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.

COVID-19 budget cuts deep for alternative sentencing programs in Georgia

Sen. Butch Miller (left) and Sen. John Alberts (right) talk budget cuts at a meeting of the Senate Appropriations Criminal Justice and Public Safety Subcommittee on May 27, 2020. (Georgia Senate video)

Nearly 2,000 Georgia criminal offenders enrolled in programs that let them work jobs and finish their sentences outside prison could be headed back behind bars due to budget cuts prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, state lawmakers learned Wednesday.

Roughly $4.3 million would be cut from the state Criminal Justice Coordinating Council’s budget for local grants to accountability courts, a popular program created by then-Gov. Nathan Deal in 2013 offering alternative sentences to curb recidivism for thousands of Georgia inmates with mental illness or substance-abuse issues.

If implemented, the cuts would likely cause around 1,900 current participants in accountability courts across the state to return to local jails or prisons to complete their sentences, said Hall County Superior Court Chief Judge Kathlene Gosselin, who chairs the state Council of Accountability Court Judges.

Many of those participants are employed in restaurants, poultry plants and elsewhere and have continued working throughout the coronavirus pandemic, kept track of by program supervisors who are routinely informed of their progress via Zoom video meetings, Gosselin told state lawmakers Wednesday.

“Those people will likely end up either in local jails or prisons if they do not have an opportunity to do this,” Gosselin said at a meeting of the Senate Appropriations Criminal Justice and Public Safety Subcommittee.

In all, Gosselin said between eight and 12 of the alternative-sentencing programs would likely need to be shelved over lack of funding from the budget cuts. Local judicial circuits that receive grant funding for the programs would have to decide whether they can still maintain them with less money, she said.

Gosselin’s assessment came amid two weeks of General Assembly hearings on 14% spending cuts agencies across state government are being asked to make to offset the loss of tax revenues brought on by the pandemic-induced business lockdown.

Dozens of state agencies submitted proposals last week for budget reductions totaling about $3.5 billion for the 2021 fiscal year, which starts July 1. The proposals were requested by top budget-writing lawmakers in the General Assembly, who are poised to make passing the budget the top priority once the legislature reconvenes next month.

If passed as is, the 14% cuts would translate to furloughs and layoffs for teachers, social workers, prosecutors and more, according to a review of agency proposals released last week. That would help close Georgia’s expected $3 billion to $4 billion tax revenue shortfall, though critics have called for raising revenues rather than spending cuts.

A hallmark of state criminal justice reforms, the alternative-sentence accountability courts saw roughly 12,400 participants enrolled in 163 courts statewide last year, of which 9,440 were still enrolled at the start of 2020, according to the council.

The state pocketed roughly $38.2 million in fiscal 2017 from more than 1,700 graduates of the program who both saved the state money in reduced prison costs and paid state income taxes, according to a study from the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government.

Senate President Pro Tempore Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said Wednesday “painful cuts” to programs like accountability courts that aim to reduce overall prison costs are counterproductive.

“We all understand the concept that it costs us more tomorrow when we don’t spend it today,” Miller said. “The pot’s only so big and we’ve got to cut the slices.”

Lawmakers also got an overview Wednesday of proposed cuts for public-safety agencies overseeing prisons, state troopers, state investigators, parolees and juvenile offenders.

Several agencies like the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Community Supervision and the Department of Public Safety are facing furlough days for staff. Others like the Department of Corrections have proposed closing certain facilities, including Autry State Prison in Pelham. Shutting down the South Georgia prison would save nearly $18 million, officials say.

Sen. John Albers, who chairs the subcommittee, said he wants lawmakers to focus next month on finding ways to help agencies reduce the need for furloughs. That would involve looking at whether some of the state’s lucrative tax credits and incentives could be reined in to free up more revenue for agency spending, Albers said.

“I hope that we can work very diligently in order to get folks back to full-time work,” said Albers, R-Roswell. “I think we have several ways to do that.”

Lawmakers float pay cuts for Georgia preschool teachers amid COVID-19

Left to right: Sens. John Wilkinson, Butch Miller, Ellis Black and Jesse Stone of the Senate Appropriations Education Subcommittee discuss budget cuts on May 26, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Story by Beau Evans and Dave Williams
Capitol Beat News Service

ATLANTA – The state could avoid furloughing pre-school teachers if they would be willing to absorb pay cuts rather than stay home, members of a Georgia Senate budget subcommittee suggested Tuesday.

The Senate Appropriations Education Subcommittee kicked off two weeks of hearings on 14% spending cuts agencies across state government are being asked to make to offset the loss of tax revenues brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

Disagreements over how and where to make those cuts surfaced immediately, with some senators pitching the idea for preschool teachers to take a salary cut instead of saving costs by reducing the school year by several days.

“I am personally very much opposed to across-the-board cuts,” said Sen. Ellis Black, R-Valdosta, who chairs the education subcommittee. “I think we need to make cuts based on the needs.”

Dozens of state agencies submitted proposals last week for budget reductions totaling about $3.5 billion for the 2021 fiscal year, which starts July 1. The proposals were requested by top budget-writing lawmakers in the General Assembly, who are poised to make passing the budget the top priority once the legislature reconvenes next month.

If passed as is, the 14% cuts would translate to furloughs and layoffs for teachers, social workers, prosecutors and more, according to a review of agency proposals released last week. That would help close Georgia’s expected $3 billion to $4 billion tax revenue shortfall, though critics have called for raising revenues rather than spending cuts.

From the start of Tuesday’s meeting, influential Republican members of the Senate education subcommittee disagreed over whether the state’s roughly 80,000 preschool students should be forced to take off 13 instructional days or whether their teachers should have smaller salaries for the time being.

In the worst-case scenario, a 14% budget reduction would slice more than $61 million from the state Department of Early Care and Learning, which oversees Georgia’s pre-kindergarten programs. To bridge that funding gap, agency officials have proposed reducing the school year by 13 days, eliminating 4,000 open slots for preschool students and closing 180 pre-k classrooms statewide, Commissioner Amy Jacobs said.

“You can imagine, that is quite an impact to Georgia’s pre-k program,” Jacobs said.

The assessment by Jacobs prompted some members of the education subcommittee to wonder whether having teachers work for less pay would be a better course than taking 13 school days away from students.

Black floated the idea of teachers taking a “special virus deduction” in their salaries to avoid the 13-day shortening of the school calendar.

“If we follow through with this, they’re going to be getting less money and the kids will be getting less education,” Ellis said. “The question is how dedicated are these teachers and are they willing to make that much of a sacrifice so these kids can get that education.”

Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro, framed a teacher pay cut as a sacrifice during a tough time, without which children might suffer from fewer educational opportunities.

“Everybody has to make sacrifices on a temporary basis,” Stone said. “But we’re imposing the sacrifices on the public and in this case the children.”

But the proposition drew pushback from Sen. John Wilkinson, R-Toccoa, who said pay cuts would also have to be distributed across other agencies like the state Department of Corrections. Just forcing teachers to work for less pay would not be fair, he said.

“I think we need to be very careful and look at the big picture,” Wilkinson said. “I think you’ve got to look across the board.”

For her part, Jacobs, the agency commissioner, said she doubts there would be much appetite among educators for the pay-cut plan.

“I can’t imagine that they would look favorably upon that if they’re having to work more days for less pay,” Jacobs said. “I think there needs to be a hard look at what lottery revenues look like.”

The $61 million in cuts was the bleakest of several options Jacobs gave lawmakers and would depend on whether there is a steep decline in Georgia Lottery revenues, which the agency relies on heavily. So far, lottery sales have remained stable while the pandemic continues hammering other sectors of Georgia’s economy.

The word from other agency heads who testified Tuesday was less dramatic. Several department heads told members of the Senate Appropriations Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee they plan to avoid layoffs or furloughs by freezing vacant positions and shifting available federal funds into positions that otherwise would face elimination.

“We wanted to avoid furloughs,” said Richard Dunn, director of the state Environmental Protection Division. “We have a lot of competition for the talent we have. I was afraid furloughs would wreck that.”

Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black, whose agency faces $5.6 million in spending reductions, said he’s relying on eliminating vacancies and shifting full-time employees from jobs targeted for elimination into other duties. While some food safety inspector jobs are getting the axe, Black said meat inspectors would be exempt from the cuts.

However, the department’s marketing and promotional efforts would take a big hit. The agency’s Georgia Grown program will not have a presence this year at either the Georgia National Fair in Perry or the Sunbelt Ag Expo in Moultrie, Black said.

“It is unrealistic to suggest this plan will not impact services,” he said.

The full General Assembly will reconvene in mid-June to wrap up the 2020 legislative session, though an official date has not yet been set.

2020 Census count lags in Georgia amid coronavirus

Counties in South Georgia see low completion rates for the 2020 U.S. Census in this map created on May 22, 2020. (U.S. Census Bureau)

Georgia is lagging in its count of the 2020 U.S. Census as outreach workers struggle reaching communities in isolated areas for counting amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The decennial count affects the state’s share of a huge pot of federal dollars given 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.

But so far, only 56% of households in Georgia have filled out the census this year, far fewer than the 72% completion rate the state saw in 2010, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The low response rate ranks Georgia 35th among all states and trails the national average by about 4%.

That has prompted worry among local workers and volunteers tasked with boosting Georgia’s census count this year.

“From a statewide standpoint, we’re just not doing well,” said Michele NeSmith, research and policy development director for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. “Unfortunately, the counties with the worst response rates are the ones that need to have as accurate a count as possible.”

The bulk of the undercounting is in rural parts of the state that were already at risk of flying under the radar due to poor access to the internet, which is how most people complete the census.

As of Friday, 32 counties – mostly in rural South Georgia – of the state’s 159 counties had a census completion rate of less than 40%, according to Census Bureau data. Combined, just 15% of those counties’ residents had filled out the census via the internet.

Those counties are already experiencing population declines that could be worsened if less federal funding is available due to census undercounting, said Rusty Haygood, a deputy commissioner for the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, who is co-leading the statewide census outreach effort.

“This is the area that I’m most concerned with, us getting on the ground and getting some good responses in the near future,” Haygood said.

Metro areas have not been spared from the low census rates, though the trend is being seen most dramatically in rural South Georgia. To date, completion rates are down roughly 5% or more in Fulton, DeKalb and Cherokee counties in metro Atlanta, as well as counties covering other metro areas including Augusta, Savannah, Brunswick, Athens, Macon, Valdosta and Columbus.

The counting shortfall has coincided with social-distancing practices prompted by coronavirus, which quickly handcuffed outreach volunteers who had been planning for months to help people in hard-to-reach areas take the census in local libraries, churches and big events that have been shuttered.

Door-to-door Census Bureau workers were set to start canvassing houses where people had not completed the census earlier this month. But with concerns still high over the virus’ spread, that kind of close-contact outreach has not happened yet.

“We are getting farther and farther away from the national average,” said Anna Miller, planning and research director for the state Office of Planning and Budget, who is co-leading statewide outreach with Haygood. “So it’s not great. We have some work to do.”

Food banks and other meal programs have picked up some of the slack as many people have been encouraged to take the census while picking up lunches for themselves or out-of-school children. But outreach workers had planned to lean more on churches and other common social spots to drum up interest in the census before those establishments started closing in March.

One group, the nonprofit Fair Count, had installed wireless internet and laptops in 140 churches, daycares, community centers, barber shops and other establishments in hard-to-count areas for people to take the census before the virus hit. One a third of those establishments have since reopened. The group also embarked a 50-stop bus tour to promote the census but had to pause the tour after only six stops.

Now, Fair Count is planning a largely virtual push to boost census participation via phone banks, text messaging, online events, tele-town halls and local media interviews, said the group’s program director, Ed Reed. But outreach workers across the state are also having to balance urging people to take the census and being mindful of the tough economic and health issues that the virus has brought them.

“We are finding that the census is not necessarily a priority on people’s minds,” Reed said. “They are worried about the job they lost or the health of a family member.”

Miller, Haygood, Reed and dozens more state and local leaders working on census outreach are now eying moves by the federal government to extend the timeline for wrapping up the census. Lately, they have seen promising signs of the outreach campaign’s revival.

Importantly, Census Bureau workers reopened offices May 11 in Georgia after being shuttered for weeks due to coronavirus. They began mailing out census questionnaires in mid-May and are poised to start door-to-door outreach in August for people who have not returned their census.

Congress is also expected to approve deadline extensions that will allow the Census Bureau to formally submit census data to the president by the end of April 2021, instead of the original deadline at the end of December 2020.

That could also push back the timeline for state lawmakers to begin negotiations next summer over redrawing General Assembly and congressional district boundaries, which are also dependent on census-driven population counts.

Meanwhile, members of a state committee tasked with overseeing census outreach met Wednesday to start rekindling marketing campaigns. With $1.5 million on hand, the committee initially planned to launch television and online advertisements last month but now aims to do so in July and August.

The committee is also reaching back out to hundreds of county, city and neighborhood census-outreach groups that were set to play a key role in raising awareness of the count before coronavirus hit.

Like Fair Count, those groups will need to rely more on virtual outreach for the foreseeable future as social distancing remains a widespread practice, said Holger Loewendorf, a research analyst with the Georgia Municipal Association.

“While we can’t do big personal outreach events and hand physical objects to people to promote the census, we’ll have to find other ways,” Loewendorf said. “We’re working on that.”

Particularly challenging for outreach workers will be locating and counting thousands of college students who left campus as state universities and schools started shutting down in March. That movement is already affecting census counts in college towns like Athens, where roughly 10% fewer census forms have been returned compared to 2010.

Still, census workers and volunteers like Haygood view the upcoming outreach push this summer as critical. He stressed Georgians should not accept having a low census count and less federal funding just because coronavirus has made tallying up people more difficult.

“Coronavirus did impact us,” Haygood said. “But coronavirus is not our excuse. We can’t lay everything at the foot of coronavirus.”

Kemp urges patience for state’s COVID-19 data

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

Gov. Brian Kemp urged Georgians Thursday to have patience with public health officials amid reports over questionable data-keeping methods for positive cases of coronavirus in the state.

The governor’s request came as the state Department of Public Health acknowledged in local news reports that it is combining test results for viral and antibody testing, which health experts worry could skew data trends that guide the state’s response and economic recovery.

At a news conference Thursday, Kemp said public health officials have been “working at breakneck speed” to collect testing data and organize the results in practical ways. That has led to some slip-ups in the way testing data has been presented on the agency’s website in recent weeks.

“We’re not perfect,” Kemp said. “We’ve made mistakes [and] when we do that, we’ll own that, change it and make sure people are aware of that.”

“Please afford them some patience and steer clear of personal attacks,” the governor added.

Meanwhile, the number of people hospitalized for coronavirus has fallen sharply over the past several weeks to below 1,000 patients this week, marking a promising sign the virus may be slowing.

That trend comes as state officials are sending out more personal protective equipment to hospitals, creating a training program for disinfecting elderly care facilities and boosting staff for Georgia’s new contact-tracing program.

As of 1 p.m. Thursday, more than 40,000 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 1,754 Georgians.

For the last several weeks, Kemp has touted testing data that shows a declining trend in the number of people who have tested positive for coronavirus compared to those whose results were negative.

Mass testing to confirm whether a person has contracted coronavirus is critical for health officials to pinpoint where new outbreaks may be cropping up, as many people begin resuming aspects of their normal lives following Kemp’s May 1 decision to end the state’s mandatory shelter-in-place order.

But state health officials acknowledged this week that antibody test results are being grouped in with the total number of test results, according to multiple news outlets. Antibody testing is meant to find signs that a person may have contracted coronavirus in the past, not whether that person is currently infected like viral testing does. Lumping those antibody results with viral testing could make the state’s infection rate appear lower than it actually is.

Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s public health commissioner, said Thursday the agency is instituting checks to avoid future data errors as well as ways to improve the layout for its website, where the public has access to the data.

She also emphasized the tough task health officials have in collecting huge amounts of data each day from a variety of sources like private doctors and local hospitals.

“This is an unprecedented ask of surveillance to be this agile and expand this quickly,” Toomey said. “We’re working diligently.”

Toomey also stressed that officials are considering many different types of data and pieces of information, not just positive test results.

“A website or data here or there should not be the holy grail,” Toomey said. “It’s just one piece, one tool that we use.”

One new source of data being used by health officials to contain the virus is contact tracing, which tracks the interactions a person infected with coronavirus has had with other people.

Toomey said about 500 contact tracers have been hired so far, with another 500 tracers on track to be hired by mid-June. To date, those tracers have conducted interviews with more than 3,300 coronavirus-infected persons and identified more than 9,000 people with whom they interacted.

She said whether people agree to meet and share information with contact tracers will make the difference in the state’s ability to fight the disease into the future.

“It is the cooperation of the community that will make this effect, not how many people we have on board,” Toomey said.

Half of Georgia’s rainy-day fund may need to be spent by July, top economist says

Georgia may need to dip deep in its reserve fund to balance the budget during the remaining month and a half in the state’s fiscal year amid huge revenue shortfalls prompted by coronavirus, the state’s chief economist said Wednesday.

Between $1 billion and $1.5 billion in reserves may be needed to plug the gap in the fiscal 2020 budget, close to half of the $2.7 billion total in Georgia’s “rainy-day” reserve fund, said State Economist Jeffrey Dorfman.

Speaking with state lawmakers Wednesday, Dorfman cautioned that it’s still early in the ballgame to say precisely how much emergency reserve spending may be necessary. The state last month saw a drop in revenue of nearly $1 billion compared to April 2019, and that shortfall is expected to plunge further in the coming months.

“We expect that we’re sort of near the bottom now,” Dorfman said. “But it will take a little while for us to get back to normal.”

With many businesses now reopening, Dorfman said sales tax collections should rebound back close to normal by later this fall. But the first three months of the 2021 fiscal year, starting July 1, could see a brutal 10% drop in revenues, he added.

Dorfman also said the state is likely short about $1.35 billion in income tax receipts delayed until July 15 due to coronavirus. Those revenues should be recouped once collections roll in after the delayed filing deadline, he said.

Members of the Georgia House and Senate Appropriations committees met jointly Wednesday in their second online meeting since the 2020 legislative session was suspended in mid-March as concerns mounted over coronavirus.

Their top priority upon resuming the session in about a month is to pass a dramatically reshaped budget for the 2021 fiscal year, before the June 30 deadline to do so.

Already, top budget-writing lawmakers have asked state agencies to start preparing for 14% cuts across the board in next year’s budget, with revenue forecasters expecting a decline of between $3 billion and $4 billion in tax collections in the coming months. Those cuts will almost certainly lead to scaled-back services and furloughs for teachers, social workers and more.

On Wednesday, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, said the agency cuts will be stiff but that Georgia will bounce back.

“It’s going be a little bit different and still be a little bit difficult for a little bit,” England said. “But we’re going to get through it.”

In-person legislative meetings are scheduled to resume next month ahead of an expected mid-June resumption of the 2020 session. Leaders in the state House and Senate still need to agree on whether they will reconvene on June 11 or June 15.