Gov. Kemp unveils bills toughening anti-gang laws in Georgia

Gov. Brian Kemp talks about legislation for tougher anti-gang laws in Georgia at the Capitol on Jan. 30, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

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 Thursday.

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 so.

“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.

Coastal Georgia senator wants closer look at mine project near Okefenokee Swamp

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

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.

Warnock, pastor of historic Atlanta church, joins race for U.S. Senate

Rev. Raphael Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church (Credit: Warnock for Georgia)

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 it starts.”

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 slate.

The race to succeed Isakson has become the marquee contest of an already intense year for Georgia politics featuring campaigns for both U.S. Senate seats and Trump’s re-election.

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 it.

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.

Race for U.S. Senate in Georgia heats up between Collins, Loeffler

Congressman Doug Collins speaks outside the Georgia House of Representatives on Jan. 28, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

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.

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler

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 a grudge.”

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 floor leaders.

“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 favorably.

“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 Republicans.

“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.”

Horse racing bill draws criticism from religious groups

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.

For seven years, Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, has been the  driving force behind a proposed constitutional amendment legalizing horse racing.

An 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.

Beach has 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.”

But opponents 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.”

Other opponents said horse racing has declined enough in popularity across the country that some states have been forced to subsidize the industry with taxpayer dollars.

But Beach 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.

“It’s their private dollars,” he said. “If they don’t make it, they don’t make it.”

Beach also 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 Representatives.

The Senate committee did not vote on the horse racing bill Wednesday and did not schedule a future vote.

Senate 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.

Dugan, R-Carrollton, said he’s not convinced legalized gambling would be a huge generator of tax dollars.

“I would prefer we not go with the assumption that gambling is a revenue stream for the state,” he said.