Georgia House committee OKs permanent switch to daylight saving time

Georgia Rep. Wes Cantrell

ATLANTA – Georgia would observe daylight saving time all year long subject to congressional approval under legislation that cleared a committee in the state House of Representatives Thursday.

Switching every six months between daylight and standard time disrupts sleep patterns and has been shown to increase the number of heart attacks, car crashes and workplace injuries, Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, the bill’s sponsor told members of the State Planning & Community Affairs Committee.

“Our bodies are built to adjust slowly to the amount of daylight,” he said. “The vast majority of people want time change to stop.”

Cantrell introduced three bills on the topic last year. Two of the measures called for Georgia to observe daylight time all year or standard time all year.

The third called for a statewide non-binding referendum to gauge the sentiments of Georgians toward the issue.

None of the bills got far last year because the coronavirus pandemic intervened, forcing a three-month break in the 2020 General Assembly session.

Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah, pre-filed two bills before this year’s session calling either for a non-binding referendum or putting Georgia on standard time permanently.

A wrinkle in the possibility of switching to daylight time all year is that -unlike switching to standard time permanently – it would require congressional approval.

Cantrell said U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is sponsoring legislation that would put the entire nation on daylight time permanently.

Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana have passed bills calling for year-round daylight time, Cantrell said. If those became law, other states in the region would follow suit, he said.

“The entire Southeast would have it if Congress approves,” he said.

Cantrell said he favors daylight time because it provides more daylight in the early evening hours for recreation and exercise, saves on energy, reduces traffic accidents and leads to less crime.

But Rep. Derrick Jackson, D-Tyrone, wasn’t convinced. He proposed that the committee delay acting on the bill until Cantrell returns with more definitive data on the potential effects of switching to daylight time.

“All I heard was anecdotal,” Jackson said following Cantrell’s presentation of his bill.

But the majority of the committee decided to move ahead and passed the bill on a voice vote. It heads next to the House Rules Committee to schedule it for a vote of the full House.

Mid-year budget gains quick passage in Georgia House

ATLANTA – The Georgia House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a $26.3 billion mid-year budget Thursday that uses a large influx of federal aid to help with the state’s fight against COVID-19 and restores cuts to education.

The fiscal 2021 mid-year plan, which now moves to the state Senate, cleared the House 149-20. The House doesn’t usually act on the mid-year budget before February, but lawmakers are In a rush to get it in place in case the General Assembly has to call a temporary halt to the legislative session because of the virus.

The mid-year budget, which covers state spending through June 30, includes $58.7 million in state and federal funds to support nursing homes, which have been hit hard by COVID-19. The House also added $18 million in state funds for a new computer system to track COVID testing and immunization and $285,997 to hire three Department of Public Health managers to support the state’s pandemic response.

The mid-year budget request Gov. Brian Kemp submitted early this month restores $567 million of $950 million in cuts to K-12 schools the legislature imposed last year as state tax revenues slowed due to the pandemic. Combined with $411 million Georgia has received in federal COVID relief for education, the state actually is $28 million ahead in school funding.

Local school systems also have done their part to deal with last year’s cuts by tightening their budgets, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England told his legislative colleagues Thursday.

“It’s a three-way funding partnership: state, local and federal,” said England, R-Auburn. “When one of the three partners stumbles … we always lean on the others.”

The House also added just more than $500,000 to the mid-year budget in start-up costs for the state’s new hemp farming and medical cannabis initiatives.

Another $1 million is earmarked for tourism marketing in a bid to help the hospitality industry recover from huge pandemic-driven losses.

“Once everyone starts feeling comfortable with the vaccine and the pandemic goes away, folks will start traveling,” England said. “We want them to have Georgia on their minds when they do.”

The House also signed off on Kemp’s request for $20 million to expand broadband connectivity in rural Georgia.

Several House Democrats questioned why the state continues to use private prisons when President Joe Biden signed an executive order this week ordering the Justice Department to stop using them at the federal level.

Opponents argue companies that operate private prisons are motivated to put as many convicted criminals in them as possible to maximize profits.

“[Private prisons] are a school-to-prison pipeline, and we have to stop it,” said Rep. Donna McLeod, D-Lawrenceville.

England said private prisons save the state money by removing the need to build more state prisons and hire more staff with full state benefits.

“That population has to be housed somewhere,” he said.

While stronger-than expected state tax collections allowed Kemp and the legislature to avoid the 10% across-the-board budget cuts they imposed last year, England warned of “some headwinds” facing the state this year.

He said state revenues likely will take a hit at tax-filing time as the Department of Revenue issues refunds to a large number of unemployed Georgians whose benefits were taxed.

Georgia Lottery sets record for first half of fiscal year

ATLANTA – The Georgia Lottery generated a record $731.3 million in profit during the first half of the last fiscal year, Gov. Brian Kemp announced Thursday.

July through December of last year marked the most profitable first half of a fiscal year for the lottery since its inception in 1993.

That strong showing followed a record fiscal 2020 that allowed the Georgia Lottery Corp. to contribute more than $1.23 billion to Georgia’s HOPE Scholarships pre-kindergarten programs.

“This record success is great news for students in communities throughout Georgia,” Kemp said. “Georgia Lottery’s continued success ensures that Georgia’s students and families remain the ultimate winners.”

Lottery President and CEO Gretchen Corbin said a solid first half of fiscal 2021 provides momentum for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.

“Since its first year, the lottery has returned more than $23 billion to the state for education. More than 1.9 million students have received HOPE, and more than 1.6 million 4-year-olds have attended the statewide, voluntary pre-kindergarten program.

Photo ID for Georgia absentee voting pitched in General Assembly bill

State Sen. Jason Anavitarte, R-Dallas, filed a bill requiring voters to provide photo ID copes twice to request mail-in ballots. (Georgia Senate photo)

ATLANTA – Georgia voters would need to provide copies of their photo identification two separate times to cast absentee ballots under a bill introduced in the General Assembly.

The bill, sponsored by freshman state Sen. Jason Anavitarte, R-Dallas, marks the first move by state Republicans to overhaul election laws after Democrats carried Georgia in the 2020 presidential election and flipped both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats, largely due to historically huge mail-in voting.

Instead of the current signature-verification process, voters would need to provide a photocopy of their driver’s license, passport or other valid ID card when applying for an absentee ballot. Then, another photocopy of that ID would have to be placed in the envelope used to mail back the ballot.

Requiring photo ID for absentee voting is a top priority for Republican leaders in the 2021 legislative session after mail-in votes topped one million in all three rounds of the 2020 election cycle, far exceeding past Georgia elections. 

Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger have pushed for the change after doubts from many conservative voters over verifying signatures stirred mistrust in Georgia’s election integrity. Republicans stand a strong chance of passing legislation since they control both chambers in the General Assembly.

Democratic leaders and voting rights advocates have condemned stricter ID requirements as attempts at voter suppression, noting a driver’s license, Social Security number or other identifying documents are already needed to register to vote in Georgia.

Supporters of tighter absentee ID rules point out voters must provide photo ID when casting ballots in person at polling places. They argue mail-in ballots should fall under the same requirements instead of difference rules for signature verification.

Currently, registered Georgia voters need only provide their signature on an application form to request an absentee ballot. Signatures on that request form as well as on the envelope in which voters mail their ballots are matched with other signatures in voters’ registration files before those ballots are accepted.

That process caused controversy in the weeks following former President Donald Trump’s loss in the Nov. 3 election, which he claimed was “rigged” with fraud. State election officials and federal courts rejected those claims as baseless.

Trump and his allies targeted absentee ballots and Georgia’s process for verifying signatures as ripe for fraud, though they gave no evidence backing their claims that widespread fraud occurred in the Nov. 3 election. Trump lost to Biden by 11,779 votes in Georgia.

An audit of more than 15,000 absentee ballots in Cobb County by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation also found no evidence of fraud. Still, state Republicans including Kemp and Raffensperger have urged lawmakers to do away with signature verification in favor of photo ID changes.

“We know there’s a lot of frustration out there,” Kemp said in a recent interview on Fox News. “I think it’s incumbent on us as policymakers to listen to people’s frustrations, but also at the end of the day make sure that we have secure, accessible and fair elections in the state.”

Voter advocates were quick to criticize Anavitarte’s bill after it was filed on Tuesday. They accused state Republicans of trying to change the rules of the game as Democrats gain momentum in Georgia elections.

“Georgians will see through these cynical power grabs, but it’s going to take a big fight on the part of everyone who cares about the right to vote in Georgia,” said the group Fair Fight, which was founded by former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. “Republicans are more desperate than ever to hold onto their waning power.”

Audits for Georgia tax breaks revived in General Assembly session

Georgia Senate members take the oath of office on the first day of the 2021 legislative session on Jan. 11, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Georgia senators advanced a bill Wednesday aimed at auditing up to five tax credit programs each year in a bid to curb wasteful loopholes in the state’s tax structure.

The bill, introduced by state Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, would appoint outside auditors to scrutinize the chosen tax programs on request from certain General Assembly committee heads. It passed the state Senate last February but was sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is a great opportunity for us to look at [tax credits] that are performing well … and others that may need to be tweaked or changed,” Albers told the state Senate Finance Committee Wednesday.

The revived audit bill comes as the committee looks to possibly clamp down on lucrative tax credits and exemptions in Georgia that supporters say attract economic activity and opponents argue diminishes the state’s already-tight revenues.

State Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, an anesthetist who has chaired the Finance Committee since mid-2019, has set his sights on taxes like the state’s tobacco levy to give lawmakers an alternative for drumming up new revenue instead of cutting spending during tough economic times.

Hufstetler said Wednesday lawmakers plan to propose a two-year study focusing on areas to trim the fat on Georgia’s entire $9.5 billion tax-incentive structure. Georgia’s tax incentives were last examined in a 2017 study.

“I think it’s time we take a look at it again,” Hufstetler said at Wednesday’s committee meeting.

Last year, lawmakers passed a tax on online retailers like Google and Amazon that has netted the state millions of dollars in additional revenue. But they rejected any changes to Georgia’s $4.5 billion tax break for films, which has been a boon to the state’s film industry but a thorn for fiscal hawks.

Renewed discussions over tax breaks come as the General Assembly grapples with state government budgets for 2021-22 that have been hit hard by the COVID-19 economic downturn. State tax revenues have picked up since summer, prompting Gov. Brian Kemp to avoid ordering more budget cuts.

Lawmakers like Hufstetler and analysts from the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute have called for increasing the state’s tax on tobacco from 37 cents a pack up to the national average of $1.81. That could raise up to $700 million in revenues per year, according to state budget estimates.

Kemp and other top Republican leaders have not yet said where they stand on raising the tobacco tax in the 2021 legislative session that kicked off earlier this month.

This story was updated to state the correct national tobacco-tax average of $1.81 per pack, not $1.35 as originally reported.