Kemp doubles down on refusal to call election-focused special session

Gov. Brian Kemp doubled down on his refusal to call an election-focused special session and pledged to address Georgia’s election issues in the upcoming legislative session during a conference with state lawmakers on Monday.

Kemp is facing intense criticism from President Donald Trump and his allies for not intervening in Georgia’s presidential election, which certified results show Trump lost to President-elect Joe Biden by 11,779 votes.

Some Republican lawmakers are pressuring Kemp to call a special session before next month to pick Electoral College members who will vote for Trump instead of Biden, despite the certified results from the Nov. 3 general election.

Speaking before state lawmakers Monday in Athens, Kemp said state law prevents him from calling a session to choose different Electoral College members. It only lets lawmakers pick the presidential electors if the election could not be held on its scheduled date, he said.

Instead, Kemp said he wants lawmakers to focus on crafting legislation aimed at bolstering the state’s voter ID laws in the regular legislative session that starts in mid-January.

“I am confident that when the legislature reconvenes in January, we will have ample time to address any issues that have come to the attention of the members of the General Assembly, my office [and] the public over the last few weeks,” Kemp said.

The three-day Biennial Institute for Georgia Legislators is held every two years at the University of Georgia in Athens and convenes General Assembly members to talk policy and procedure ahead of next month’s regular session.

In a luncheon speech, the governor highlighted successful bills his administration backed in the most recent legislative session on foster care, criminal gangs, human trafficking, health care and hate crimes.

That legislation came as Georgia confronted the COVID-19 pandemic, which shuttered businesses and forced students to take virtual classes from home in March.

“Each of these are great achievements and worthy of celebrating,” Kemp said. “But make no mistake: This is no time to rest on our laurels or take our eye off the ball.”

Kemp said his administration’s approach to seeking balance between public health and economic interests “has shown promising signs of success,” despite an increase in positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks that health experts expect to worsen during the winter holidays.

The governor said he is working with nursing homes and hospitals to help boost short-handed staff as part of $250 million in emergency funds the state plans to spend on staff augmentation.

The biennial conference, which has drawn many prominent Georgia lawmakers and elected officials including Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, also featured panels Monday on rural issues, gambling opportunities and tax breaks.

This story previously stated President-elect Biden won Georgia by 11,784 votes. The correct margin is 11,779 votes.

Kemp taps new chief of staff in former Isakson aide

Trey Kilpatrick will serve as Gov. Brian Kemp’s new chief of staff starting on Oct. 15, 2020. (Photo from the Office of Gov. Brian Kemp)

Gov. Brian Kemp has tapped a former aide to retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson to serve as his next chief of staff following the departure last month of his longtime top deputy.

Trey Kilpatrick, who served several roles for Isakson from 2009 to 2019 including deputy chief of staff, will start work as the governor’s chief of staff on Oct. 15.

An experienced campaigner with Isakson, Kilpatrick joins the Kemp administration at a pivotal time in which Georgia continues battling the COVID-19 pandemic and the governor gears up for his reelection bid in 2022.

“With his wealth of experience from both federal and state government, Trey is uniquely qualified to lead my administration,” Kemp said in a statement Wednesday. “Together, we will continue to put hardworking Georgians first – protecting lives and livelihoods as we battle COVID-19, reforming adoption and foster care, fighting human trafficking and prioritizing economic prosperity in every region of our state.”

Kilpatrick will not be the only tie between the Kemp administration and Isakson’s old office. Kemp appointed Isakson’s replacement in current U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler following the longtime senator’s retirement due to health concerns. Loeffler’s current chief of staff, Joan Carr, was also Isakson’s former chief of staff.

Kilpatrick served a short stint as vice president of governmental affairs for Georgia State University prior to joining the Kemp administration.

“I feel fortunate that I had the opportunity to work with a great Georgian like Senator Isakson for 10 years, and now have the opportunity to work with a principled leader like Governor Kemp in his administration,” Kilpatrick said.

Kemp’s last permanent chief of staff was Tim Fleming, a political strategist who first worked with Kemp on his winning bid for a Georgia Senate seat in 2002, then managed his campaign for secretary of state in 2010. He served several roles in that office following Kemp’s win.

In 2018, Fleming managed Kemp’s underdog campaign for governor that saw the long-shot candidate prevail in the Republican primary and defeat Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams by a narrow margin. Fleming then signed on as chief of staff at the start of Kemp’s new administration.

Fleming was replaced on an interim basis by Caylee Noggle, who was the state’s chief management officer and previously held top posts in the Georgia Student Finance Commission and the state Office of Planning and Budget.

Noggle was the first woman to serve as a governor’s chief of staff in Georgia.

Kemp extends COVID-19 restrictions in Georgia through Oct. 15

Coronavirus has sickened hundreds of thousands people and killed thousands more in Georgia. (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Gov. Brian Kemp has extended social distancing and sanitization restrictions for businesses, gatherings and long-term elderly care facilities in Georgia amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a news release sent late Wednesday, the governor’s office announced Kemp signed an order extending the restrictions through Oct. 15. The order keeps restrictions that have been in place for months largely the same.

Kemp’s public health emergency, which allows him to continue issuing executive orders, has also extended until Nov. 9. Georgia’s emergency status has been in effect since mid-March when the virus began spreading in the state.

The latest order keeps in place a ban on gatherings larger than 50 people in Georgia and continues to make wearing a mask voluntary at the statewide level, not mandatory.

Cities and counties have been allowed to impose their own mask mandates since August so long as their local requirements do not apply for businesses and residences.

Residents of long-term care facilities and Georgians with chronic health conditions have been under stay-at-home orders since March, though Kemp has moved in recent weeks to start relaxing some restrictions on visitors at elderly care facilities depending on how well a facility has fought the virus.

Restaurants, bars and other popular gathering spots remain under occupancy limitations and cleanliness requirements that have been in place for several months.

Bars have been limited to no more than 50 customers or 35% of occupancy, whichever is greater. Restaurants must keep at least six feet of space between seated groups.

Kemp’s latest order does allow workers at restaurants and bars who have been symptom-free for 24 hours to return to work after showing symptoms or testing positive for the virus.

As of Wednesday afternoon, roughly 318,000 people in Georgia had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus that sparked a global pandemic. It had killed 7,021 Georgians.

Georgia Democrats press governor for quicker jobless aid, eviction relief

Coronavirus has sickened hundreds of thousands people and killed thousands more in Georgia. (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Georgia House Democratic lawmakers pressed Gov. Brian Kemp Wednesday to clear the state’s backlog of unprocessed unemployment claims and reimpose a 60-day halt to evictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a letter to the governor, members of the Georgia House Democratic Caucus highlighted frequent complaints from constituents that their unemployment claims have not been processed after long delays while tens of thousands of Georgians face “an imminent eviction crisis.”

Kemp has steadily allowed businesses, schools and other institutions in Georgia to reopen since late April with certain safety measures in place, an approach the House Democrats’ letter faults as too hands-off to address economic insecurity issues across the state.

“The sober reality is that there is no market-based or voluntary response that will adequately stem the tide of economic loss, displacement and profound suffering resulting from the pandemic,” the letter says.

The letter urges Kemp to authorize a one-time preliminary grant of all unemployment claims that have been pending for 30 days or more, boost staffing at the state Department of Labor to process the claims backlog faster and implement a review period for claims after approval.

It also recommends Kemp immediately renew a statewide 60-day pause on evictions after a previous moratorium expired in July, and to use emergency aid and grant funds to increase housing and rental assistance for Georgians struggling to make monthly payments.

“Particularly now that federal … unemployment payments have expired, thousands of Georgians are facing severe and immediate economic instability,” the letter says. “Current trends in unemployment and eviction are an immediate crisis of humanity that will have ripple effects well into Georgia’s future.”

Kemp has frequently sought to cast the coronavirus pandemic as both a major public-health and economic crisis, advancing policies aimed at allowing businesses to recover as much as possible back to normal while imposing social distancing and cleanliness requirements to curb the virus’ spread.

He has faced months of criticism for not issuing a statewide mask mandate per recommendations from health experts and recent White House coronavirus task force reports. The letter from Democratic lawmakers also called on him to require masks.

On Tuesday, Kemp called on Georgians to wash hands, keep distance, follow sanitization precautions and voluntarily wear masks.

“Do it for your family and friends, do it for your faith community, or do it for college football,” Kemp said. “No matter your reason, hunker down, stay focused and do four things for fall.”

Kemp drops lawsuit against Atlanta mask, public gathering restrictions

Gov. Brian Kemp is dropping a lawsuit against Atlanta officials and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms over the city’s mask mandate following weeks of negotiations toward a settlement amid the COVID-19 pandemic, his office announced Thursday.

But the governor signaled he plans to take new action on business and masking rules following months of loosening restrictions, claiming Atlanta’s mayor decided “she will not agree to a settlement that safeguards the rights of private property owners in Georgia.”

“Given this stalemate in negotiations, we will address this very issue in the next executive order,” Kemp said in a statement. “We will continue to protect the lives and livelihoods of all Georgians.”

State officials said negotiations with Bottoms stalled as the mayor pushed for enforcing the mask mandate on Atlanta businesses and other private property. Both sides had agreed to let the city keep its mask mandate so long as it was not enforced in residences and penalties were capped for non-compliance.

The current COVID-19 order, which expires Saturday, includes distancing and sanitizing requirements for social gathering spots like bars and restaurants as well as a prohibition on local governments from enforcing their own mask mandates.

Kemp has made clear he will not order any statewide masking requirements, opting instead to encourage voluntary widespread mask use. His office has called local mandates unenforceable.

The lawsuit, filed last month by Kemp and Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, sought to have a Fulton County Superior Court judge declare unlawful a citywide masking requirement imposed by Bottoms earlier in July.

It marked an intense ratcheting up of the dispute between Kemp, who has insisted on keeping mask-wearing voluntary, and several Georgia mayors including Bottoms, who want local control over mandatory measures to help curb the virus’ spread.

The governor’s office was quick to point out the lawsuit mostly took aim at steps Bottoms took in July to resume limits on public gatherings to 10 persons in Atlanta and to reimpose a shelter-at-home order for city residents.

Bottoms stressed she intended for those resumed restrictions, which were in place during April under a statewide order by Kemp, to be voluntary for Atlanta.

Additionally, the lawsuit sought to bar Bottoms from “issuing press releases, or making statements to the press, that she has the authority to impose more or less restrictive measures than are ordered” by the governor.

Bottoms, who tested positive for COVID-19 in July, has cast the governor’s priorities as misplaced in light of the impacts of the virus, which has sickened hundreds of thousands of people in Georgia and killed thousands more.