County police departments could be abolished under Georgia Senate bill

Sen. William Ligon has proposed letting voters in decide whether to abolish county police departments in their areas. (Credit: Georgia Senate official photo)

County police departments that work alongside city police and sheriff’s offices in Georgia could be dissolved at local governments’ choosing or by voters under a bill that passed out of a state Senate committee this week.

Senate Bill 317 would let local governments put to voters whether to abolish county police departments, which often operate jails or other services in tandem with other local law enforcement agencies.

It would also allow the General Assembly to place a local referendum on the ballot in a county election to let local voters decide the matter.

The bill passed out of the Senate Government Oversight Committee on Thursday by a 5-4 vote.

Sen. William Ligon, the bill’s sponsor, said counties can currently vote to create their own police departments but not to end them. He said that shouldn’t be the case.

He also noted only a handful of county police departments exist in Georgia, mostly in metro Atlanta.

Ligon, R-Brunswick, traced the bill’s origin to a grand jury report last November condemning the Glynn County Police Department over alleged officer misconduct and poor coordination with the local sheriff’s office. The report recommended letting voters decide whether to merge the county police department with the sheriff’s department.

On top of those two agencies, residents in Ligon’s district also fall under the Brunswick Police Department’s jurisdiction, marking three overlapping law enforcement agencies in the same area.

“It’s kind of like you have one body saying one thing and another body saying another,” Ligon said. “Who should make that decision? … Maybe just put it to the people.”

But opponents of the measure argue the state should not be involved so closely in local government affairs.

Those opponents include several Glynn County officials like Michael Browning, who chairs the county board of commissioners. He said the board already has authority to abolish the county police department and should be left to its own devices.

“This is a local matter that should be resolved at the local level by those elected to conduct the day-to-day business of Glynn County,” Browning said at Thursday’s hearing.

The nonprofit Association County Commissioners of Georgia also raised concerns over giving the state legislature too much power over county governments. ACCG Legislative Director Clint Mueller warned the bill’s passage could open the floodgates for handing the state more control over local services like garbage disposal.

“This has never been done in the state of Georgia,” Mueller said. “We’re concerned if you do it here, what happens to other supplemental services in the future?”

But Sen. Randy Robertson, a retired major with the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office, said he wonders if having overlapping law enforcement agencies in an area is a waste of taxpayer money.

“Their tax dollars pay for the product,” said Robertson, R-Cataula. “They shouldn’t be layered upon layered upon layered upon by individuals doing the exact same job.”

For his part, Ligon said the bill would only let the state legislature put a local referendum on the ballot, not dictate that local police forces be abolished.

“It’s just a process to put it to the voters,” Ligon said.

His bill now awaits consideration on the Senate floor. If passed and signed into law, counties could abolish police departments starting in 2022.

Georgia’s tight budget could yield tobacco tax hike

ATLANTA – After years of failing to gain traction in the General Assembly, efforts to raise Georgia’s tobacco tax could get a boost this year from the budget crunch facing state lawmakers.

The legislature passed a bill early in the 2020 session to tax online purchases made through such “marketplace facilitators” as Amazon and Google. Supporters cited the need for more revenue to help offset sluggish state tax collections threatening to force painful spending cuts.

The revenue grab could move next to tobacco products. Legislation before the Georgia House of Representatives would increase the state’s tobacco tax, the nation’s third lowest, from 37 cents per pack of cigarettes to $1.87.

That higher rate, which would move Georgia’s tobacco tax above the national average, would generate $425.2 million a year in new revenue for the state, said Andy Freeman, government relations director for the Atlanta-based American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network.

“Resolving the budget deficit and addressing the highest tobacco use rate in 20 years … would mark a major health and fiscal win for our state,” Freeman said.

Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, the bill’s sponsor, said reducing demand for tobacco products by raising the tax also would yield huge savings.

“We’re spending half a billion dollars a year in Georgia to treat smoking-related illnesses,” Stephens said. “That’s coming out of taxpayers.”

A recent poll conducted by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute found 80% support among voters for increasing tobacco taxes.

Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said the tobacco industry doesn’t enjoy the political influence it once had in the Peach State when more farmers grew the crop and tobacco auctions in rural communities drew large crowds.

“Tobacco has lost its clout. Rural Georgia has lost its clout,” he said. “With each census, more [legislative] seats get shifted out of rural Georgia to metro Atlanta.”

Bullock said the tight budget is another factor building support for raising tobacco taxes.

“A number of legislators seem to be trying to push back against [Gov. Brian Kemp’s] cuts,” Bullock said. “They’re thinking, ‘If we can find more revenues, we can protect programs we feel are important.’ ”

But Rep. Bret Harrell, chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, said he doesn’t believe there will be enough support in the General Assembly this year to raise the tobacco tax.

“There is demand for the product and retailers who sell the product, and it’s legal,” said Harrell, R-Snellville.

But Harrell doesn’t oppose increase tobacco taxes under any circumstances. He put together a proposal two years ago to raise the state tax on cigarettes to 62 cents per pack, based on the tobacco tax rates in neighboring states.

“It would not unduly advantage or disadvantage our border retailers,” he said.

But Harrell said the only tobacco tax bill lawmakers are likely to pass this year would impose an excise tax on vaping and e-cigarettes. Georgia has no excise tax on those products now, and the rapid growth of vaping is driving an increase in nicotine use that had been on the decline.

Rep. Bonnie Rich, R-Suwanee, has introduced a bill that would tax vapor devices and consumable vapor products at 7%.

Bullock said there’s a good reason a tax on vaping might find favor with the politicians under the Gold Dome.

“Vaping is much more of a young people’s pursuit,” he said. “Young people don’t vote.”


Georgia’s tobacco tax is the third lowest in the nation:

State           Cigarette tax per pack

Missouri    $0.17

Virginia      $0.30

GEORGIA   $0.37

North Dakota     $0.44

North Carolina    $0.45

Idaho          $0.57

South Carolina    $0.57

Kentucky    $0.60

Wyoming   $0.60

Tennessee $0.62

Source: Tax Foundation

Georgia Secretary of State weighs in on changes to U.S. Senate election

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger wants to wait until next year before making any changes to the state’s special elections. (Credit: Secretary of State’s office)

ATLANTA – Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has come up with a plan to avoid a flap among Republican leaders over a free-for-all “jungle” primary to fill out the remainder of resigned U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s seat.

Raffensperger unveiled a proposal Friday that would delay any attempts to change Georgia’s process governing special elections until after this year’s general election.

The secretary of state’s move came as legislation that would overhaul the special-election process stalled in the state House of Representatives.

House Speaker David Ralston backed the bill when it was introduced but reversed course on Thursday and said he would support holding off on the rules change until after newly appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler defends the seat in November.

“We agree with Speaker Ralston that jungle elections are problematic,” Raffensperger said in a statement. “That is why we propose a bipartisan commission to review and propose legislation to rationalize the special-election process for future elections after 2020.”

Georgia Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan said earlier in the week that he planned to seek Raffensperger’s opinion on the matter first if the bill were to pass out of the House and reach his chamber.

Isakson, who resigned at year’s end due to health complications, was replaced by Loeffler to hold the seat until the November special election. She was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp in December.

Loeffler, an Atlanta businesswoman and political newcomer, drew strong challengers from both parties this week. U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a Gainesville Republican, announced his candidacy for the seat on Wednesday, followed Thursday by Ebenezer Baptist Church senior pastor Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat.

The election-changes bill would separate Democratic and Republican candidates into party primaries in May before pitting the nominees against each other in November. That change could shake up the crowded U.S. Senate contest.

With Collins in the race, restoring the primary format would let Republicans rally support and start raising campaign funds for a single nominee months before the November election, potentially to Collins’ benefit. It could also help Democrats, who have historically faired poorly in runoffs.

Without the changes, the November free-for-all election would likely lead to a runoff in January. Special elections require the leading candidate to secure more than 50% of votes to avoid a runoff.

Aside from Loeffler, Collins and Warnock, the U.S. Senate race has drawn two other Democratic challengers so far: Matt Lieberman, the son of former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, and Ed Tarver, a former U.S. attorney and state senator from Augusta.

Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue faces three Democratic challengers in his bid for a second term.

Three seats for the U.S. House of Representatives are wide open, with the incumbents either stepping aside or seeking election elsewhere. Democratic state leaders are also pushing to flip the Georgia House in their favor.

Georgia Freight & Logistics panel seeking more time to finish its work

ATLANTA – Georgia lawmakers want more time to figure out how to raise more money to improve the state’s freight rail network.

The state House Transportation Committee passed a resolution Thursday that would extend the life of the Georgia Freight & Logistics Commission until the end of this year. The General Assembly created the panel of legislators and logistics industry executives during last year’s session and gave it until the end of December to make recommendations.

A seven-page report the commission released Thursday included a set of “action items” Georgia transportation policy makers need to address but that need more time to accomplish.

“The commission did a good job identifying issues and problems,” said Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, the commission’s co-chairman, who also chairs the House Transportation Committee. “That’s the easy part. Now, we’ve got to find solutions.”

A key reason legislative leaders created the Freight & Logistics Commission was to look for ways to increase the role rail plays in moving freight across Georgia. Currently, only 27% of the state’s freight moves by rail.

“Anything we can do to help move freight to our rail network is going to help with our traffic,” Tanner said.

One of the commission’s recommendations calls for legislation that would set aside a line item in the state budget for funding of freight rail projects. The proposal would not guarantee revenue for freight rail, which would remain subject to the annual appropriations process.

On Thursday, the House Transportation Committee approved a bill that would do just that.

The commission also identified a shortage of truck drivers for companies including Kia Motors and Shaw Industries as an obstacle to the smooth movement of freight, as well as a need to make more truck parking spaces available for drivers to stop and rest.

The panel also documented a huge gap in funding for freight rail in Georgia, with a 30-year unmet need ranging from $103.9 billion to $121.5 billion. The report suggested one way to lessen the gap would be exploring public-private partnerships.

Both the resolution to extend the commission’s work through this year and the bill setting up a budget line item for freight rail funding now move to the House Rules Committee, the final step to put the measures before the full House.

Online sales tax for big retailers in Georgia signed into law

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp has signed legislation imposing state sales taxes on online purchases facilitated by large retailers like Amazon, Google and Uber.

The tax is projected to raise hundreds of millions of dollars annually in Georgia.

Lawmakers in Georgia’s House and Senate hashed out a compromise measure early in this year’s legislative session to collect the tax from so-called “marketplace facilitators,” which allow third-party companies to conduct business on their websites.

The measure, House Bill 276, stalled in the Senate last year amid pushback from ride-share companies like Uber, which wanted a tax exemption. Lawmakers involved in negotiating the compromise bill expect separate legislation to be filed that would give Uber an exemption or require them to pay a fee.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, said state revenue experts estimate the tax could raise $10 million a month – though he thinks that’s a conservative estimate.

“It’s great for cities, counties, schools and Georgia businesses that the playing field will be more level now,” Huftstetler said Thursday.

A report last year from the advocacy group Faith, Truth and Justice Project estimated the tax could raise upwards of $750 million a year.

Kemp’s office confirmed Thursday that the governor had signed the bill. Tax collections will start April 1.

An Uber spokeswoman previously warned collecting the tax could hit Georgian ride-share users with higher trip costs and decrease earnings for drivers. The company prefers lawmakers institute a “reasonable fee structure” instead.

The bill’s passage comes as lawmakers look to fill a budget shortfall caused by sluggish state tax revenues and budget cuts that Kemp ordered for most state agencies. The online-sales tax marks the most significant revenue-raising effort to plug the state funding gap so far this legislative session.

Some lawmakers opposed passage of the bill over opposition to raising taxes. They favor lowering the state’s income-tax rate for a second time in the last three years. But several influential lawmakers, including Hufstetler, have sounded wary of lowering income taxes at a time when state budget cuts are being made.