Street racing in Georgia targeted in crackdown General Assembly bill

Illegal street racing in Georgia faces toughened penalties and repeat offenders could have their cars confiscated under legislation pushed by Gov. Brian Kemp.

The measure would criminalize anyone in Georgia who organizes, promotes or participates in street racing, also called drag racing. City and state officials in Atlanta have long complained of rampant street races in the city and are seeking to crack down.

“Our streets, highways and parking lots have become a free-for-all speedway for criminals,” Kemp said at a news conference Friday to unveil the bill.

It aims to “toughen penalties for offenders, hold those who promote these activities accountable and keep our streets safe through modernizing our code to include these popular activities that put Georgians in harm’s way,” Kemp said.

Under the bill, speedsters would have their driver’s licenses suspended for at least a year depending on how many times they have been caught racing. They would also be slapped with fines ranging from $750 to $5,000, as well as face possible prison time.

Anyone convicted of street racing more than once within a 10-year period would have their vehicle confiscated or be forced to transfer the auto title to another family member if it is a transportation mode a family depends on to avoid financial ruin.

State Rep. Josh Bonner, R-Fayetteville, who is one of Kemp’s floor leaders, is sponsoring the bill. It has a good chance of passing due to the governor’s backing and since it is similar to a separate measure aimed at punishing street racing brought by Democratic state Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur.

Kemp framed the street-racing bill as another piece of his criminal justice policies that include crackdowns on gangs and human trafficking. His administration has secured legislation and funding for police to hunt gangs and traffickers since Kemp took office in 2019.

“This legislation will help us build on that commitment,” the governor said.

In-state college tuition for undocumented Georgians proposal sparks debate

Georgia lawmakers have revived debate on a measure to let undocumented students pay in-state tuition for Georgia public colleges and universities that stalled in the General Assembly last year.

A bill sponsored by state Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton, would extend the lower-cost tuition rates to thousands of undocumented Georgians protected from deportation under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

It would cover DACA recipients who have lived continuously in Georgia since 2013 and are younger than 30, or about 9,000 potential students who would be newly eligible for in-state tuition, Carpenter said Friday at a Georgia House Higher Education Committee hearing.

State law currently bars many non-citizen residents like DACA recipients from qualifying for in-state college tuition, which tends to be much lower than what students arriving from outside Georgia pay.

Carpenter estimated it costs Georgia college students from $11,000 a year to pay for classes as opposed to $5,000 a year for in-state tuition. There were more than 20,000 DACA recipients in Georgia as of September 2020, according to the nonprofit Migration Policy Institute.

The bill would not allow in-state tuition to attend Georgia’s research schools including the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia State University and Augusta University.

Extending the lower rate to DACA recipients would bolster Georgia’s workforce with better-educated and higher-skilled workers who consider the state their home, Carpenter said.

“This is about taking care of the children that have been here the whole time,” Carpenter said. “These are Georgians who by no fault of their own were brought here, and this is a solution.”

The committee did not vote on the bill at Friday’s hearing. Carpenter brought the bill again this legislative session after the same committee shelved it last March.

Extending in-state tuition would benefit Georgia DACA recipients like Christian Olvera, a 29-year-old Dalton resident whose family migrated from Mexico. He said his tuition to attend classes at Dalton State College is three times more than what in-state students pay.

“We’re not looking for any handouts or anything less-of-cost than the standard rate,” Olvera told committee members. “We have ticked all of the boxes to be American citizens, yet we are not considered as such on paper.”

Some speakers worried the bill would “open the floodgates” for a flow of illegal immigrants into Georgia, arguing its passage would attract more undocumented persons and take college spots away from U.S. citizen students from other states.

“Somebody has to stand up and say, ‘This is the line,’ ” said D.A. King, founder of the immigration-focused group Dustin Inman Society. “We are going to give our best treatment to American citizens and people who obey the law to join the American family.”

State Sen. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, who chairs the committee considering Carpenter’s bill, did not indicate whether he would call the measure for a vote but said he is “tired” of DACA recipients “being weaponized by both political parties.”

“This should not be a partisan thing,” Martin said. “We should find a way to do things that are good for individuals, that are good for the state taxpayer, that are good for the university and technical college system.”

Georgia water future on the line in U.S. Supreme Court case

Lake Lanier

ATLANTA – How much water metro Atlanta will be allowed to pull from the Chattahoochee River for decades to come and how much Southwest Georgia can pump from farm irrigation wells will be at stake Monday.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a lawsuit the state of Florida filed in 2013 demanding the justices order Georgia to use less water. It’s just the latest episode in the so-called “tri-state water wars,” a legal battle over water allocation between Florida, Georgia and Alabama that has dragged on for nearly three decades.

The suit claims Georgia is taking so much water out of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin to meet the needs of fast-growing metro Atlanta and irrigate crops in the lower Flint that Florida isn’t left with enough freshwater for its once-thriving oyster industry Apalachicola Bay.

Georgia’s lawyers counter that the cap on water consumption Florida is seeking would cripple the metro region’s economy by halting growth and devastate farmers.

Georgia appears to have the advantage going into Monday’s hearing, said Chris Manganiello, water policy director for the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. A special master the Supreme Court appointed to hear the dispute recommended in late 2019 that the court dismiss Florida’s case.

“Special Master [Paul] Kelly was pretty clear: Florida failed to make a compelling argument that Georgia was using too much water or that any harm to Florida’s fisheries could be traced to Georgia,” Manganiello said.

But Gil Rogers, director of the Georgia and Alabama offices of the Southern Environmental Law Center, is less certain. He pointed to the court’s decision in 2018 to assign the case to Special Master Kelly after an earlier special master already had sided with Georgia. That 5-4 ruling followed oral arguments held earlier in 2018.

“It’s a little hard to use [Kelly’s] recommendation as a predictor, particularly since the Supreme Court has ordered oral arguments again,” Rogers said.

Rogers said the court’s different makeup adds to the uncertainty. Two new justices – Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett – have joined the court since it last weighed in on the case.

Another key change since the last time the Supreme Court heard the lawsuit is an agreement Georgia signed with the U.S. Army Court of Engineers last month that for the first time authorizes the use of Lake Lanier as a water supply. While the federally managed reservoir has been supplying water for decades, its use for that purpose has been among the legal issues contested during the water wars.

Since the $70 million contract runs through 2050, metro Atlanta water policy planners and regional business leaders are celebrating it as safeguarding a water supply that has been under threat from the Florida lawsuit and others

“This contract will help secure our region’s long-range future by ensuring access to water from Lake Lanier to responsibly support long-term growth while protecting this vital natural resource,” Katherine Zitsch, managing director of natural resources for the Atlanta Regional Commission, said in a prepared statement.

While a Florida victory in the current lawsuit theoretically could render moot the new contract between Georgia and the Army Corps, Rogers doesn’t see it as a threat to the agreement.

“The Supreme Court, if it makes a substantive ruling on water allocation, is likely to stop short of directing how that would happen,” he said. “I don’t think the Supreme Court would throw out the contract.”

Water conservation a key legal argument

Metro Atlanta’s ability to grow its population while reining in water consumption has been one of Georgia’s major arguments in defending against Florida’s lawsuit.

Since 2000, total water use in the region has dropped by more than 10%, even as the population has increased by more than 1.3 million.

“Given our region’s excellent record on water conservation through the years, I am confident that our communities will make wise use of this essential resource going forward,” added Katie Kirkpatrick, president and CEO of the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

In fact, metro Atlanta’s water conservation efforts have been so successful that Florida’s lawyers for the last couple of years have focused more on the amount of water farmers in the lower Flint use to irrigate their crops.

But Gordon Rogers, executive director of Albany-based Flint Riverkeeper, said farmers also have made great progress reducing their water consumption.

For one thing, an initiative to install meters on all irrigation wells measuring how much water they use has been completed, he said.

Also, when Hurricane Michael tore through Southwest Georgia in 2018, it forced farmers to replace a lot of their old infrastructure with more modern equipment that uses less water, Rogers said.

Georgia’s lawyers also have cited the state’s long-running moratorium on new well permits in 23 counties drawing from either surface or groundwater in the lower Flint as evidence of a good-faith effort to save water.

“People can’t get permits for the Floridan aquifer or a creek,” Rogers said. “I’m enough of a constitutionalist to say that’s a usurpation of property rights … It’s not a solution. It’s a defense in court.”

Gil Rogers said no matter which state wins the current case, the tri-state water wars will continue. Alabama is still a party to the dispute, specifically through its appeal of the 2017 decision by the Army Corps of Engineers that led to last month’s agreement with Georgia over Lake Lanier.

Ultimately, the solution lies outside the courtroom in cooperative water management among the states, Rogers said.

“Until the states agree on some kind of commission or authority to look after the health of the system, we’ll have ongoing litigation,” he said. “[But] it will be interesting to see how this decision changes the dynamic among the three states.”

COVID-19 vaccine mass sites to open in Georgia with website for appointments

Gov. Brian Kemp announced four mass COVID-19 vaccination sites are set to open in Georgia on Feb. 18, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Georgia officials have launched a new website to pre-register for COVID-19 vaccine appointments and are poised to open four mass vaccination sites in different parts of the state, Gov. Brian Kemp announced Thursday.

The governor’s update came as more than 1.6 million vaccines have been given to eligible Georgians so far, including roughly 500,000 second doses, according to state Department of Public Health data.

The new website, myvaccinegeorgia.com, allows Georgians to pre-register for a vaccine appointment even if they do not yet qualify under the governor’s eligibility criteria. They will be notified once they qualify and scheduled for an appointment.

Kemp said on Thursday he is not yet ready to expand who is eligible in Georgia for the vaccine beyond health-care workers, nursing home residents and staff, first responders and people age 65 and older – but that he may do so in the next couple of weeks.

The four mass vaccination sites in metro Atlanta, Clarkesville, Macon and Albany will open Monday and initially administer around 22,000 vaccines per week between them, Kemp said. Those sites can gear up quickly to handle more doses once the federal government allocates more weekly shipments, he added.

“These four sites will serve as the first step in a vaccination effort that we hope will dramatically ramp up in the coming months,” Kemp said at a news conference at the state Capitol.

Georgia is currently receiving shipments of 198,000 vaccine doses per week, up from 120,000 doses the state had been getting in recent weeks. While officials have made a dent in vaccinating people, Kemp stressed demand for shots still lags far behind the state’s current and foreseeable supply.

The supply limits have kept Kemp from adding Georgia school teachers and other staff to the list of vaccine-eligible people, despite loud cries from many teachers particularly in metro Atlanta who have pressed the governor to move them up the line.

On Thursday, Kemp detailed results from a survey he said the state Department of Education recently conducted showing less than half of about 171,000 responding teachers and school staff would take the vaccine. The governor said the survey will influence when he opens vaccines up for teachers.

“It certainly will factor into our decision,” Kemp said. “But it also shows that demand there was not as much as people thought.”

Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s public-health commissioner, said staff in some hospitals and nursing homes outside of metro Atlanta – as well as many Georgians from predominantly Black and Latino communities – are still reluctant or unwilling to take the vaccine.

“This is not a case of vaccine access,” Toomey said Thursday. “It’s a case of vaccine hesitancy.”

She added state officials are “doing everything we can” to work with local leaders, churches and other groups to boost vaccine acceptance rates in under-served areas, while eying Georgia teachers for vaccines “soon”.

In the meantime, pre-registering for vaccines now will help state officials overseeing the mass-vaccination sites more easily ramp up distribution once larger dose shipments arrive, said Georgia Homeland Security Director Chris Stallings.

“We can make a significant dent in the list of [eligible] people who need support,” Stallings said.

The four mass-vaccination sites will be open Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the following locations:

  • Delta Flight Museum: 1220 Woolman Place SW, Hapeville, GA 30354
  • Habersham County Fairgrounds: 4235 Toccoa Highway, Clarkesville, GA 30523
  • Macon Farmers Market: 2055 Eisenhower Parkway, Macon, GA 31206
  • Albany branch of the Georgia Forestry Commission: 2910 Newton Road, Albany, GA 31701

Georgia Senate panel hears sports betting pitch

ATLANTA –  Legalizing sports betting could divert an estimated $4.8 billion a year Georgians now spend wagering on games illegally, tax it, and put a portion of the proceeds toward education, supporters said Thursday.

The state Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee held a hearing on legislation that would legalize online sports betting in Georgia under the jurisdiction of the Georgia Lottery Corp.

“Over 2 million [Georgians] are doing it now,” said Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, chief sponsor of Senate Bill 142. “Do you know who’s in control of it? The bookies.”

Mullis’ bill is similar to sports betting legislation before the Georgia House of Representatives.

Both measures would put the state Lottery Commission in charge of licensing at least six operators such as FanDuel or DraftKings to run online sports books in Georgia. The companies would pay annual licensing fees of $900,000.

But the bills also feature some key differences. While the licensed operators would pay  a tax of 14% of their adjusted gross revenues toward Georgia’s HOPE Scholarships and pre-kindergarten programs, the Senate version calls for a tax of 10%.  

The House bill would limit bettors to using debit cards, a provision intended to keep potential problem gamblers from getting in their over their heads.

The Senate measure, however, would allow both debit cards and credit cards.

Josh Mackey, an Atlanta-based lobbyist representing FanDuel and DraftKings, said illegal offshore sportsbooks typically allow customers to use credit cards to place bets. Not allowing credit cards when placing bets legally under a new Georgia law would act as a disincentive, he said.

“We’re trying to get people to move away from [illegal bets] to legalized betting,” he said.

Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, a member of the committee, said legalizing sports betting would divert revenue away from the lottery.

“[Sports betting] does not return the state nearly the amount of money the lottery does,” he said. “I think we need to take that into consideration.”

But Mullis said most people who play the lottery don’t engage in sports betting.

“It doesn’t take away from the lottery,” he said. “It’s extra money.”

The bill’s opponents argued sports betting cannot be legalized in Georgia without a constitutional amendment.

Virginia Galloway, regional field director of the Duluth-based Faith and Freedom Coalition, cited a 2016 opinion from the Georgia attorney general’s office to that effect.

But Robert Highsmith, a lawyer representing the Atlanta Hawks, said the state Constitution only expressly prohibits casino gambling. Sports betting only requires the legislature to pass a statute authorizing the Georgia Lottery Corp, to add sports betting to its current operations, he said.

Going the constitutional route also would delay sports betting because it would have to go on next year’s statewide ballot for Georgia voters to decide, Highsmith argued.

“It would be cleaner and eliminate that debate,” Highsmith acknowledged. “But if we do that, it would be at least 2023 before it could be effective.”

Committee Chairman Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, suggested that Mullis prepare a constitutional amendment to introduce next week in case lawmakers decide it’s necessary.

Mullis said he has one ready to go.

Initial unemployment claims in Georgia resume downward trend

Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler

ATLANTA – First-time unemployment claims in Georgia declined last week after a brief uptick the week before, the state Department of Labor reported Thursday.

Jobless Georgians filed 26,532 initial claims last week, down 5,854 from the previous week.

Meanwhile, the department announced that through the end of last week, the state had paid more than 95% of all Georgia claimants eligible for unemployment benefits in cases where a request for payment had been made.

“We have devised creative strategies to make this process easier and faster, all while implementing six new federal programs with different requirements during a pandemic,” state Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler said Thursday.

“We have issued payments to almost half of Georgia’s workforce in the past 10 months while addressing an incredible amount of fraud. The challenges have been severe, and to be able to pay 95% of claimants … is a testament to the dedication of our staff.”  

Since the coronavirus pandemic broke out in Georgia last March, the state has paid out almost $18.5 billion in state and federal unemployment benefits to more than 4.4 million Georgians, more than in the last nine years before the pandemic combined.

Of those still waiting on payments, the cause may include the reason for separation or the receipt of severance or retirement payments.  If a claimant is separated for any reason other than lack of work and/or they have received severance or retirement pay, their claim must be further reviewed for eligibility.

Currently, the agency is reviewing almost 80,000 claims due to a separation of employees who either quit or were discharged.

The department also is processing more than 65,000 appeals filed when an employee or an employer does not agree with an eligibility determination.

The job sector accounting for the most first-time unemployment claims last week was accommodation and food services with 5,555 claims. The administrative and support services sector was next with 3,156 claims, followed by manufacturing with 2,694.

More than 187,000 jobs are listed online at https://bit.ly/36EA2vk for Georgians to access. The labor department offers online resources for finding a job, building a resume, and assisting with other reemployment needs.