Kemp signs human-trafficking bills to protect victims, add awareness course

Gov. Brian Kemp (front) and first lady Marty Kemp (behind) have prioritized cracking down on human trafficking since the governor took office in 2019. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Gov. Brian Kemp signed three bills Tuesday aimed at boosting protections for victims of human trafficking in Georgia and raising awareness for children on the dangers and signs of trafficking.

The newly enacted measures mark the latest steps by Kemp’s administration and First Lady Marty Kemp, who heads the trafficking-focused GRACE Commission, to combat human traffickers and help victims in the metro Atlanta and elsewhere in the state.

“If you are someone who’s trapped, someone currently being trafficked, know that we will not stop until you are set free,” Kemp said at a bill-signing ceremony in Buford. “We are working daily to support you and to help you, and to go after those who are victimizing you.”

Two bills the governor signed allow trafficking victims and Georgia’s attorney general to bring lawsuits against traffickers and their associates to recover monetary damages, and let victims file name-change petitions under court seal to shield their identities.

A third measure adds a course on human-trafficking awareness to grades six through 12 in Georgia schools, as well as new courses on the harms of vaping and tobacco use for all grades to supplement existing instruction on drugs and alcohol.

All three bills passed unanimously in the General Assembly during this year’s legislative session. They were sponsored by state Sen. Clint Dixon, R-Buford, who is one of Kemp’s floor leaders, and Georgia Rep. Bonnie Rich, R-Suwanee.

Lawmakers also passed measures last year that Kemp signed to toughen penalties for commercial drivers with human-trafficking criminal convictions and allow victims to clear their court records of any offenses stemming from activities while they were being trafficked.

Kemp has made fighting human trafficking a priority since taking office in 2019, charging the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to crack down harder on traffickers through a multi-agency task force.

Those efforts come alongside a push led by Marty Kemp to increase awareness over how to spot trafficking and protect victims via a new hotline launched last fall to alert law enforcement officers of sexual or labor exploitation and to receive help for victims.

She also spearheaded a trafficking-awareness course on how to spot abuse that thousands of state government employees have completed over the past year.

“With these important initiatives, we can continue taking important steps to end modern-day slavery and ensure that our state is a safe haven for those who have been victimized,” Marty Kemp said at Tuesday’s bill signings. “These are only the most recent steps in the ongoing fight to end human trafficking, and certainly not our last.”

Stone Mountain Confederate carving exhibit, flag relocation plans pitched

Rev. Abraham Mosley, chairman of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, discusses proposals for a new exhibit on the park’s Confederal carving and relocating Confederate flags after a meeting on April 26, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Stone Mountain could see changes around the park’s controversial Confederate carving and other symbols under proposals expected to face votes next month.

Recommendations to set up a new museum exhibit telling the checkered history of the large Confederate mountainside carving and to relocate Confederate flags at the park were pitched at a Stone Mountain Memorial Association board meeting Monday.

Monday’s meeting was the first chaired by Rev. Abraham Mosley, who was tapped last week as the association’s first Black chairman after serving on its board of directors since 2019. Mosley said the exhibit and relocation proposals mark a “good start” to address widespread problems with the park.

“You can’t get there overnight,” Mosley said after Monday’s meeting. “If you’re going to walk a mile, you’ve got to take that first step.”

The giant carving has long faced outrage as a symbol glorifying the Confederacy, depicting Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. The adjacent park features Confederate flags and street names also targeted for removal and renaming.

Efforts to erase the carving gained steam amid recent nationwide protests against racism and police brutality but remain hamstrung by a state law enacted in 2001 that forbids altering or removing “the memorial to the heroes of the Confederate States of America graven upon the face of Stone Mountain.”

That law was bolstered by legislation the General Assembly passed and Gov. Brian Kemp signed in 2019 that bans removing, relocating or defacing monuments and other historical symbolsowned by state agencies including those dedicated to the Confederacy.

Despite legal limitations, the association’s CEO, Bill Stephens, unveiled recommendations Monday to build a new exhibit that “tells the story of the carving” including the park’s 1915 hosting of a revived Ku Klux Klan.

His proposals call for relocating Confederate flagsin the park, renaming Stone Mountain’s Confederate Hall Historical and Environmental Education Center to “Heritage Hall,” renaming certain streets like Highway 78 in honor of Georgia leaders and building a chapel on the mountain’s summit.

Stephens said the proposals aim to ease concerns from potential new corporate partners looking to fill the sponsorship gap left by Marriott, which he said does not plan on renewing a longstanding partnership with the park to run its main hotel and conference center that is set to expire in 2022.

The proposals also aim to curb heavy financial losses seen during the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing uproar over Confederate symbols that hacked the park’s revenues from $49 million in 2019 to $22 million last year, Stephens said.

“Economically, we can’t stay the way we are,” Stephens said at Monday’s meeting. “Change is inevitable. We can either take charge of it or be defined by it.”

Representatives from Georgia’s NAACP chapter and the advocacy group Stone Mountain Action Coalition praised the proposals Monday but argued they do not go far enough to heal wounds caused by the park’s ties to the Confederacy.

“Bigger changes need to be made,” said Bona Allen, a member of the coalition whose ancestor fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. “You have the authority, you have the obligation and you have the ability to remove these symbols immediately.”

State Rep. Billy Mitchell, D-Stone Mountain, highlighted legislation he brought in the General Assembly this year that would allow the association to remove the carving. His bill stalled in the 2021 legislative session but will be alive for consideration when lawmakers return next January.

Opponents and Confederacy backers pointed out the proposed changes could run afoul of state law and urged the association board to instead promote so-called “heritage tourism” that could include dramatized tours of the park with guides in period costumes.

“[Tourists] come here to see the antebellum South,” said Tim Pilgrim, division commander of Georgia’s Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter. “They want to see soldiers. … They want to see ‘Gone with the Wind,’ Tara. … And this is especially true of foreign visitors.”

Mosley said he expects the board to vote on the proposals during next month’s meeting.

Georgia to keep 14 congressional seats following 2020 Census

The 2010 Census divided Georgia into 14 congressional districts.

ATLANTA – Georgia will not be allocated additional congressional seats by the U.S. Census during the coming decade for the first time since the 1980s.

The first 2020 Census numbers released Monday by the U.S. Census Bureau show Georgia will retain the same 14 U.S. House districts the Peach State was awarded following the 2010 Census. Combined with the state’s two U.S. senators, that will give Georgia 16 electoral votes for the 2024 and 2028 presidential elections.

Georgia is among 37 states that will neither gain nor lose congressional seats, Ron Jarmin, the Census Bureau’s acting director, told reporters during a news conference. Only 13 states will gain or lose seats, the smallest shift since 1941, he said.

The state of Texas will gain two congressional seats, while five other states – Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon – will gain one each.

Each of seven states – California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia – will lose one seat.

Jarmin said the relatively small number of states adding or losing congressional seats reflected the second slowest population growth in history for the nation as a whole.

The U.S. population as of April 1, 2020, stood at 331.4 million, up 7.4% over the 2010 Census.

The South was the nation’s fastest growing region during the past decade, with a population increase of 10.2%. The West was next at 9.2%. The Northeast and Midwest grew at much slower rates, 4.1% and 3.1% respectively.

Utah was the fastest growing state in the U.S., with a population increase of 18.4%. Among just three states that lost population during the last decade, West Virginia’s 3.2% decline was the largest.

Georgia remains the nation’s eighth-most populous state with a population of 10.7 million, up from 9.7 million a decade ago.

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said the 2020 Census was hampered not only by the coronavirus pandemic but by wildfires in the West and a particularly active hurricane season.

The Census Bureau originally expected to release the first numbers by the end of last month but was delayed.

“2020 brought unprecedented challenges,” Raimondo said. “The Census Bureau had to quickly adopt its operations to confront these challenges head on.”

The 2020 Census – the 24th once-a-decade population count in U.S. history going back to 1790 – was the first to be conducted online.

Jarmin said two-thirds of Americans completed the census on their own between January and March of last year. Census takers were sent out in person to contact those who did not respond online, with an emphasis on historically undercounted areas, he said.

The General Assembly will use local data the Census Bureau will release later this year to redraw Georgia’s congressional and legislative district boundaries to reflect shifts in population within the state.

Georgia had 10 congressional districts throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Rapid population growth led the Census Bureau to allocate an 11th House seat to Georgia following the 1990 Census, 13 seats after the 2000 population count and 14 seats following the 2010 Census.

Doug Collins won’t run for office in Georgia during 2022 elections

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins rallied in his hometown Gainesville during his campaign for U.S. Senate on Aug. 28, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Former U.S. Rep. Doug Collins announced Monday he will not run for any office in the 2022 election cycle, ending speculation over potential bids for top statewide seats.

Collins, who lost an open-format election for one of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats last fall, said he aims to play a role in “shaping our conservative message” to help Republicans win back majorities in Congress.

“For those who may wonder, this is goodbye for now, but probably not forever,” Collins said in an announcement on social media Monday. “I believe that we, as conservatives, must be able to clearly communicate our values, and I will help keep that fight going.”

A Baptist pastor and U.S. Air Force Reserve chaplain from Gainesville, Collins joined the Clarkesville-based law firm Oliver & Weidner in February after placing third in the open-party special election to replace retired Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson last November.

Collins waged a fierce battle for a majority share of conservative voters in the special election against then-Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to hold Isakson’s seat until the election. Loeffler then lost to Democrat Raphael Warnock in the Jan. 5 runoff.

Collins served four terms from 2013 until 2021 representing Georgia’s 9th Congressional District, which stretches from Gainesville and Athens northeast to the South Carolina border. U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde of Jackson now holds that seat.

Prior to his Senate campaign, Collins served a stint as ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, where he gained national attention as one of then-President Donald Trump’s most vocal supporters during Trump’s first impeachment inquiry in 2019.

Collins was Trump’s preferred pick over Loeffler for Gov. Brian Kemp’s appointment to the vacant Senate seat, opening a rift within Republican ranks between the president and Georgia’s governor that continued through the January runoffs and amid Trump’s claims of voter fraud in the 2020 elections that state officials and federal courts repeatedly rejected.

Georgia Republican losses this past election cycle prompted speculation Collins might challenge Kemp in his 2022 reelection campaign or seek a rematch against Warnock, who has already drawn several Republican challengers in recent weeks.

Collins’ backing out of 2022 races comes amid mounting speculation that former University of Georgia football star Herschel Walker may challenge Warnock in the upcoming cycle.

Walker’s potential candidacy picked up steam last month after Trump urged him to run for the Senate as a Republican, calling the 1982 Heisman Trophy winner “fantastic” and “unstoppable.” Walker has not yet announced whether he will run against Warnock.

Plant Vogtle expansion hits two key milestones

A 720,000-pound water tank is placed atop the Unit 4 containment vessel at Plant Vogtle. Credit: Georgia Power Co.

ATLANTA – Georgia Power Co. has achieved two important milestones in the construction of two additional nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle, the Atlanta-based utility announced Monday.

Hot functional testing has begun on the first of the new reactors, Unit 3, at the plant south of Augusta. That’s the final series of major tests the reactor must pass prior to initial fuel load.

Hot functional testing is conducted to confirm whether the reactor is ready for the loading of fuel.

During the next six to eight weeks, operators will use the heat generated by Unit 3’s four reactor coolant pumps to raise the temperature and pressure of plant systems to normal operating levels. At that point, the unit’s main turbine will be raised to normal operating speed, allowing operators to exercise and validate procedures required prior to fuel loading.

Meanwhile, all modules for both units 3 and 4 have now been set with the lifting into place of a 720,000-pound water tank atop Unit 4’s containment vessel, the last major crane lift at the project site.

The tank, which stands 35 feet tall, will hold about 750,000 gallons of water ready to help cool the reactor in case of an emergency.

Unit 3 was due to go into service this November but could be delayed by a month or more, according to an announcement from Georgia Power last month. Unit 4 is scheduled to begin operations late next year.

Expected to cost about $14 billion when the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) approved the project in 2009, the price tag of the nuclear expansion has nearly doubled primarily due to the bankruptcy of Westinghouse Electric, the original prime contractor.

The project’s critics have long argued Georgia Power should pursue renewable energy more aggressively and stop investing in nuclear power.

Both Georgia Power executives and members of the PSC have countered that Georgia must be able to rely on a diverse range of power-generating options to keep electric rates affordable.

The first two nuclear reactors built at Plant Vogtle went into service during the late 1980s.