Kemp pushes back at criticism from Trump over election

Gov. Brian Kemp

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp said Wednesday he’s focused on Georgia’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and next week’s runoffs for the state’s two U.S. Senate seats, calling everything else a “distraction.”

Kemp was responding to criticism leveled by President Donald Trump earlier Wednesday. In a Twitter post, Trump called on the Republican governor to resign for his “obstructionist” refusal to interfere in the awarding of Georgia’s 16 Electoral College votes to President-elect Joe Biden.

Trump continues to claim he carried Georgia in the Nov. 3 election, despite Biden winning nearly 12,000 more votes in the Peach State than the president, a result that has been certified by several recounts that found no evidence of widespread fraud.

“I’ve supported the president. I worked as hard as anybody in this state for his reelection,” Kemp told reporters during a news conference at the Georgia Capitol. “But at the end of the day, I have to follow the law and the Constitution.”

Kemp said he’s focused instead on getting Georgians stricken with COVID-19 who require hospitalization a hospital bed. He said state public health officials are working to reopen the Georgia World Congress Center as an overflow care facility for coronavirus patients as soon as possible.

Health-care workers also are busy vaccinating Georgia nursing home patients, an effort that began this week.

“I met with [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] Director [Dr. Robert] Redfield today,” Kemp said. “I gave him a lot of credit on Monday when he started rolling out vaccines to nursing homes.”

Kemp said he’s also working hard to ensure the reelection of Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler on Jan. 5 “to save our country from socialism, defunding the police and the Green New Deal,” echoing campaign themes the GOP incumbents have sounded in their campaigns against Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock.

“I don’t want to wake up Jan. 6 wondering what else I could have done,” the governor said. “I’ve done everything I can.”

Kemp also defended the Georgia Bureau of Investigation against criticism by Rudolph Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer and a former New York City Mayor. Giuliani dismissed as “a joke” a signature match audit of absentee ballots in Cobb County the GBI helped conduct that found no evidence of fraud.

Kemp said he was glad Secretary of State Brian Raffensperger ordered the audit and that the GBI did a good job on it.

The governor’s news conference came shortly after state lawmakers on the Georgia Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Elections wrapped up a fourth hearing on the Nov. 3 election that rehashed disputed fraud claims and drew witnesses who had already testified at the Capitol in recent weeks. Giuliani was among the witnesses making a repeat appearance.

Beau Evans of Capitol Beat News Service contributed to this report.

Georgia’s new nexus degree program yields first graduates

Madeline Ramos

ATLANTA – Madeline Ramos and Louis Sanville made history this month when they became the University System of Georgia’s first nexus degree graduates.

Ramos and Sanville completed the 60 credit hours required to graduate from Columbus State University with nexus degrees in film production.

Columbus became the first of the system’s 26 colleges and universities to offer the nexus degree when the Board of Regents approved the new program two years ago.

The nexus is the first type of degree created in America since the associate’s degree came into being in the 1890s.

“A lot has changed in 100 years. We need to create a new degree for a new time,” said Tristan Denley, the university system’s executive vice chancellor for academic affairs.

“The days when people would come here, get some education and go off to work, those days are over. People will have 10 to a dozen careers in their lifetime. … The nexus degree brings all that together, a new kind of degree for a new time.”

The nexus degree grew out of the College 2025 program system Chancellor Steve Wrigley introduced in 2017 to better tailor course offerings to Georgia’s 21st century workforce needs.

Film production, one of the state’s fastest growing industries, fit in well with the nexus degree program’s goals. Film was among the careers then-Gov. Nathan Deal singled out when he created an initiative offering full tuition coverage to students majoring in certain fields.

“Governor Deal recognized there were careers in high demand and not enough people with qualifications to be able to be successful,” Denley said. “Many of the nexus degrees created over the last year or so have been along those lines.”

Thus far, the university system has developed eight nexus degree programs. Columbus State features three, not only film production but financial technology and cybersecurity – offered as a combined degree – and public safety.

Two nexus degrees – blockchain with machine learning, a subset of artificial intelligence, and blockchain with data analytics – are offered at Albany State University.

Georgia Gwinnett College offers a nexus degree in soundstage production, Clayton State University in nonprofit and governmental accounting and Georgia Highlands College in the logistics of financial technology.

A nexus degree requires 60 hours of coursework, the same as an associate’s degree, including 42 hours of general education and 18 hours focusing on the specific area of study. Those 18 hours are further divided into 12 hours of upper division coursework and at least six hours of experiential learning such as an internship.

“It’s a completely standalone credential,” Denley said. “There may well be a student who already has a degree. They may want to come back for that additional 18 hours because they’ve already satisfied the general education requirement. We’re certainly seeing students do that.”

Ramos, 23, a native of Texas, spent two years at other colleges before transferring to Columbus State for her final two years plus an extra semester.

“It was convenient,” she said. “One of the classes I was taking aligned with the degree program. It was kind of an add-on.”

In completing the nexus degree requirements, Ramos was able to gain hands-on experience in the camera department of a film production.

“I worked on a film set in different departments so I could figure out exactly what I liked to do,” she said. “Through that, I was able to talk to professionals [and] keep in touch.”

Ramos said she doesn’t have a job lined up yet, with the film industry being slowed by the coronavirus pandemic. But she said there are enough job prospects out there for her to want to remain here.

“I plan on staying in Georgia with the film opportunities,” she said.

Denley said Georgia is the only state in the country offering nexus degrees. But that may not be the case for long.

“When something’s new, others are watching us to see how it unfolds,” he said.

Mail-in ballot signature audit for Cobb County finds no fraud: GBI

Lines were sparse outside the Cobb County Regional Library voter precinct through noon on Election Day, Nov. 3, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Georgia investigators found no evidence of fraud in an audit of more than 15,000 absentee ballots in Cobb County stemming from a probe Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger launched earlier this month.

Agents with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) called in to help conduct the audit found just two ballot envelopes with faulty signatures out of 15,118 envelopes examined late last week, GBI Director Vic Reynolds said at a news conference Wednesday.

Those ballots included one voter who signed the wrong part of the absentee oath envelope and another voter who signed the envelope for her spouse, Reynolds said. Neither instance was fraudulent.

“During the course of the audit, there were no fraudulent absentee ballots identified,” Reynolds said.

Investigators examined 10% of the roughly 150,000 mail-in ballots cast in Cobb for the Nov. 3 presidential election, marking a percentage able to verify with near-certainty the accuracy of the county’s signature-verification efforts, Reynolds added.

Absentee ballots in Georgia are verified once when a voter requests a ballot, then again on signature-bearing envelopes sent to county election boards. Those envelopes are separated from the absentee ballots to protect voters’ ballot selections and preserve voter privacy, according to state law.

The audit followed a complaint from a Cobb elections worker that processes for checking absentee signatures for the June 9 primary election seemed lax. State officials next plan to conduct a statewide study with the University of Georgia of signatures accompanying the roughly 1.3 million absentee ballots cast in the Nov. 3 election.

Raffensperger ordered the audit in part to boost confidence in the integrity of Georgia’s election system amid fraud claims from President Donald Trump and his allies that have injected doubt into the system ahead of the high-stakes U.S. Senate runoffs on Jan. 5.

Investigators in Raffensperger’s office are also working on about 130 complaints of alleged fraud in last month’s election, though state officials have repeatedly said they have found no evidence of any widespread fraud following two recounts and several tossed-out federal lawsuits.

“The Secretary of State’s office has always been focused on calling balls and strikes in elections,” Raffensperger said in a statement. “And in this case, three strikes against the voter fraud claims and they’re out.”

The audit’s results did not satisfy President Donald Trump, who lashed out at Raffensperger Wednesday on Twitter and called top-ranked Republicans in Georgia like Gov. Brian Kemp “a complete disaster” for not ordering a deeper mail-in signature audit.

Raffensperger has called on state lawmakers to change Georgia’s election laws during the upcoming 2021 legislative session by adding stricter voter ID requirements, eliminating mail-in voting without cause and giving state officials power to remove poor-performing county election managers.

Academic studies differ on impact of Trump tax cuts

John Goodman

ATLANTA – The tax cuts President Donald Trump steered through Congress in 2017 will save the average Georgia household more than $39,000 over their lifetime, a new study has found.

But according to another broader study of tax cuts in multiple countries going back to 1965, tax cuts provide a huge windfall to big corporations and wealthy individuals without producing long-term economic growth or sustained business investment.

A study released this month by Boston University professor Laurence Kotlikoff to coincide with the third anniversary of the Trump tax cuts comes on the heels of an earlier study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta that estimated the gain for Georgia families at $22,676 on average because of the impact of personal income tax reductions.

The new study, funded by the Goodman Institute for Public Policy Research, a free market think tank, includes the effect of reducing corporate taxes.

Lower corporate tax rates attract capital from abroad, raise wages and create greater economic expansion in Georgia and in other states, said John Goodman, the institute’s president.

“We used to have one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world,” Goodman said.  “High corporate taxes drive capital offshore and that’s bad for American workers. With the lower rates we have now, we are more competitive.”

The Goodman Institute study comes as President-elect Joe Biden prepares to roll back the Trump tax cuts benefitting the wealthiest Americans and businesses. However, the Democrat has vowed not to raise taxes on Americans earning less than $400,000 a year.

Tax policy also has been issue during Georgia’s two U.S. Senate runoff races, with Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock opposing the Trump tax cuts and incumbent Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler pledging to preserve them.

The Goodman Institute study shows that many Georgians would be better off in the short run if Biden’s economic plan is adopted in full. That’s because of Biden’s proposal for a more generous child tax credit and more generous benefits for low-income seniors.

But Goodman said the Biden plan comes with long-term costs.

“When today’s children become adults, their wages will be lower and the economy will be less prosperous because of the way these benefits are funded,” Goodman said.

The broader study, conducted by the London School of Economics, concluded tax cuts lead to greater income inequality but have no meaningful impact on unemployment or economic growth.

The study examined five decades of tax cuts in 18 wealthy nations from 1965 to 2015, including two Reagan-era tax cuts in 1981 and 1986, which dramatically reduced the top income-tax rate from 70% to 28%.

The study found that tax cuts promote income inequality. The share of national income flowing to the top 1% increased by about 0.8%.

While employment and economic growth fluctuated slightly following major tax cuts, the report found the impact statistically indistinguishable from zero.

The study’s authors, David Hope and Julian Limberg, concluded that the momentum behind enacting tax cuts comes from the power of wealthy corporations and individuals to set public policy agendas.

“There is a large political science literature on the power of rich voters and organized business interests to shape public policies in their favor,” Hope and Limberg wrote.

More than $340 million raised in Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoff races

Clockwise: Jon Ossoff, U.S. Sen. David Perdue, Rev. Raphael Warnock and U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler are competing for Georgia’s two Senate seats in the runoff elections on Jan. 5, 2021. (Photos by Beau Evans)

The four candidates in Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoff races have reeled in huge donations ahead of the Jan. 5 election, raising more than $340 million between them since mid-October.

The two Democratic contenders, Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock, combined for the larger haul of roughly $210 million, while incumbent Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler together amassed $132 million.

The races have drawn intense national attention since the outcome will decide the balance of power in Washington, D.C. Wins by both Ossoff and Warnock would hand Democrats control of both chambers of Congress and the White House following President-elect Joe Biden’s win in the Nov. 3 general election.

The roughly $342 million total for all four candidates adds to millions of dollars more in spending on campaign television ads, mailers, social media and door-knocking by dozens of outside groups that look to make the pair of Senate races among the most expensive in American history.

Ossoff, a Democrat who owns an investigative journalism company, collected nearly $107 million during the fundraising period running from Oct. 15 to Dec. 16. His opponent, Perdue, the Republican former corporate executive, raised about $68 million within the same time.

Warnock, the Democratic senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, raised more than $103 million over the two-month filing period compared to $64 million raised by his opponent Loeffler, an Atlanta businesswoman who earlier in the race loaned $23 million of her own money to her campaign.

Each candidate still has millions more to draw down for ads and other get-out-the-vote activities as the candidates enter the final week of campaigning in the Jan. 5 runoffs.

It’s not guaranteed the big fundraising figures can secure victory for any of the campaigns. Recent polls show the races as toss-ups and expert observers are not placing any bets on the outcomes.

Democrats feel momentum on their side after Georgia voters flipped the state for a Democratic candidate for the first time since 1992 in Biden’s win over President Donald Trump. Republicans are pushing to invigorate conservative voters to block Democratic control of the federal government.

The candidates have not been the only fundraising machines in recent weeks as several political action committees rack up tens of millions of dollars to bolster their preferred parties.

Notable are two committees backed on the one hand by former gubernatorial candidate and rising Democratic star Stacey Abrams, and on the other by former President George W. Bush’s campaign guru, Republican strategist Karl Rove.

Fair Fight, the group founded by Abrams, has amassed nearly $57 million since mid-October with nearly $24 million left to spend down the stretch for the Democratic contenders.

The Georgia Battleground Fund, overseen by the National Republican Senatorial Committee with Rove leading fundraiser efforts, has brought in more than $49 million since mid-October and has more than $15 million remaining.

The three-week early voting period for the Senate runoffs that began Dec. 14 wraps up later this week.