Public-school sports, clubs open to Georgia home-schoolers in passed bill

Home-school students in Georgia would be allowed to play sports and join clubs at public schools under legislation that cleared the General Assembly Wednesday.

The bill, sponsored by Senate Rules Committee Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, lets home-schoolers participate in public-school extracurricular activities like athletics, band and theater as long as they fulfill certain academic requirements and reside in the same district as a particular school.

The measure also removes discipline from factoring into a five-star rating system for Georgia public schools and districts that assesses a school’s health, safety and attendance, which was the original intent of Mullis’ bill.

Allowing home-school students to access public-school activities comes after years of false starts in the state House of Representatives and aims to “bring the public school and the home school communities together,” said Sen. Bruce Thompson, R-White, who pushed for the measure.

The state Senate passed the bill 35-18 nearly along party lines with Democratic Sen. Sally Harrell of Atlanta voting in favor. It now heads to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk after clearing the House on Monday by a 149-13 vote.

The home-school measure was named after the late Dexter Mosely, a Dunwoody resident whose children were home-schooled athletes. It has previously been called the “Tim Tebow Act” named after the former University of Florida football start who was home-schooled.

Opponents warned adding home-school students in the mix with public schools could increase costs for local districts and put school administrators in a tough position of picking which home-schoolers to allow for their schools’ activities.

“I urge caution,” said Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah. “I think this bill still needs some work to be done.”

Beyond the home-school measure, backers of Mullis’ bill argued removing discipline for school climate ratings would encourage teachers to actually punish bad-acting students rather than shirking that responsibility.

Many schools skip disciplining students to avoid poor scores that could hurt future enrollment, supporters said.

Opponents argued scrapping the discipline score would hollow out the school-climate rating system, clouding over public reporting on problematic schools and gutting a tool intended to hold schools accountable for frequent behavioral issues among students.

Lawmakers tweaked the bill to require that schools and school districts maintain separate data on disciplining that would have to be provided upon request by a parent or community member.

The story has been updated to correctly state that Sen. Harrell voted in favor of the bill, not against as originally stated.

Georgia lawmakers choose permanent daylight saving time

ATLANTA – The General Assembly decided Wednesday to leave the standard versus daylight saving time debate up to Congress.

On the final day of this year’s legislative session, the state Senate voted 45-6 to put Georgia on daylight saving time permanently. But under federal law, that change can take place only if Congress makes daylight time permanent nationwide.

The Senate, which passed legislation in February to put Georgia on standard time all year long, voted instead on Wednesday to side with the Georgia House of Representatives, which favored year-round daylight time.

The one point of agreement between the two chambers throughout the 2021 General Assembly session was that Georgia should stop switching back and forth between standard and daylight time twice a year.

Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah, and Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, who sponsored two competing versions of the bill, cited a number of studies to their legislative colleagues describing disruptions to sleep patterns and more serious health issues that increase in frequency following time changes, particularly the yearly “swing forward” shift from standard to daylight time.

However, Georgians will continue switching back and forth under the bill that gained final passage Wednesday, unless and until Congress takes action. The legislation now heads to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature.

Kemp, Raffensperger defend election overhaul bill

Gov. Brian Kemp

ATLANTA – Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger pushed back Tuesday against criticism of the elections overhaul the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed last week.

Democrats including President Joe Biden and voting rights advocacy groups have slammed the legislation as part of a bid by GOP state lawmakers across the country at voter suppression following Republican defeats in last year’s elections.

The bill imposes new ID requirements on absentee voting, limits the placement of drop boxes for absentee ballots to inside election offices and early voting locations, and gives state election officials the authority to take over poor-performing local election boards.

But Kemp noted Tuesday the bill also expands early voting to two Saturdays and gives counties the option to hold poll hours on two Sundays. An earlier version of the legislation had proposed shrinking early voting on Sundays.

“How is this suppression when you’re adding opportunities for more weekend voting?” the governor asked.

Kemp also pointed out that the bill codifies drop boxes for absentee ballots for the first time in Georgia. Drop boxes were allowed during the last election cycle as part of the public health emergency he declared because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The other side is trying to act like something was going to be taken away,” he said. “If we hadn’t addressed [the drop boxes] in this bill, they would have gone away.”

Kemp said the bill does away with the signature match method for processing absentee ballots in favor of a voter ID requirement to ease the burden on local elections officials.

The huge surge of absentee voting in the 2020 election cycle due to the virus was cumbersome on local elections officials forced to match signatures, he said.

“[Going to voter ID] is going to help elections officials speed up the process,” he said.

The governor defended a controversial ban on non-poll workers handing out food and drinks within 150 feet of voters waiting in line outside polling places as a way to prevent illegal electioneering.

“We’ve had rules about electioneering within 150 feet of the polls for a long time,” he said. “The real question ought to be why are they standing in line so long? … People ought to be able to vote in 30 minutes to an hour.”

Raffensperger said the new law will still let groups give “nonpartisan, bipartisan water without campaign stickers” to poll workers who will distribute it.

But the secretary of state stopped short of giving the bill a full endorsement, noting other contentious measures that strip him of voting powers on the State Election Board. Instead, the new law calls for the board to be chaired by an official appointed by either the General Assembly or the governor.

“When you have direct accountability and you have an elected official at the top, then the voters can hold that person accountable,” Raffensperger said. “What you really are creating is a little mini-Washington, D.C., a non-accountable board … [where] no one gets anything done. … I think at some point they’ll regret this decision.”

Meanwhile, Kemp’s signing of the election bill has drawn a trio of lawsuits aimed at blocking the voting measures from taking effect on grounds they suppress voter access, particularly in Black and low-income communities.

Attorneys representing a host of suing groups including the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the New Georgia Project argue the election changes violate the federal Voting Rights Act and constitutional free-speech rights.

“It’s essentially a storm that the legislature and the governor have unnecessarily created that they’re leaving for others to address,” said Nancy Abudu, the SPLC’s deputy legal director for voting rights. “Our lawsuit is taking this issue directly to the courts in an effort to block this behavior, this suppressive attempt.”

The suing groups dismiss arguments that the law expands voter access by adding more weekend early-voting hours and officially legalizing drop boxes by pointing to the totality of the law.

“Each of these provisions taken together demonstrate very clearly that this law is aimed at suppressing the vote, not expanding it,” said Sophia Lin Lakin, deputy director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “Picking apart each individual provision … is simply ignoring the fulsome thrust of the really terrible impact of this law.”

Kemp accused the law’s opponents of pushing a narrative aimed at benefiting Democrats politically. He cited as an example Biden’s portrayal of the law as a “Jim Crow in the 21st century” blow at voting rights won during the long civil rights struggle in America.

“We know their playbook,” Kemp said. “They target certain sections of the bill. Then, when it changes, they target something else.”

Tougher penalties for mail theft in Georgia close to clearing General Assembly

Package and mail thieves are close to facing stiffer penalties in Georgia under legislation criminalizing so-called “porch piracy” that neared final passage in the General Assembly on Monday.

Sponsored by Rep. Bonnie Rich, R-Suwanee, the bill makes it a felony to be caught in possession of at least 10 different pieces of stolen mail that is addressed to three or more separate recipients – even if it is unclear who exactly stole the mail.

The bill also makes it a felony to steal three or more envelopes, bags, packages or other mailed items from the porch, front or back entrance of a residence. Conviction for porch piracy could carry prison time, according to the bill.

Defending her bill earlier this month, Rich said the tougher penalties aim to curb mail-theft crimes that have been on the rise since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out more than a year ago.

“This was a problem before the pandemic,” Rich told the Senate Judiciary Committee at a hearing two weeks ago. “It has become even more of a problem now.”

The bill passed in the state Senate by a 38-14 vote on Monday and heads back to the Georgia House of Representatives after clearing that chamber by a 101-67 early this month, with some Democratic lawmakers in both chambers voting in favor.

Keith Spears, an Atlanta-based U.S. Postal Service inspector, told lawmakers at the hearing that porch piracy and mailbox theft have become favorite targets for organized crime rings due to weak local laws. Elderly and low-income persons living in apartment complexes are especially targeted by mail thieves, Spears said.

“We’re seeing gangs moving from narcotics trafficking into fraud of this nature,” Spears said. “I think this would be a huge tool for local law enforcement for us to work together with them and to protect Georgians.”

Opponents questioned the rigor of the bill’s penalties, noting mail thieves could face more jail time and a worse criminal record than for petty theft at a retail store. They sought unsuccessfully for Rich’s bill to include a minimum dollar value to merit felony charges.

“It just seems to me to be bizarre to split public policy in that regard,” said Thomas Weaver, a Cherokee County resident.

This story was corrected to reflect Rep. Rich’s bill had not gained final passage in the General Assembly as of Monday, March 29.

Criminal-justice bills headed to governor’s desk

ATLANTA – A lot of legislative business remains unsettled entering the final day of this year’s General Assembly session.

But lawmakers won’t have to deal with a couple of measures on Wednesday that gained final passage on Monday.

The legislature sent to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk for his signature two bills related to criminal justice that would let some Georgia offenders gain early release from probation and improve the processing and tracking of sexual-assault kits.

The early-probation bill, which passed the House 169-2 on Monday, is aimed at reducing Georgia’s third-highest-in-the-nation probation population.

It would let first-time felons in Georgia sentenced to prison for 12 months or fewer seek early termination of their probation after they’ve been released, paid court fines and avoided another run-in with the law for two years.

Probationers would be allowed to petition courts for early termination of their supervision terms after three years.

“This bill provides an incentive for those on probation to behave,” said Rep. Tyler Paul Smith, R-Bremen , who carried the bill in the House.

The sexual-assaults test kit bill, which passed both the House and Senate unanimously, is intended to resolve a chronic backlog of incomplete forensic tests in Georgia that only recently started to decline.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, would create a statewide tracking system to tally the number, location and processing status of sexual-assault kits. Victims would not need to file criminal charges to complete assault tests and could receive updates anonymously on their kit’s status.

With Holcomb’s bill, the tracking system would be set up with funding from the state Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and see Georgia join 27 other states with similar systems, said Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, who carried the bill in the Senate.

“The goal is to improve information and ultimately put bad actors away,” Albers said. “Overall, these measures will improve the state’s response to sexual assaults.”