Trump trip to Atlanta highlights environmental review changes

President Donald Trump discusses changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) during a trip to Atlanta on July 15, 2020. (White House video)

President Donald Trump traveled to Atlanta Wednesday to unveil changes to longstanding environmental rules that industries hail as a boon for infrastructure and critics condemn as toxic.

Trump’s visit Wednesday was his second trip to Atlanta so far this year. He previously traveled to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in early March at the onset of the country’s coronavirus outbreak.

The appearance came as the president faces an increasingly tough fight in Georgia to win the state’s 16 electoral votes against presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in the upcoming Nov. 3 general election.

The president’s 45-minute visit Wednesday focused on an overhaul of key regulatory rules in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a Nixon-era law signed in 1970 that requires construction projects like pipelines, roads and power plants to undergo certain environmental reviews.

Environmental advocates view the NEPA rules as critical to preventing damaging wildlife and human-health impacts from large projects. Industry groups frame the rules as overly cumbersome in a way that hamstrings economy-driving infrastructure.

Under the changes, federal agencies will have to complete environmental reviews for projects within two years, hastening a process that frequently takes far longer. Limits would also be set on how agencies may factor a project’s impacts on climate change into its review.

“Today’s action is part of my administration’s fierce commitment to slashing the web of needless bureaucracy that’s holding back our citizens,” Trump said. “It’s one of the biggest things we can be doing for our country.”

Specifically, Trump highlighted an expansion project for Interstate 75 south of Atlanta that has languished in the review phase for years.

The president said the revised NEPA rules would help jump-start that project, which would add truck-only lanes along I-75 from Macon to McDonough to reduce traveling times for Atlanta-area drivers.

Trump also teased he is working with Gov. Brian Kemp on unspecified infrastructure projects in Georgia but did not go into specifics.

“We have some things planned in Georgia that will be really incredible and everyone’s going to want it,” Trump said.

Backers from trade and industry groups say the NEPA changes the president announced Wednesday would help relieve burdensome environmental reviews and spur needed infrastructure projects.

The American Petroleum Institute praised the move by Trump as a show of support for job-creating industries and a tool to help jump-start the economy amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Today’s action is essential to U.S. energy leadership and environmental progress, providing more certainty to jump-start not only the modernized pipeline infrastructure we need to deliver cleaner fuels but highways, bridges and renewable energy,” said Mike Sommers, the institute’s president and CEO.

But critics have panned the review rollback, casting it as an attempt to gut key environmental safeguards that have been in place for decades.

They view the relaxed NEPA requirements as a potential means for high-polluting industries to face less scrutiny at the expense of environmental protection and initiatives aimed at curbing climate change.

“This unprecedented move silences the public – especially front-line communities who are impacted first and worst by climate Change, COVID-19 and industrial pollution,” said the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council. “We will not let this stand.”

Georgia Democratic lawmakers and leaders also slammed the regulatory changes, arguing looser environmental rules could hurt minority communities the most.

“Georgia has a very poor track record when it comes to protecting communities of color, particularly when it comes to environmental justice issues,” said Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate who now heads a voting rights group.

Further, local Democratic officials cast Trump’s visit to Atlanta as largely an attempt to boost support in the state ahead of the Nov. 3 general election, amid a wave of campaign advertisement buys and recent polls showing a tight race with Biden.

State Sen. Nikema Williams, who chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia, dismissed Trump’s visit as a political maneuver that avoids addressing the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Georgia and across the U.S.

“Donald Trump needs to address the needs of everyday Georgians if he’s going to continue to make pit stops here in our state,” said Williams, D-Atlanta.

State Republican Party leaders have downplayed chances for Biden to win Georgia or for Democratic candidates to flip the two Republican-held U.S. Senate seats up for grabs or the state House of Representatives’ Republican majority.

“It is imperative that Georgians re-elect the president this November,” said Stewart Bragg, executive director of the Georgia Republican Party. “America needs a second term of the administration that never stops fighting for economic growth.”

Kemp faces decision on COVID-19 restrictions

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

Gov. Brian Kemp is facing a Wednesday deadline to decide whether to extend social-distancing restrictions for businesses and other requirements put in place in Georgia amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The governor could extend all of the current business and gathering restrictions currently in effect or continue a trend in recent months of gradually relaxing them. He has executive authority to issue emergency orders through at least Aug. 11.

Kemp’s office said he plans to update the COVID-19 restrictions sometime Wednesday before they are due to expire at 11:59 p.m.

While a host of Georgia businesses have been allowed to reopen since May, they are still required by the governor’s orders to abide by several measures to keep people separated from each other, maintain clean surfaces and send workers home if they show symptoms of coronavirus.

A shelter-in-place order has been under effect since late March for Georgians in long-term care facilities and those with chronic medical conditions including lung disease, moderate to severe asthma, severe heart disease, compromised immune systems, severe obesity and diabetes.

In particular, large gatherings in Georgia have been limited to no more than 50 people if they cannot keep at least six feet apart. That applies to restaurants, bars and other popular gathering spots.

Conventions, sports stadiums and performance venues were allowed to reopen July 1 under distancing, sanitizing and signage rules. But Kemp has suggested he could pull the plug on fall sports like football if people disregard wearing masks.

Mask-wearing in Georgia has been a testy subject in recent weeks. Kemp remains under pressure to impose mandatory masking requirements as positive COVID-19 cases continue rising in the state, and several cities have ordered residents to wear facial coverings in public.

The governor’s statewide rules so far have “strongly encouraged” voluntary mask-wearing even as many health experts and local elected officials have urged Kemp to take a mandatory approach or at least let counties and cities set their own masking rules.

To date, Kemp’s orders on COVID-19 have required city and county governments to adopt the state’s rules rather than impose their own. That scenario has caused tension in cities like Atlanta and Savannah, where local officials recently required residents to wear masks.

Last week, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued a citywide masking requirement that argued the governor’s statewide orders do not explicitly address mask mandates, posing a legal loophole for local governments to adopt their own measures.

Kemp’s office has dismissed the Atlanta mask mandate as unenforceable.

Loeffler condemns Black Lives Matter in campaign stop

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler speaks during a campaign event at Cobb County’s Republican headquarters in Marietta on July 13, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

MARIETTA – U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., doubled down Monday on criticism of the Black Lives Matter protest movement, calling it a political organization promoting “violence and anti-Semitism” as she seeks to win her seat in a crowded Nov. 3 special election.

Loeffler, a Buckhead businesswoman, has sought to bat back criticism over her opposition to the Women’s National Basketball Association’s recent decision to adopt Black Lives Matter-related phrases on their uniforms. She has urged the league to scrap the plan.

“They are built on a Marxist foundation and the most socialist principles,” Loeffler, who co-owns the Atlanta Dream WNBA team, said of Black Lives Matter at Cobb County’s Republican headquarters Monday.

Loeffler emphasized a distinction between the movement as a political organization with fundraising abilities versus its statements on racial equality and police reform, which she said she supports.

“They want to defund the police, the military,” she added. “They want to empty the prisons. They want to destroy the nuclear family, they’re anti-Semitic and they want to spread violence across the country.”

The comments by Loeffler highlight a recent shift in focus on issues in the campaign for her Senate seat, amid nationwide protests against racial injustice and police brutality. They also echo President Donald Trump’s bend toward social and cultural subjects as he vies for a second term.

The race for Loeffler’s seat has drawn a field of 21 candidates in an open special election to fill the remainder of former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term. Isakson retired at the end of last year, prompting Gov. Brian Kemp to tap Loeffler to hold the seat until the election.

Speaking as part of a two-week statewide campaign tour, Loeffler paired her comments on Black Lives Matter with condemnation of calls from largely Democratic elected officials to reduce or defund local law enforcement agencies in the U.S.

She framed criticism over her views as part a “cancel culture” social approach that Trump has also sought to evoke in his presidential campaign amid recent protests and pressure to remove Confederate monuments.

“We as Americans have every right to express our views without being canceled,” Loeffler said Monday.

Loeffler faces stiff competition from Democratic contenders and from within her own party in Georgia. U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a Republican, is campaigning hard for the seat, as is Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat.

Collins, who has especially lobbed criticism at Loeffler, has dismissed her stance on Black Lives Matter as empty politics, drawing ties between her ownership of a WNBA team and the league’s support for Planned Parenthood.

“Now that she’s pretending to be a conservative to run for public office, she should explain her silence and divest herself of this team and her past progressive advocacy,” Collins said.

Warnock, who has amassed a hefty campaign war chest in recent months, has also taken aim at Loeffler while touting his support for the protest movement and its aims.

“The Black Lives Matter movement is an effort to give voice to the very real problem of injustice in our country,” Warnock said on Twitter recently. “While we urge peaceful demonstrations, the pain in the Black community is still real and demands to be heard, no matter how inconvenient that is for Kelly Loeffler.”

Judge strikes down Georgia abortion ban

A federal judge Monday blocked a Georgia law from taking effect that would ban most abortions after a heartbeat is detected, marking a pivotal decision in a case that has enflamed passions in the state for more than a year.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Steve Jones approved a permanent injunction of the law sought by several pro-choice groups in June 2019 shortly after the General Assembly passed legislation to impose the restrictive abortion ban.

Jones’ ruling follows the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier this month that struck down a restrictive abortion law in Louisiana. Previously, Jones said he planned to await an outcome in that case before issuing his own order.

Jones handed down a single-paragraph ruling Monday that found the law to be in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment equal-protection clause.

Backers of the push to overturn Georgia’s abortion law hailed the court ruling Monday as a win for the right-to-choose movement, calling it a repudiation of governmental overreach in reproductive issues.

“This moves us further into the future we all want to live in,” said Monica Simpson, executive director of the nonprofit SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. “No one deserves to live in a country where their bodies or their reproductive decision-making are dictated by the state.”

Gov. Brian Kemp’s office quickly pledged to appeal the ruling, potentially setting up a future U.S. Supreme Court battle.

“Georgia values life, and we will keep fighting for the rights of the unborn,” said Cody Hall, the governor’s press secretary.

Georgia’s law on abortions would have been among the most restrictive in the country had it been allowed to take effect at the start of this year.

It would have banned all abortions in the state before a fetal heartbeat can be detected, usually around six weeks. Certain exceptions would have been permitted such as for medical emergencies.

Legislation creating the abortion ban passed out of the General Assembly in March 2019 by partisan margins and following fierce debate on both sides of the aisle.

Several groups including SisterSong and Planned Parenthood filed suit after the bill’s passage, arguing it posed an unconstitutional violation of women’s reproductive rights set in the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade case.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s Georgia branch, which represented the suing groups, noted a separate federal court also struck down an abortion ban in Tennessee on Monday.

Hundreds of Georgia sex offenders off ankle monitors as lawmakers seek legal fix

A landmark court ruling has led to nearly half of Georgia’s most high-risk sex offenders being released from their ankle monitors over the past year, marking a legal quandary that state lawmakers fell short in addressing during the 2020 legislative session.

State officials tasked with recommending how to monitor sex offenders in Georgia say legislation filed in the 2020 session would address the problem going forward by handing final authority to judges, rather than a state-run review board.

But criminal defense attorneys argue the proposal does not include certain legal avenues for sex offenders who often lack the means to appeal their punishments and who would benefit from more focus on treatment than lifetime ankle monitoring.

So far, 520 of 1,108 people in Georgia classified as “sexually dangerous predators” most at risk for committing future sex crimes have been freed from GPS tracking devices, according to Tracy Alvord, executive director of the state Sexual Offender Registration Review Board.

She expects 17 more sexually dangerous predators will be off ankle monitors by the end of this year, leaving local law enforcement agencies and the state Department of Community Supervision to rely more on reports from concerned citizens to monitor sex offenders in lieu of electronic tracking.

“There’s only so much you can do unless someone commits another crime,” Alvord said. “Now, they have less idea unless there’s a report that they’re engaging in some kind of disturbing behavior.”

Legislation brought by Rep. Steven Sainz, R-Woodbine, in the General Assembly session that wrapped up last month was aimed at revising state law on sex-offender sentencing that the Georgia Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional in March 2019.

The high court ruled a longstanding practice of electronically monitoring some sex offenders in Georgia after their sentences and probation have been completed should not be allowed to continue, blocking a state law that requires automatic lifetime monitoring for sexually dangerous predators.

The issue centered on a process in which the review board decides how to classify a sex offender based on a risk scale, with the highest risk carrying automatic lifetime monitoring. Those highest-risk offenders mark a fraction of Georgia’s roughly 12,000 sex offenders, according to Alvord.

Sainz’s bill called for making the decision on lifetime monitoring part of a judge’s sentence from the start instead of via the review board. It would have only addressed future sex offenders, not those who have already been released from monitoring.

“My bill was a very tailored approach,” Sainz said. “It intentionally wasn’t a huge number [of offenders], but that number we’re dealing with per year would be the most needed offenders to have that tool long-term.”

House Bill 720 passed out of the state House of Representatives but stalled as lawmakers grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic. Sainz said he plans to work on the bill with Sen. Randy Robertson, R-Cataula, and bring it back for next year’s legislative session.

Critically, the bill proposes automatic lifetime-monitoring sentences for sex offenders who commit more than one felony sex crime such as rape, trafficking, child molestation and child pornography.

But automatic sentencing could prevent judges from imposing penalties on a case-by-case basis, potentially tying the hands of a judge who might opt for lifetime probation or more intensive treatment, said Jill Travis, executive director of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

“It completely removes judicial discretion, which we believe is an important feature that should remain in the law,” Travis said. “Individual assessment is key, not just a blanket crime ‘A’ plus crime ‘B’ equals a lifetime monitoring.”

As it stands, Travis said the review board’s process for recommending sex-offender classifications leaves little room for appeal for offenders who often cannot afford legal representation. She said the state should put more resources into behavioral and psychological treatments aimed at curbing recidivism.

“That’s the best thing that should happen,” Travis said. “Strapping a monitor on them for life doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not going to commit another offense.”

But ankle monitors can help local police authorities prevent sex crimes by allowing them to easily determine if a GPS-tracked offender is going somewhere that is off limits like a school or has come into contact recently with people they shouldn’t, said the review board’s Alvord.

She said the intent is to stave off repeated sex crimes while also managing a constant stream of new cases. Each month, the review board receives a list of around 200 new sex offenders from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, Alvord said.

Establishing legally sound rules on ankle monitoring would help state and local authorities keep up with the heavy workload in the effort to protect Georgians from sexual predators, Alvord said.

“Our front-line people do a really, really good job despite the limitations we have legally,” Alvord said. “They’re really having to compensate on waiting for [Sainz’s bill] before it goes through.”

Atlanta imposes mask mandate, possibly defies governor

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

A mandatory masking order is in effect in the city of Atlanta, requiring everyone inside Georgia’s capital city to wear masks in public and in businesses open to the public amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The order, which took effect late Wednesday, pits Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms against Gov. Brian Kemp, who opposes issuing a statewide mask mandate amid a recent rise in positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Georgia.

The governor has not signaled whether he may take legal steps to overturn Atlanta’s mask order, given his own executive orders on COVID-19 require local governments to adopt the state’s health and safety rules, which do not so far include any guidelines on mandatory masking.

The Atlanta order also limits public gatherings to 10 people or fewer in Atlanta, potentially impacting the ability for large protests against racial injustice and police brutality to continue as they have over the past several weeks.

It provides exceptions for those with medical conditions who may not be able to wear masks, as well as when people are eating, smoking, swimming in a pool or riding in a vehicle.

“We will continue to take active measures to help slow the spread of COVID-19 infections in Atlanta,” Bottoms said in a statement. “Public health experts overwhelmingly agree that wearing a face covering helps slow the spread of this sometimes deadly virus.”

With the masking order in place, Atlanta joins a handful of other Georgia cities including Savannah and Athens that have recently issued requirements for facial coverings in public.

National and local health experts strongly agree the widespread use of masks will be essential to curbing the virus’ spread without a vaccine or cure.

Kemp has also urged voluntary mask wearing in Georgia via a statewide awareness tour and by launching a marketing campaign for reopened businesses to adopt safe distancing, cleaning and masking practices.

“To keep our friends and neighbors safe from COVID-19, we have to do our part,” the governor said Thursday on Twitter. “Mask up, Georgia!”

Kemp has, however, stopped short of requiring Georgians to wear masks, noting on several occasions that people in the state should not need a mask mandate “to do the right thing.”

Many local elected leaders have called on the governor to go a step further with masking rules – or at least allow city and county officials to set their own measures.

“We should not be sending the message to local governments that they don’t have the right or the space to take those steps on their own,” said Georgia House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, D-Luthersville.

Other influential Georgia leaders have steered clear of the mask debate. House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, noted he ordered state House lawmakers to wear masks during the legislative session last month but has no such say over local affairs.

“Whether local municipalities are able to compel mask wearing under the governor’s executive order isn’t my decision to make,” Ralston said Thursday. “Frankly, all that matters now is keeping people healthy and getting our economy growing again.”

The governor’s office has not responded this week when asked if Kemp is considering legal options to overrule the order.

On Twitter, Kemp’s communications director, Candice Broce, leveled criticism at aspects of the Atlanta order, highlighting that “there’s no exception for exercise, but there’s an exception for smoking.”

More than 100,000 people in Georgia have tested positive for COVID-19 since the highly contagious respiratory virus swept the state starting in March. Around 3,000 Georgians have died.

Positive cases have edged up in Georgia in recent weeks.

In a troubling trend, hospital admissions began climbing again this month in Albany, which was one of the state’s worst COVID-19 hotspots earlier this year.

The Southwest Georgia city’s Phoebe Putney Health System noted Thursday that 37 patients have been admitted in the last eight days, approaching close to the total of 47 patients seen there throughout June.

“It is clear transmission of the virus is picking up throughout Georgia and much of the country,” said Scott Steiner, Phoebe Putney’s chief executive officer. “We are all anxious for our lives to return to normal, but to protect ourselves, our families and our communities, that normal must include wearing masks in public and limiting close contact with others.”