Ralston throws cold water on teacher pay raise, income tax cut, citing coronavirus

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston

ATLANTA -Georgia House Speaker David Ralston cast serious doubts Friday that the state will be able to afford either a teacher pay raise or an income tax cut because of the coronavirus pandemic’s economic impact.

The $28.1 billion fiscal 2021 state budget the House passed this month days before suspending the 2020 legislative session because of COVID-19 includes a $1,000 pay increase for teachers, down from the $2,000 raise Gov. Brian Kemp recommended in January.

The same day House members approved the budget, they passed legislation to reduce Georgia’s income tax rate from 5.75% to 5.375%, effective next Jan. 1. Ralston said at the time that cutting taxes is what Republicans do.

“Those are both probably going to have to come out now,” the speaker said Friday on Georgia Public Broadcasting’s “Political Rewind” program.

“I’m not sure a tax cut in this type of emergency is the wisest course to do, and I don’t think giving a huge pay raise to one group of state employees is a wise course to do,” he added. “Those two items took up a lot of room in the budget that we, frankly, may not have now.”

States across the country are taking a huge economic hit from the global pandemic, as businesses forced to shut down and workers thrown out of jobs generate far less tax revenue than would be available in normal times.

A portion of the $2 trillion federal economic stimulus package that gained final passage in Congress on Friday – $150 billion – will go to help prop up state and local governments suffering from the economic impact of coronavirus. Many governors have predicted that won’t be nearly enough funding, and Congress will have to come back and approve another stimulus.

The teacher pay raise, which Kemp promised on the campaign trail in 2018, was one of his key priorities entering this year’s General Assembly session, and Republican House leaders have made the tax cut a major goal.

But Ralston said Friday all bets are off as the economic effects of the pandemic grow with the number of deaths and confirmed cases of COVID-19.

“Just as Georgians are having to do … we’ve got to figure out as a state what do we absolutely need to run the state until we get back in session in January of ’21,” he said.

One bit of good news, according to Ralston, is the state should have the ability with some adjustments to survive financially through the end of the current fiscal year June 30. Kemp already has signed the $27.5 billion mid-year budget the General Assembly passed earlier this month.

Coronavirus vaccine clinical trials start at Emory in Atlanta

The novel strain of coronavirus causes early symptoms of cough, fever and shortness of breath. (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Clinical trials to study a potential new vaccine for coronavirus began Friday morning at Emory University in Atlanta, the school announced.

The study trials, which started earlier this month in Seattle, are the first phase of a process expected to take at least a year to complete. Overseen by the National Institutes of Health, the trials mark the first official testing of a possible COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S.

There is no cure or preventative vaccine yet for the novel strain of coronavirus, which had infected 2,001 people and killed 64 in Georgia as of noon Friday. Tens of thousands of people have been sickened by the respiratory virus across the U.S. as many hospitals face an influx of patients and a dwindling supply of medical equipment needed to fight the disease.

“A vaccine against COVID-19 is urgently needed because of widespread infection and lack of preexisting immunity,” said Dr. Nadine Rouphael, an associate professor of medicine at Emory’s School of Medicine and interim director of the Hope Clinic at Emory’s Vaccine Center, who is helping lead the vaccine study.

“We are looking forward to being part of a nationwide effort to respond to this crisis,” she said.

Emory doctors started administering the vaccine to trial participants Friday morning, said university spokesman Quinn Eastman. The study is estimated to be completed by June 2020 but doctors should have some results before then, Eastman said.

The university is looking to sign up 45 participants total for the Atlanta-based study. Candidates need to be between 18 and 55 years old. Also, they should not be pregnant, taking immunosuppressive medications or have any chronic health issues affecting their immune systems.

Unlike traditional vaccines that introduce disease-causing organisms, the vaccine being tested at Emory involves using genetic sequencing to create proteins that mimic the novel strain of coronavirus and trigger a response from the patient’s immune system to erect safeguards.

These so-called mRNA vaccines can be cheaper and faster to produce but are less tried-and-true than traditional vaccines, according to the nonprofit PHG Foundation at the University of Cambridge.

The potential coronavirus vaccine, called mRNA-1273, was developed in roughly two months by the Massachusetts-based company Moderna and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which kicked off clinical trials last week in Seattle.

The institute’s director, Dr. Anthony Fauci, called the trials now underway a critical part of developing a vaccine against coronavirus.

“Finding a safe and effective vaccine to prevent infection with [coronavirus] is an urgent public health priority,” Fauci said in a statement. “This Phase 1 study, launched in record speed, is an important first step toward achieving that goal.”

Developing vaccines in the U.S. involves three phases of clinical trials that each expand the number of test participants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If found effective, any coronavirus vaccine would need approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before it could be manufactured for the American public.

Anyone interested in participating in the clinical trials at Emory University is asked to contact the Hope Clinic at 404-712-1371 or by email at vaccine@emory.edu. You may also contact the Emory Children’s Center Vaccine Research Clinic at 404-727-4044 or by email at ecc.vaccine@emory.edu.

COVID-19 cases in Georgia climb past 2,000

ATLANTA – More than 2,000 Georgians have tested positive for coronavirus, the state Department of Public Health reported Friday.

As of noon, there were 2,001 confirmed cases in Georgia and 64 deaths from the virus. Among those testing positive for COVID-29, 566 were hospitalized.

Broken down by age, 57% of confirmed cases were Georgians between the ages of 18 and 59. Those ages 60 and older accounted for 34% of confirmed cases.

The virus now has spread to 103 Georgia counties. Fulton County continues to far outpace the rest of the state with 307 cases. Hard-hit Dougherty County was second as of noon Friday with 193 cases.

Next was DeKalb County with 181 cases. DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond imposed a mandatory shelter-in-place order for DeKalb earlier this week.

Cobb County reported 144 cases, with 102 in Gwinnett County and 98 in Bartow, another county suffering disproportionately relative to its population.

Gov. Brian Kemp and public health officials are continuing to urge Georgians to follow the social distancing and personal hygiene recommendations of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While a limited shelter-in-place order is in effect statewide for groups of people considered vulnerable to contracting COVID-19, many cities and counties have imposed those orders on all of their residents. Besides DeKalb County, the list includes the cities of Atlanta, Athens and Savannah.

Asian-American woman named to Georgia Supreme Court

Carla Wong McMillian

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp Friday named the first Asian-American woman to serve on the highest court of any state in the Southeast.

Carla Wong McMillian, currently serving on the Georgia Court of Appeals, will succeed recently retired Justice Robert Benham on the Georgia Supreme Court.

McMillian, who lives in Fayette County, served previously on the state court there, as a partner with Atlanta-based Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP and as a law clerk for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

McMillian earned a bachelor’s degree at Duke University and a law degree from the University of Georgia School of Law.

Kemp has begun building a track record for diversity in appointments. Last year, he named John King state insurance commissioner following the suspension of Jim Beck, making King Georgia’s first Hispanic to hold statewide constitutional office.

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., essentially became the state’s first female senator when Kemp named her in December to succeed retiring Sen. Johnny Isakson. The only other woman to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate served for only one day back in 1922.

Also on Friday, the governor named Verda Colvin of Macon and John “Trea” Pipkin III of McDonough to the Georgia Court of Appeals.

Third-party lawsuit targets candidate qualifying requirements

ATLANTA – Georgia’s Libertarian and Green parties have filed a lawsuit charging the state’s laws for third-party candidates to get on the ballot are unfair and onerous, particularly in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The suit, filed in federal court Thursday, accuses the Georgia secretary of state’s office of setting up two standards for major-party and third-party candidates to qualify for elections.

While Republicans and Democrats can get on the ballot almost automatically by paying the required fee, Libertarians, Greens and other third-party and independent candidates must collect thousands of signatures, amounting to 5% of registered voters in the case of a congressional race. Going door to door to gather those signatures is impossible while Georgians are engaged in social distancing to avoid being exposed to COVID-19, the suit alleges.

“We’re optimistic that the courts will recognize how inappropriate it would be for independent candidates to go knocking on doors, handing around pens and clipboards, and speaking to voters about how signature requirements work,” said Martin Cowen, a would-be candidate for Georgia’s 13th Congressional District seat and a plaintiff in the case.

“Georgia’s signature requirements are unconstitutional under the best of circumstances. To enforce them now is not just unfair but dangerously negligent of 2020’s novel public health concerns.”

Cowen is the most recent of more than two dozen candidates who have tried and failed to meet the state’s requirements for getting on a congressional ballot.

The other plaintiff in the case is the Green Party’s Jimmy Cooper III, who wishes to run for Georgia’s 8th Congressional District seat.

The suit recommends reducing the number of petition signatures candidates need to land a place on the ballot or eliminating the signature requirement altogether.