Legislative budget committee ramps up spending on education, public health

Georgia Rep. Terry England

ATLANTA – Georgia House budget writers approved a $26.3 billion mid-year state spending plan Wednesday, making few changes to Gov. Brian Kemp’s recommendations while pumping additional funds into education and public health.

With state tax collections stronger than expected amid a global pandemic, the governor is asking for $567 million to restore a large portion of the K-12 education cuts the General Assembly imposed in the current budget. The mid-year budget will cover state spending through June 30.

Kemp’s fiscal 2021 mid-year budget request also reflects a large influx of federal aid through last year’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to help the Georgia Department of Public Health with COVID-19 testing and vaccinations.

The House Appropriations Committee added $18 million to the mid-year budget Wednesday to buy a new public health surveillance system to help measure the state’s progress in vaccinating Georgians against the virus.

The committee also added $38.6 million to buy 500 new buses for school systems across the state.

While schools haven’t needed as many buses to take students to school during the pandemic because so many are staying home for online instruction, the buses haven’t been idle, Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England said Wednesday.

“A lot of systems have been using these buses to take meals to these kids during the week,” said England, R-Auburn.

Other significant additions to the mid-year budget the committee approved Wednesday include a plan to use existing funds for 10% pay raises for the state’s corrections officers, a move aimed at stemming the loss of trained officers to higher-paying jobs.

Committee members also earmarked $474,303 to hire more nursing home inspectors, $453,049 to add three positions to help run the state’s new hemp farming initiative and $427,401 to let the Georgia Bureau of Investigation add more medical examiners.

Another $50,345 would go to the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission for  information technology improvements, including a virtual call center.

The committee agreed with Kemp’s recommendations to spend $20 million to expand broadband connectivity in rural Georgia and put $1 million toward tourism marketing to help the hospitality industry recover from pandemic-related losses.

The full House will take up the mid-year budget on Thursday.

House bill seeks extension for COVID-19 liability protections in Georgia

Georgia House lawmakers gather for Day 6 of the 2021 legislative session on Jan. 27, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

COVID-19 liability protections for Georgia businesses and hospitals would be extended until July 14, 2022, under a bill introduced in the General Assembly.

Since August, the liability protections have shielded businesses and health-care facilities in Georgia from lawsuits brought by people who contract COVID-19 in all but the worst negligence or recklessness cases.

The bill, sponsored by Georgia House Majority Whip Trey Kelley, R-Cedartown, only calls for a one-year extension. However, it could undergo changes as lawmakers and lobbyists haggle over what level of liability protections to provide going forward.

After passing in late June, the liability protections were hailed by business leaders as a way for Georgia enterprises from mom-and-pop shops to sports stadiums to feel assured they will not face crippling litigation during the pandemic.

Unions and employee advocates worried Georgia workers will be left in the lurch as thousands of Georgia’s front-line and low-wage workers struggle to stay safe from the virus while keeping their jobs.

Republican lawmakers in the Georgia Senate took issue with the “gross negligence” threshold for bringing a damage claim, which they argued would be too weak to fully protect businesses and hospitals.

That threshold marked a compromise between health-care professionals, business leaders and trial attorneys in the final days of last year’s legislative session, which resumed in June after a three-month suspension due to COVID-19.

Kelley chairs the House Special Committee on Access to the Civil Justice System, where the liability protections were assigned for debate last June.

Casino gambling legislation introduced in General Assembly

ATLANTA – Georgia lawmakers again are considering whether to legalize casino gambling in the Peach State.

A constitutional amendment introduced in the Georgia House of Representatives Tuesday calls for a statewide referendum to authorize a limited number of “casino resorts” across the state.

A portion of the proceeds would go toward the HOPE Scholarship and other tuition and grant programs at both public and private colleges and universities as well as Technical College System of Georgia campuses. The money also would help cover the casinos’ operating expenses and fund programs for prevention and treatment of addictive gambling.

The legislation is sponsored by several longtime supporters of legalizing casinos, including Republican state Reps. Ron Stephens of Savannah, and Alan Powell of Hartwell, and Democratic Rep. Calvin Smyre of Columbus.

Stephens argued Georgia voters should have the right to decide whether to legalize casino gambling, which has drawn strong public support in numerous polls.

“Georgians support the economic opportunities presented by casino resorts, especially jobs and revenue that they would bring to local communities,” he said.

Legalizing casino gambling has long enjoyed the backing of the private sector. Officials at Atlanta Motor Speedway floated a plan last year to build a $1 billion casino resort adjacent to the racetrack in Hampton.

But interest in casinos goes far beyond the metro region. The developers who built The Battery, a mixed-use development that includes the Atlanta Braves’ Truist Park in Cobb County, have released renderings of proposed casino resorts on the Chattahoochee River near Columbus, on Lake Hartwell in Lavonia and in Midway south of Savannah.

“While it may seem that metro Atlanta would be an obvious location, rural Georgia may very well have better locations,” said Rick Lackey, founder of Atlanta-based City Commercial Real Estate, which recently announced it has more than 5,000 acres of potential casino resort sites under leasing agreements.

“Generally, successful destination resorts with casinos draw customers that can easily travel by car and are within 2-to-5-hour drive times of major population centers,” Lackey said.

Passing casino legislation will be a heavy lift for Georgia lawmakers. Constitutional amendments require two-thirds majorities in the state House and Senate, a hurdle that has been impossible to clear in past sessions amid opposition to legalized gambling mounted by religious conservatives.

The measure was assigned to the House Economic Development & Tourism Committee, which Stephens chairs.

The casino legislation is the second legalized gambling proposal to hit the General Assembly during the early days of the 2021 legislative session. Stephens introduced a bill earlier this month that would legalize online sports betting in Georgia.

Duncan backs no-excuse absentee voting in Georgia amid calls to eliminate

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan outlined his priorities for the 2021 legislative session at the State Capitol on Jan. 26, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan became the latest high-ranking Georgia Republican Tuesday to oppose ending no-excuse absentee voting following the state’s 2020 election cycle.

Duncan, who presides over the state Senate, said halting the ability of Georgians to request mail-in ballots for any reason besides just living out of state or due to disability should not be part of “meaningful election reform” state Republicans are seeking in the 2021 legislative session.

His stance mirrors Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, who earlier this month also urged Republican lawmakers to avoid proposals ending no-excuse absentee voting. Ralston wants to focus on changing voter ID laws to require photo identification when requesting mail-in ballots instead of signature verification.

“I think the best step forward is for us to just look for an opportunity to create a photo ID process,” Duncan said. “I think that best fits the needs of 11 million Georgians.”

While ending no-excuse absentee voting looks in doubt, top state Republicans including Duncan, Ralston, Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger have all called for tighter voter ID laws for requesting mail-in ballots – a move Democratic lawmakers oppose.

Efforts to change Georgia’s election laws will likely be among the top issues in the General Assembly session that began Jan. 11 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 amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Raffensperger, who is the state’s election chief, has pressed for limiting who can vote by mail after county election officials were overwhelmed with millions of absentee ballots in the June 9 primaries, the Nov. 3 general election and the Jan. 5 Senate runoffs.

The Georgia Senate Republican Caucus also called for eliminating no-excuse absentee voting after election fraud claims pushed by former President Donald Trump and his allies stirred mistrust among many Georgia conservatives over the state’s election integrity.

Duncan was among the first Republican state leaders to dismiss the election fraud claims, even as several Republican members of his chamber held hearings after Nov. 3 that let Trump’s allies air their claims unchecked. State election officials and federal courts repeatedly dismissed the claims.

Additionally, state Senate Republicans have pushed for outlawing the popular absentee ballot drop boxes used in the 2020 elections, a proposal Duncan said has “pros and cons” that should be settled in committee debates.

“I think that’s one of those issues where we’ll create a solid work product that an overwhelming majority of Georgians will agree with,” Duncan said Tuesday.

Democratic state lawmakers have condemned Republicans’ targeting of election laws, likening voter ID and absentee-voting changes as attempts at voter suppression. They have already filed bills to permit same-day voter registration, restore voting rights for felons and require counties to set up absentee drop boxes.

Duncan also said Tuesday he wants to focus this session on legislation aimed at improving foster-care services in Georgia, creating a new special-needs scholarship and changing the state’s controversial citizen’s arrest law.

Georgia Board of Natural Resources OKs nine outdoor recreation projects

Amicalola Falls State Park

ATLANTA – The Georgia Board of Natural Resources Tuesday approved nine parks, renovation and land acquisition projects worth about $20 million, the second round of funding through the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act.

Georgia voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in 2018 creating a dedicated fund for outdoor recreation projects. The funding comes from a tax on purchases of sporting goods.

After considering 51 project proposals submitted by state agencies, local governments and nonprofit conservation groups, board members unanimously approved the following projects:

  • $4.6 million for the second phase of the planned state acquisition of the 16,083-acre Ceylon property, the largest undeveloped tract of coastal Georgia, located along the Satilla River in Camden County. 
  • $3.2 million to reconstruct the visitor center at Wormsloe State Historic Site near Savannah.
  • $2.6 million in renovations to the campground at Vogel State Park in Blairsville.
  • $2.6 million in repairs to the approach trail entrance at the Amicalola Falls State Park Visitor Center near Dawsonville.
  • $2.1 million for construction of the first phase of the Firefly Trail Southern Segment in Greene County.
  • $2.0 million for acquisition and restoration of the Dugdown Corridor in Paulding and Polk counties.
  • $1.8 million for the Oakfuskee Conservation Center at West Point Lake.
  • $997,501 for a boardwalk and connection bridge at the Chattahoochee Nature Center in Roswell.
  • $635,620 to purchase a conservation easement at the Birdsong Nature Center in Thomasville.

Before gaining the final approval to move forward, the projects must go before two legislative appropriations subcommittees, one run by the Georgia House and the other by the state Senate. Those votes are expected to take place next month.

The first round of funding through the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act last year generated $20 million for 14 projects.