DNR Board approves extension of Silver Comet Trail

A planned extension will take the Silver Comet Trail east of I-285 for the first time.

ATLANTA – The Georgia Board of Natural Resources signed off Tuesday on a plan to extend the popular Silver Comet Trail in Cobb County.

Board members unanimously approved agreements with Cobb County, the state Department of Transportation and the Forest Park-based nonprofit PATH Foundation to add 2.3 miles onto the eastern end of the trail, taking it inside the Interstate 285 perimeter for the first time.

The Silver Comet Trail runs for 61.5 miles along an abandoned rail line from Smyrna west through Cobb, Paulding and Polk counties to the Georgia/Alabama line. The paved trail is used primarily for biking and hiking.

The new extension ultimately will allow the trail to connect with the Atlanta Beltline. To accomplish that aim, another extension will be needed to cross the Chattahoochee River.

The PATH Foundation has agreed to build the extension at no cost to the state, Steve Friedman, chief of real estate for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), told board members Tuesday. Cobb County will operate and maintain the new section of the trail, he said.

The project is expected to be completed by the end of next year, Friedman said.

Georgia leaders push to boost 2020 Census count with 10 days before deadline

Georgia is lagging in its count of the 2020 U.S. Census. (U.S. Census Bureau photo)

Local leaders from Rome to Savannah pressed Georgians on Monday to complete the 2020 census with only 10 days left before the deadline.

Georgia ranks near the bottom of states in its progress on the decennial count, which influences federal money allocations and political representation. The deadline is Sept. 30.

As of Monday, nearly 91% of households in Georgia had completed the census either on their own initiative or after census takers tracked them down via door-to-door visits or phone calls.

That’s an increase from the 81% completion rate seen earlier this month but still lags behind every other state in the country except Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Montana.

Without a serious push to count more people, many cities and counties in Georgia could find themselves left with fewer dollars to provide services for more people – and will be stuck with that problem for another 10 years.

“This is the only thing we need to be talking about for the next 10 days,” said Savannah Mayor Van Johnson. “This is the overtime.”

Johnson joined mayors and other officials from Rome, Moultrie and East Point in a news conference urging people to fill out their online census forms or send them in the mail.

Mayor Bill McIntosh, from the South Georgia city of Moultrie, noted smaller and more rural communities like his could suffer worse from an undercount than urban areas, both by losing critical federal dollars and having less representation in the Georgia General Assembly through redistricting.

McIntosh said he’s seen some resistance to completing the census from people who fear the federal government may use their personal information for negative purposes. That will not happen, McIntosh and others stressed.

“The census matters and it matters in very significant ways in our lives,” McIntosh said.

The census count affects the state’s share of a huge pot of federal dollars provided annually for a wide range of programs like Medicaid and Medicare, food stamps, housing vouchers, highway construction, child-care services, special education and more.

Roughly $1.5 trillion will be available for states to tap into depending on the size of their census-determined populations, according to research from Georgia Washington University. The larger the population, the larger the share.

The census also plays a major political role in influencing how state lawmakers may redraw legislative and congressional district boundaries during negotiations next summer.

The high-stakes logistics of counting hundreds of millions of people across vastly different communities was daunting from the start. But the COVID-19 pandemic threw a major wrench into the equation, causing on-the-ground census takers to delay operations into summer and face reluctance from uncounted people to open their doors during follow-up visits.

Despite the hurdles, Rome City Commissioner Wendy Davis stressed Georgia cities and counties only have one shot for the next 10 years to maximize their federal money allocations.

“Folks need to understand that there’s money that all of our taxpayers have sent up to Washington,” Davis said. “We want to get our fair share back.”

Larry Hanson, executive director of the Georgia Municipal Association, pointed out companies often look at census figures to see if a community is thriving when deciding whether to set up shop in a given area. A census undercount could hurt a community’s economic development prospects for the next decade, he said.

“You may lose an opportunity to have a prospect that you never even realized,” Hanson said. “That they never even called on you, never even visited your community, because of information that may in fact be inaccurate.”

East Point Mayor Deana Ingraham echoed others in emphasizing that there is still time currently to boost Georgia’s census count – but it is certainly crunch time now.

“When we count, we matter,” Ingraham said.

State issues rules for home delivery of booze

ATLANTA – Georgians are one step closer to being able to order home deliveries of beer, wine and distilled spirits.

The state Department of Revenue has issued rules governing home deliveries of alcohol based on legislation the General Assembly passed in June.

Interested liquor stores, supermarkets, convenience stores and restaurants will have to demonstrate to the revenue department they can meet the requirements of the new rules and gain the agency’s approval before they can begin offering home deliveries.

The revenue department has published an extensive set of rules governing home deliveries of adult beverages, including the agency’s enforcement powers and requirements for delivery drivers.

“The Department of Revenue has done an outstanding job putting together regulations that prioritize the safe sale, secure transportation and timely delivery of alcohol to residents who are over the age of 21 throughout the state,” said KC Honeyman, executive director of the Wine and Spirit Wholesalers of Georgia.

The bill, which Gov. Brian Kemp signed last month, gives local governments the ability to opt out of home deliveries if they choose.

As the legislation went through the General Assembly, supporters argued legalizing home delivery of alcoholic beverages was particularly timely in the midst of a global pandemic that kept wary Georgians sticking close to home.

Another provision broadens the so-called “Sunday brunch” law the General Assembly passed in 2018 allowing restaurants, hotels and wineries to serve alcoholic beverages on premises starting at 11 a.m. on Sundays. The new law sets the same Sunday hours for sales of liquor by grocery stores for off-premises consumption.

Georgia senators support moving forward with next Supreme Court pick

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died Friday at age 87.

ATLANTA – Both of Georgia’s U.S. senators are calling for a Senate vote on a successor to the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg sooner rather than later.

Shortly after Ginsburg died Friday night at age 87 due to complications from pancreatic cancer, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would begin the process of filling the vacancy as soon as President Donald Trump makes a nomination, which is expected late this week.

“I am confident that President Trump will nominate another highly qualified candidate who will strictly uphold the Constitution,” Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., said during the weekend. “Once the president announces a nomination, the United States Senate should begin the process that moves this to a full Senate vote.”

Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., called for a Senate vote during an appearance Saturday on Fox News.

“We need to bring forward a conservative justice – someone who will be a strict constructionist, who will protect innocent life, who will bring those Second Amendment cases and make sure we’re protecting our right to bear arms in this country,” Loeffler said. “And we need to keep that process moving – regardless of it being an election year.”

Democrats are arguing the decision on the next Supreme Court justice should await the results of the November presidential and Senate elections.

But so far, only two Senate Republicans – Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – have said they would oppose a Senate vote on Ginsburg’s successor before Election Day.

Loeffler slammed by Florida congressman, Collins ally in U.S. Senate race in Georgia

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (right) attends a rally for the U.S. Senate campaign of U.S. Rep. Doug Collins (left in crowd) at the Cobb County GOP headquarters in Marietta on Sept. 18, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, barreled into the contentious free-for-all race in Georgia for a U.S. Senate seat Friday by slamming the current Republican officeholder, U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler.

Rallying with U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, the Gainesville Republican aiming to unseat Loeffler, Gaetz riled up a raucous crowd at the Cobb County GOP headquarters by calling Loeffler a “country club” Republican who owed her seat to a governor’s appointment and wealthy background.

“I understand that Kelly Loeffler has a lot of money,” Gaetz said at Friday’s rally. “[But] a seat in the United States Senate should not be a reverse dowry paid in the greatest country in the world.”

Loeffler, an Atlanta businesswoman who stepped down from the company that owns the New York Stock Exchange to run her campaign, was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp earlier this year to hold retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s seat until the Nov. 3 special election.

Her campaign quickly punched back against Collins on Friday, noting Loeffler has enjoyed several recent polls that show her holding an edge over the four-term congressman.

“The reason Doug’s losing is because he’s a failed career politician who spends every waking second – including today – lying about Kelly’s record while he looks for his next taxpayer funded paycheck,” said Loeffler campaign spokesman Stephen Lawson.

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler held a campaign rally at Cobb County’s Republican headquarters in Marietta on Aug. 28, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

It’s not the first time the Florida congressman has waded into Georgia’s senate race. Gaetz previously jabbed with Kemp’s aides on Twitter last December over the governor’s pick in Loeffler after it became known Collins also wanted the seat.

Collins and Gaetz forged ties as among President Donald Trump’s staunchest supporters during impeachment proceedings late last year, when both Republicans served on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee.

Loeffler, who as a new senator voted against impeachment in February, has embraced the support of Georgia’s governor. Kemp joined her on the campaign trail earlier this month and was featured prominently in a new campaign ad released this week.

“She’s not a politician, not a political insider,” Kemp says in the ad. “She has earned my vote.”

The race for Loeffler’s seat has been dominated by her intra-party battle with Collins, both of whom are vying to woo Republican voters by positioning themselves as the most conservative choice and Trump’s favored candidate.

Since taking office in January, Loeffler has filed several conservative-focused bills that home in on immigration enforcement, punishing violent protesters, protecting funds for police agencies and gun-ownership rights. She has also criticized the Black Lives Matter protest movement as she seeks to solidify her image as a pro-law enforcement candidate.

But her campaign was dinged in March following reports of controversial stock trades made as the COVID-19 pandemic ramped up. Loeffler said she was not involved in the trades directly and has stressed that a federal investigation found no wrongdoing.

Collins, a military chaplain, has seized onto the stock-trade issue and Loeffler’s co-ownership of a women’s professional basketball team – particularly its participation in a promotion supporting Planned Parenthood – as fuel to portray Loeffler as less conservative than himself.

“You are the fake [and] I am the real conservative,” Collins said Friday, also noting her past campaign donations to U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney who has become a conservative punching bag for breaking ranks with Trump.

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins (right) speaks during a rally for his U.S. Senate campaign attended by U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (left in crowd) at the Cobb County GOP headquarters in Marietta on Sept. 18, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Meanwhile, Georgia Democratic leaders scoffed at Friday’s campaign stop by Gaetz, calling him and Collins “two (unethical) peas in a pod” who have drawn complaints over alleged flouting of certain U.S. House ethics rules.

Collins has come under scrutiny for using videos of U.S. House floor broadcasts in his campaign ads and social-media content, which may run afoul of congressional ethics rules. His campaign has dismissed the complaint, arguing the videos in question contained footage used in television news segments and not official House broadcasts via C-SPAN.

Gaetz faced an ethics inquiry into questions surrounding whether he improperly used taxpayer money to rent an office space from a friend and campaign donor. That inquiry was recently closed without any evidence of wrongdoing.

“It’s nice to see that Congressman Doug Collins and Matt Gaetz have been able to bond so well over their shared history of potential ethics violations,” said Alex Floyd, spokesman for the Democratic Party of Georgia.

Rev. Raphael Warnock, the establishment-backed Democratic senate candidate challenging Loeffler and Collins, has recently launched several new campaign ads and kept up a steady schedule of virtual appearances with local leaders across Georgia as he pushes to elevate his profile with less than 50 days until the election.

Around 20 candidates including Loeffler will all be on the ballot for the open-party Nov. 3 special election. A runoff will be held in January if no candidate gains more than 50% of votes, which is likely.

This story has been revised to clarify details on the ethics inquiry concerning U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz.

Money dump in Perdue-Ossoff Senate race sign of national impact

Democrat Jon Ossoff (left) and Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue are locked in a tight race.

ATLANTA – For the last two decades, Georgia Republicans have cornered the market in U.S. Senate races.

In five of the six Peach State Senate elections since the turn of the century, the GOP candidate has won comfortably with margins of victory ranging from nearly 53% of the vote to more than 58%. The other contest also went to the Republicans, although it took a runoff to decide the winner.

But 2020 is different. With about six weeks remaining until Election Day, polls show incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue and Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff within the margin of error.

A sure sign the outcome is in doubt is how much the candidates and the national super PACs backing them are spending to bomb the airwaves, to the dismay of political ad-weary TV viewers. Total TV/radio ad spending in the race, including future bookings, is now more than $83.4 million, political advertising broker Medium Buying reported last week.

“Money is being poured into Georgia because it could go either way,” said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

What’s turned a close race in Georgia into a critical contest nationally is that Democrats need to gain only three or four seats to control the Senate, depending on which party wins the vice presidency. The vice president presides over the Senate and can break tie votes.

“Both parties are really interested in what happens here,”
 said Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University.

Like President Donald Trump, Perdue, 70, came to Washington after a career in business. Perdue was elected to the Senate in 2014 after 40 years in the corporate world, including stints as CEO of Reebok and Dollar General.

He has spent his first term in the Senate as one of Trump’s closest allies, supporting the president’s tax cut legislation in 2017, Trump’s get-tough trade policy with China, and, more recently, the president’s much-criticized handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Early on, he shut down travel from infected areas and quarantined people coming back into the country,” Perdue said. “He started a task force to work on PPE (personal protective equipment) and testing.”

After the pandemic shut down the nation’s economy, Perdue supported a congressional package of $2.9 trillion in relief to unemployed Americans and struggling businesses including the $660 billion Paycheck Protection Program.

“That was a tough vote for me. I’m a fiscal hawk,” he said. “[But] we saved  1½ million jobs in Georgia.”

Ossoff, 33, is making his first run at statewide office after losing a special election for a congressional seat in Atlanta’s northern suburbs three years ago. His views on Trump’s handling of COVID-19 strike a sharp contrast with those of his opponent.

“The Trump administration’s response to the pandemic has been a total failure,” Ossoff said. “They lied about the scope of it to the public, sidelined public health experts and allowed the virus to spread.”

While Ossoff and Perdue agree that Congress needs to pass another economic stimulus package, Ossoff faulted Perdue and his Senate Republican colleagues for not taking up a $3 trillion relief bill U.S. House Democrats passed in May.

“The Senate went on a monthlong vacation, during which emergency loans expired,” Ossoff said.

Perdue said the Democrats’ plan is too expensive. He favors a $660 billion Republican alternative.

“This targeted approach is to get companies open again, people back to school and beat the virus,” he said.

Another issue dividing Perdue and Ossoff – and Republicans and Democrats in general – is how to respond to the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of white police officers, incidents in Georgia and elsewhere that have prompted massive street protests.

“We urgently need criminal justice reform and reform of policing,” Ossoff said. “We need to pass a new Civil Rights Act to establish and secure equal justice under the law for every American.”

Republicans have jumped on the “defund the police” slogan some elements of the Black Lives Matter movement have espoused, arguing Democrats don’t support law enforcement.

Perdue, however, has shown support for some of the more moderate goals of policing reform, including community policing.

“Our police forces need to reflect the communities they serve,” he said.

At the same time, Perdue said Americans are worried when they see peaceful protests turn into violence and looting.

“People are concerned that we support our police and that they serve the community in a fair and even way,” he said. “We have to make sure we maintain law and order.”

Ossoff is an investigative journalist by trade whose business delves into political corruption, organized crime and abuse of power. That plays into his campaign’s emphasis on the need to clean up corruption in Washington, starting with Perdue.

Ossoff is accusing Perdue of misleading voters with an ad in which the Republican endorses health insurance coverage for Americans with pre-existing conditions while voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act and the protection for pre-existing conditions it provides. The nonprofit PolitiFact, which fact checks political advertising, rated the Perdue ad “false.”

“Senator David Perdue voted to allow health insurance companies to deny coverage to Georgians with cancer, diabetes, high-blood pressure and other pre-existing conditions, then ran ads lying about his voting record and was caught doing it,” Ossoff said.

Perdue said there’s a difference between opposing the Affordable Care Act and covering people with pre-existing conditions.

“I did vote against the Affordable Care Act a number of times,” he said. “But I also voted to protect pre-existing conditions a number of times. … This is a total misrepresentation by the Democratic side.”

Going on offense, Perdue is accusing Ossoff of conducting a campaign right out of the national Democratic playbook.

“He is supporting the Democrats’ radical agenda of defunding the police, abolishing ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and a government takeover of health care,” Perdue said. “We’re trying to reopen our economy and get schools reopened.”

Ossoff told an interviewer at the University of Georgia student newspaper The Red & Black recently he does not support defunding the police. He also opposes both abolishing ICE and the Medicare for All plan championed by some Democrats, his campaign spokesman said.

Swint said the outcome of the Perdue-Ossoff contest will go a long way toward deciding whether Georgia Democrats continue building on the momentum of the 2018 elections. Two years ago, Democrat Lucy McBath won a suburban Atlanta congressional seat the GOP had held for decades, while former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams lost the gubernatorial race to Republican Brian Kemp by a narrow margin.

On the other hand, a Perdue reelection victory could key a Republican rebound in Georgia from 2018, Swint said.

Georgia also will play a large role in which party controls the Senate next year. Besides the Perdue-Ossoff race, a second Georgia Senate seat will be up for grabs Nov. 3, with 21 candidates on the ballot in what is essentially a special election to replace retired GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson.

Like the closely contested presidential contest, it might take weeks to decide the two Georgia Senate elections. It’s practically a given that the special election will forced into an early January runoff between the top two vote-getters, given the number of candidates.

Bullock said if Libertarian candidate Shane Hazel can siphon off at least 3% of the vote in the Perdue-Ossoff race, it could deny an outright majority to Perdue or Ossoff on Election Day. That would require a second Senate runoff.

“We may not know which party controls the Senate until January,” Bullock said.

ISSUES BOX

In their own words, here is how David Perdue and Jon Ossoff stand on some key issues:

On President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic:

DAVID PERDUE: “Early on, he shut down travel from infected areas and quarantined people coming back into the country. He started a task force to work on PPE and testing.”

JON OSSOFF: “The Trump administration’s response to the pandemic has been a total failure. They lied about the scope of it to the public, sidelined public health experts and allowed the virus to spread.”

On the congressional response to the pandemic’s economic impact:

JON OSSOFF: “Too little, too slow”

DAVID PERDUE: “We did what we had to do to try and maintain the relationship between the employer and employee.”

On the need for policing reform following the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of white police officers:

DAVID PERDUE: “We have to make sure we maintain law and order.”

JON OSSOFF: “We need to end racial profiling and police brutality.”

On health insurance:

JON OSSOFF: “We should strengthen and build upon the Affordable Care Act. Folks should be able to buy into a public option if they want to.”

DAVID PERDUE: “Every consumer of health insurance should be afforded the same benefits.”

On immigration:

DAVID PERDUE: “We have to secure our borders and at the same time have a balanced immigration system that allows us to import the right workers to grow our economy.”

JON OSSOFF: “ We need to secure our borders, put American workers first and live up to our values as Americans committed to human rights. … We need border security, not cruelty.”