with state health officials, place educational signs on good hygiene in school buildings and decide how to handle students and teachers who show symptoms of the virus.

Additionally, the guidelines note ways for school districts to shift to online learning in the event of an outbreak, as well as to take a “hybrid” approach allowing districts to blend in-person and online learning. If the virus spreads at a “moderate” level, the guidelines advise schools to screen students and staff before they enter buildings and to require students to keep space between each other in cafeterias, classrooms and hallways.

“In partnership with the Georgia Department of Public Health, we created these guidelines to give school districts a blueprint for safe reopening that is realistic in the K-12 setting,” State School Superintendent Richard Woods wrote in the document. “We have a responsibility to keep out students, teachers, school staff and families safe and to provide the best possible education for our children.”

The guidelines will likely not be the last word on how Georgia should resume classes for the 2020-2021 school year. Last month, Kemp and Woods formed six working groups of educators, public health officials and state agency representatives to lead the school reopening effort.

The guidelines also come as the Georgia Department of Education faces across-the-board cuts of around $1.6 billion to all aspects of the agency prompted by the virus, from state administrative offices in Atlanta to specialty programs like agricultural education to everyday basic classroom education.

Lt. Gov. Duncan backs hate-crimes legislation

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan outlines his agenda for the 2020 legislative session at the State Capitol on January 13, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan signaled Friday he plans to work with state lawmakers on passing hate-crimes legislation following the high-profile arrests of three white men in the fatal shooting of a black man near Brunswick.

Duncan, who presides over the Georgia Senate, said Friday lawmakers need to craft legislation that gives victims of hate-motivated crimes “certain tools” to bring civil lawsuits and sets a framework for law enforcement officials “to correctly identify, investigate and prosecute hate crimes.”

“This is an important piece of legislation to get right,” Duncan said in a statement. “It is time to make it clear that Georgians will not stand for hate and violence.”

Duncan’s remarks follow the arrests earlier this month of Gregory and Travis McMichael, a father and son living in the Brunswick area who face murder charges in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Arbery, who is black, was allegedly gunned down after being pursued in late February by the McMichael men, who are white.

Video of the shooting taken by a third man arrested in the case, William Bryan, who is also white, sparked widespread outrage among Georgia leaders and prompted renewed calls for passage of the hate-crimes bill.

The measure, sponsored by state Rep. Chuck Efstration, cleared the Georgia House last year but has stalled in the Senate. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have issued calls in recent weeks to pass the bill. Efstration said he plans to push for its passage once the General Assembly resumes the 2020 legislative session in mid-June.

In a statement earlier this month, Efstration, R-Dacula, noted the bill has gained support from the state House’s top lawmaker, Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. Other influential House lawmakers including the legislature’s longest-serving member, Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, have also pushed for passage this session.

“It is now time for the Georgia Senate to do the right thing and pass the Georgia Hate Crimes Act without delay,” Efstration said.

New voting machines face big test in coronavirus-struck Georgia primary

Voters wait in line at a precinct in Cobb County on May 18, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Georgia’s new voting machines will face their first major test in a June 9 primary election that has created far different logistical challenges for state officials than were anticipated before the coronavirus pandemic struck.

The new machines, purchased last summer for $104 million, were already under intense scrutiny as Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office pushed to have the 30,000 new devices rolled out by the March 24 presidential preference primary, all while legal challenges sought to have them blocked.

Then coronavirus hit, upending the game plan for the March 24 contest in which the voting machines were poised for their first statewide use. Since then, primary elections have been postponed twice to June 9, precincts in high-volume voting areas like Atlanta have shuttered over safety concerns and Raffensperger has pushed for Georgians to hand in absentee ballots rather than head to the polls.

“What voters have to understand is that it’s going to look a little bit different when they show up this time,” Raffensperger said at a recent news conference.

“The fewer people voting on the actual election day,” he added, “the safer it will be for the voters, poll workers and all Georgians.”

Purchased last July from Dominion Voting Systems, the new machines – called ballot-marking devices – involve touchscreens and scanners that record a paper print-out of a voter’s completed ballot. State officials hail the new machines as more secure than the old all-electronic machines, which have been scrapped over cybersecurity concerns after 18 years of use.

Critics of the new machines have continued pushing for Georgia to adopt an all-paper voting system, arguing the new devices still record votes electronically and do not provide enough of an audit trail. Lawsuits filed in federal court against Raffensperger’s office aim to halt the new machines in Georgia, though judges overseeing those cases so far have not issued any injunction orders to do so.

To date, Raffensperger said the new machines have not experienced any major technical issues since being installed in time for the March 24 presidential primary. They have been used by hundreds of thousands of Georgians in early voting this year and during a six-county test run last fall, in which county officials reported some minor glitches.

“They’ve worked amazing,” Raffensperger said, while acknowledging that “we haven’t gotten the full use of those [machines] that we would like because of COVID-19.”

Coronavirus, which had sickened more than 45,000 people and killed 1,974 in Georgia as of Friday afternoon, has prompted elections officials to shift attention from having the new machines go off without a hitch to making sure polling places are kept clean and both voters and poll workers have protective supplies to stay safe.

To curb risks of spreading the virus, voters are being spaced out six feet apart from each other in line at local precincts and poll workers will all wear masks and gloves, Raffensperger said. His office is also supplying counties with roughly 60,000 stylus pens for voters to use on the touchscreens rather than their fingers. Without the styluses, polling places would have to completely shut down the touchscreens to disinfect them after each use.

On top of distancing and sanitizing measures, officials expect voting to take longer than normal due to fewer precincts being open in areas like Atlanta, as some local churches and schools that usually serve as precincts back out over coronavirus concerns.

In Savannah, the Chatham County Board of Elections is pushing to open alternative polling places after 12 of the county’s 92 voting sites “were uncertain.” And Fulton County, the state’s most populous, has lost more than 30 voting sites in recent weeks from its nearly 200-site total and is “struggling with Election Day locations,” said the county’s election director, Rick Barron.

“This has been an unprecedented situation for not only Fulton County but also other counties around the state,” Barron said at a recent news conference.

To ease the pressure of in-person voting, state and county elections officials have spent weeks urging Georgians to cast ballots by mail after Raffensperger’s office sent absentee ballot applications to all of the state’s nearly 7 million registered voters starting in March. So far, roughly 600,000 people have sent in absentee ballots of the more than 1.5 million who requested them, according to Raffensperger.

Handling the avalanche of absentee ballot requests has been challenging for many county elections officials, including Barron. Like other counties, his Fulton County staff have been swamped with processing absentee ballot applications and returned ballots, with many voters still complaining they have not received mail-in ballots weeks after requesting them.

Officials have asked voters to be patient as they sift through absentee ballot requests submitted by mail and online in recent weeks.

“It’s almost as though we’ve added a different type of an election on top of the one that we’re already running,” Barron said. “It has split our resources.”

Meanwhile, time is running out for mail-in voting. Ballots must be cast or received by county offices no later than 7 p.m. on June 9 or they will not count, Raffensperger said. If voters wait until the final few days, their absentee ballots may not circulate quickly enough through the mail to make it.

“It does put you at the mercy of the United States Postal Service,” Raffensperger said.

That time crunch prompted one member of the Georgia House Democratic Caucus, Rep. Donna McCleod, to conclude voters should ditch the mail-in method if they have not received an absentee ballot by Friday, May 29. If that’s the case, voters can still fall back on the new machines to cast their ballot.

“Please, please, please stay safe,” said McCleod, D-Lawrenceville. “This is not worth your life, but it is important for us to participate in our democracy.”