ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp unveiled legislation Thursday aimed at toughening Georgia’s anti-gang laws by lengthening prison sentences, extending the reach of law enforcement agencies across county lines and adding the death penalty as an option for gang-related murder convictions.
Bills to be filed in the 2020 legislative
session would also create a new felony law for gang members who commit sex
crimes, allow Georgia Bureau of Investigation officials to serve as special
prosecutors in local gang cases and let security officers make arrests up to 880
yards outside school campuses.
Also, the legislation would empower
prosecutors to seize property used by gangs or anyone convicted under the
state’s anti-gang laws.
Cracking down on criminal gangs has been
a major plank of Kemp’s agenda since his gubernatorial campaign in 2018. The
governor and his wife, Marty, have also focused on fighting human trafficking.
“Simply put, there will be no safe haven
for criminal gang members in our state,” Kemp said at a news conference
Georgia anti-gang law already sets prison
sentences of up to 20 years for a conviction. It’s among the toughest penalties
in the country, officials say.
Earlier this week, top state law enforcement officials urged lawmakers to boost funding for a new gang task force Kemp launched last year and a database to track tens of thousands of gang members in the state.
Georgia has more than 71,000 gang members
at large plus another roughly 30,000 in prison or on parole, according to
Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vic Reynolds. It’s likely the actual
number of gang members is higher, he said.
“This is the major issue facing law
enforcement today,” Reynolds told a joint hearing of the House and Senate
Public Safety committees on Monday.
Kemp’s budget calls for nearly $1.6
million this fiscal year and next to add seven agents and analysts to the gang
task force, more than doubling its current staff. He launched the new task
force last year under the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
The budget would also pump $420,000 into
a gang database created in 2010 that has gone unfunded. The database would
allow local sheriff’s offices and city police departments to better share
information on gang activity in the state, officials say.
Those additional funds come as Kemp has
proposed budget cuts for several criminal justice areas like
alternative-sentencing courts and the Georgia Public Defender Council.
The governor-driven anti-gangs
legislation drew pushback from some criminal justice advocacy groups Thursday,
including the nonprofit Southern Center for Human Rights. Public Policy
Director Marissa McCall Dodson said state officials should focus more on
helping local communities discourage people from joining gangs in the first
place, instead of meting out stricter punishments.
“Unfortunately, instead of proposing
proven methods which reduce violence and increase opportunity, Governor Kemp
has chosen to simply increase penalties – which are already harsh and
ineffective – for people accused of gang involvement,” said Dodson.
Alongside criminal justice advocacy
groups, some state lawmakers are also wary of beefing up Georgia’s already
strict anti-gang laws. Early in the 2020 legislative session, Senate Minority
Whip Harold Jones II argued more funding for judges and prosecutors is needed
to enforce existing statutes.
“The key right now is not the fact that
we don’t have tough gang laws,” Jones, D-Augusta, said Jan. 16. “The key is
that we’re not able to actually enforce them.”
Sen. Valencia Seay, D-Riverdale, said
schools especially need more attention because they have become recruiting
grounds for gangs.
“We do not need our young kids out here
being recruited when they do not know the difference,” Seay said Monday.
Reynolds said he supports increasing
support for school resource officers and including them in the new gang task
force. The state cannot “arrest your way out of” the problem of gangs in
Georgia, he said Monday.
“There has to be a joint effort by
communities, by churches, by schools, by everyone else to make sure these young
kids … have a different option,” Reynolds said.
Kemp, responding to criticism Thursday,
said the state should help community organizations like schools and churches
reach young people before they join gangs but did not elaborate on how to do
“We need to let young people know that there are better options, a brighter future for those who work hard, stay out of trouble and embrace the opportunities in front of them,” Kemp said.
ATLANTA – A state senator from coastal Georgia is calling for
a closer examination of the potential impacts of a planned titanium mine near
the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
In a letter dated Jan. 27, Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, suggested
the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conduct more studies on how mining a
12,000-acre site south of the refuge in Charlton County and post-mine
restoration would alter surface water and groundwater flows before awarding a
permit to Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals.
“Science must guide decisions that affect our swamp and the
national wildlife refuge,” Ligon wrote in the letter to Col. Daniel Hibner from
the Corps’ Savannah district. “These studies … must demonstrate, beyond a
reasonable doubt, that no harm will come to the swamp as a result of Twin
Pines’ mining operations. Our state cannot risk lasting damage to the national treasure
that is the Okefenokee Swamp.”
Ligon noted in the letter that the Okefenokee National
Wildlife Refuge draws more than 600,000 visitors each year. The Okefenokee is
the largest blackwater swamp in North America.
The Georgia Conservancy complained last August the proposed
mine would go an average of 50 feet
below the surface, deep enough to impact adjacent wetlands and permanently
affect the hydrology of the entire 438,000-acre swamp.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division also have
expressed concerns about the project.
ATLANTA – Rev. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr.’s congregation, has entered the race for U.S. senator from Georgia.
A Democrat, Warnock joins the fray
against appointed Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and, now, GOP Congressman
Doug Collins. They will compete to fill the last two years of former U.S. Sen.
Johnny Isakson’s term, after the longtime Georgia statesman resigned at year’s
end due to health issues.
In a video Thursday morning, Warnock
traced his life’s journey from the Kayton Homes housing projects in Savannah to
Ebenezer’s historic pulpit. His first advertisement focused on social issues
like health-care expansion and voter registration, marking a messaging contrast
to Loeffler and Collins’ strong support for President Donald Trump.
“I’ve committed my whole life to service
and helping people realize their highest potential,” Warnock said. “I’ve always
thought that my impact doesn’t stop at the church door. That’s actually where
Warnock joins Matt Lieberman, son of
former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, and Ed Tarver, a former U.S.
attorney and state senator from Augusta, on the Democratic side of the contest
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.
Warnock has presided over Ebenezer
Baptist since 2005, when he became the historic church’s youngest senior pastor
at age 35. He considered running against Isakson in 2016 but decided against
While sticking to his humble upbringing
in Thursday’s message, Warnock in recent speeches has gone on the offensive
against Trump and his policies. He has also lashed out against voter
suppression, gender and economic inequality, racial injustice and student debt.
Speaking at the Democratic Party of
Georgia’s annual fundraising dinner in October, he said that “there is an
attack on the very soul of our country and all that it represents.”
“In this moment in our nation, we need
political leadership with a moral bearing,” Warnock said. “This is an unusual
time and we must be about the unusual business of winning back our democracy,
standing for what is best and truly right in the American spirit.”
Warnock’s announcement drew an immediate
backlash from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which backs
Loeffler as the incumbent. Its spokesman, Nathan Brand, called Warnock’s
platform too radical.
“Warnock’s far-left positions are out of
touch with Georgia voters and stand in sharp contrast with Kelly Loeffler’s
conservative values,” Brand said.
The Republican group also jabbed at
Collins on Wednesday after his own campaign announcement. A Baptist pastor and
U.S. Air Force Reserve chaplain, Collins risks splitting Georgia’s conservative
voters at a critical moment when Democratic leaders see a path to victory.
As it stands, all the candidates from
every party in the U.S. Senate race will compete in a free-for-all “jungle”
primary scheduled for November. That format would likely lead to a runoff in
January if left unchanged.
But a bill in the Georgia General
Assembly could return the election to a traditional party primary, which would
set up a more decisive contest between the Republican and Democratic nominees.
The measure, House Bill 757, looks to be
headed soon for a vote on the House floor.
ATLANTA – The big announcement came as no shock to state Sen. Mike Dugan as he strolled into the Georgia Senate chamber Wednesday morning.
U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a Gainesville
Republican with a rising national profile and plenty of friends in the Georgia
General Assembly, had just launched his campaign to unseat Gov. Brian Kemp’s
handpicked U.S. senator, Atlanta businesswoman Kelly Loeffler.
Threatening to split conservative voters
at a critical moment in Georgia’s political history, the news of Collins’
candidacy sparked worry among many Republicans and glee from hopeful Democrats.
But Dugan, the majority leader in the state Senate, was unfazed.
“It’s the most non-surprising surprise ever,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a problem.”
But behind the scenes, many observers wondered if a battle between Collins and Loeffler could spell trouble for the Republican push to hold retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s seat.
A Baptist pastor and U.S. Air Force Reserve chaplain, Collins hails from a staunchly conservative part of the state and was President Donald Trump’s pick to succeed Isakson. But Loeffler, who was chosen by Kemp last month to fill the Senate seat until a November special election, has millions of dollars at her disposal to wage a tough campaign.
Charles Bullock, a longtime University of
Georgia political science professor, said he’s never seen anything in Georgia
history quite like the race forming between Collins, Loeffler and whoever
emerges as the Democratic frontrunner, on top of the other big-ticket battles
in the 2020 elections this fall.
With Collins running for U.S. senate,
three seats from Georgia will be up for grabs in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Democratic state leaders are also pushing to flip the state House in their
favor. Trump faces reelection as well.
More so than any other campaign, the
battle between Collins and Loeffler could have deep ramifications for Georgia
Republicans, according to Bullock.
“I would expect that once the dust
settles, the loser will put on a good face and endorse the person who won,” Bullock
said. “But that might not satisfy the rank-and-file voters who continue to hold
Amid much private consternation,
Republican lawmakers at the state Capitol Wednesday kept up an air of
confidence. Rep. J Collins, R-Villa Rica, said he supports Collins’ decision
and favors letting voters settle the matter.
“I think it’s great,” J. Collins said
Wednesday. “If that’s what he wants to do, I support him.”
Powerful Georgia House lawmakers like Speaker
David Ralston and Appropriations Chairman Terry England also had glowing words
to say about Doug Collins when he appeared Tuesday in the chamber to deliver
the morning prayer.
“He has stood by me when few would,” said
Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. “I don’t forget things like that.”
Meanwhile, Kemp and his allies in the
state legislature stood behind Loeffler on Wednesday. She drew an endorsement
from state Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, who is one of the governor’s
“The last thing I want to do is join the
Democrats to win an election,” Strickland said.
Kemp himself rallied support for his pick
in Loeffler, framing her as a businesswoman with a farming background and a
political newcomer with “outsider” status similar to Trump’s.
“She doesn’t owe anybody anything in
Washington, D.C.,” Kemp said in remarks to the conservative Faith and Freedom
Coalition Wednesday. “What she owes is her fighting for this state of Georgia,
and that is what I told her to do when she got up there.”
Circling the political fray is House Bill
757, a measure that could pave an easier path for Collins to best Loeffler by
returning the race to a traditional party primary election.
Currently, special elections in Georgia are decided by free-for-all “jungle” primaries in which all candidates – Democratic and Republican alike – compete on the same ballot. If left unchanged, that election format has a high chance of leading to a runoff next January.
House leaders have not yet sent the bill
to the floor after it passed out of committee Tuesday. Kemp has vowed to veto
the bill if it clears the General Assembly, setting up what could be a major
test of his support among state lawmakers.
On Wednesday, Dugan told reporters he
wants Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to weigh in on the matter first if
the bill reaches the Georgia Senate. He added he has not yet taken the
temperature of state Senate lawmakers to gauge whether they would vote
“How can we have the temperature when we
haven’t been in the room yet?” Dugan said.
For his part, Collins urged passage of
the bill out of concern a November free-for-all election could hurt
“Fighting ourselves and the left at the
same time is a bad strategy,” Collins said on Twitter.
Privately, some Democratic lawmakers said
Wednesday they believe a traditional party primary would bolster chances for
their Senate candidate to win – especially if the Republicans advance Collins,
a partisan figure potentially less able to sway moderate voters.
But publicly, Democratic leaders said
they’re prepared for any scenario. State Sen. Nikema Williams, who chairs the
Democratic Party of Georgia, said she supports the party-primary bill but only
because she believes the change would give voters the most say in choosing the
state’s next U.S. senator.
“I think what 2018 showed us is that Democrats are ready to compete statewide,” said Williams, D-Atlanta. “It doesn’t matter what we’re up against.”
ATLANTA – Religious
organizations and other opponents of legalized gambling dominated a Georgia Senate
committee hearing Wednesday on legislation to let voters decide whether to
bring pari-mutuel betting on horse racing to the state.
years, Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, has been the driving force behind a proposed
constitutional amendment legalizing horse racing.
underlying “enabling” bill accompanying the constitutional change calls for the construction of up three
racetracks in Georgia that would be part of mixed-use developments. One track
in metro Atlanta would require a minimum investment of $250 million, while two
tracks outside the metro region would require at least $125 million.
consistently pitched legalizing horse racing in Georgia as a way to boost the
economies of rural communities by creating a job-creating equine industry with
breeding and hay farms.
“If you want
to have a breeding industry, it’s essential you have a racetrack,” Beach told
members of the Senate’s Economic Development and Tourism Committee. “We have no
incentives to breed horses here.”
said racetracks would inevitably lead to casinos, which would increase crime
and foster gambling addictions.
“The nose of
the camel’s under the tent,” said Paul Smith of Citizen Impact, an organization
that promotes Christian schools in Georgia. “Once the constitution is changed,
it will make it that much easier to bring casinos into this state.”
opponents said horse racing has declined enough in popularity across the
country that some states have been forced to subsidize the industry with taxpayer
said his bill would not provide any tax credits to incentivize racetrack
developers to come to Georgia, nor would the state subsidize any Georgia
tracks, even if they struggle financially.
private dollars,” he said. “If they don’t make it, they don’t make it.”
noted his bill does not include casinos. However, a constitutional amendment calling
for a statewide referendum to legalize horse racing, casinos and sports betting
in Georgia is expected to be introduced soon in the state House of
The Senate committee
did not vote on the horse racing bill Wednesday and did not schedule a future
Majority Leader Mike Dugan, a member of the committee, said he doesn’t believe
there’s enough support in the Senate to muster the two-thirds majority needed
to pass a constitutional amendment.
R-Carrollton, said he’s not convinced legalized gambling would be a huge generator
of tax dollars.
prefer we not go with the assumption that gambling is a revenue stream for the
state,” he said.