Kemp lifts mask mandates in schools as COVID-19 threat declines

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp signed an executive order Friday prohibiting schools from requiring students or employees to wear masks.

The lifting of mask requirements was among several restrictions the governor is eliminating as the coronavirus pandemic winds down in Georgia.

“As hospitalizations, cases, deaths, and percent positive tests all continue to decline – and with vaccinations on the rise – Georgians deserve to fully return to normal,” Kemp said.

“With safe and effective vaccines widely available and the public well-aware of all COVID-19 mitigation measures, mandates from state and local governments are no longer needed.”

Effective Monday and continuing through June 15, Kemp’s order eliminates COVID-related rules for restaurants, bars, conventions, live performance venues and child-care facilities. Previous executive orders repealed regulations for camps and sporting events.

The order lifting mask mandates in Georgia schools comes as school districts are wrapping up their 2020-21 terms. Most students won’t return to the classrooms for the fall semester until early-to-mid August.

Robins Air Force Base to lose JSTARS, gain new missions

Robins Air Force Base

ATLANTA – The U.S. Air Force soon will replace its 30-year-old fleet of JSTARS aircraft based at Robins Air Force Base with modernized technology to meet today’s threats, the Air Force and members of Georgia’s congressional delegation announced Friday.

The phased-in retirement of the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System will begin during fiscal 2022 with four JSTARS aircraft, Acting Air Force Secretary John Roth said during a press conference.

All of the JSTARS aircraft will be replaced during the next five to six years with four new missions that will take advantage of the expertise Robins employees have developed during the last three decades, Roth said.

“Our intent is to leverage the workforce that’s there and give them a more modern forward-looking mission,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., said all current active-duty Robins personnel will have a role in the new missions under a commitment the Air Force made to then-Sen. Johnny Isakson in 2018. Robins currently employs 23,000 active-duty personnel, Air National Guard members and civilians.

“There’s no community that loves the Air Force like Warner Robins,” Warnock said. “All of us are committed to work with the Air Force to bring these missions to fruition.”

Roth said the missions being assigned to Robins will include the Advanced Battle Management System, which will use a cloud-based digital system to speed data sharing and decision making in responding to threats from adversaries.

“The threats coming from China and Russia are smarter, faster and more powerful,” said U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, whose 8th Congressional District includes Robins Air Force Base. “We have to pick them up early.”

Roth said Robins also will serve as home base for an air control squadron led by the Georgia Air National Guard that will focus on the Middle East, E11 aircraft equipped with cutting-edge communications capabilities and a spectrum warfare group capable of cyber warfare.

Roth said the Macon-to-Atlanta corridor is blessed with a huge supply of hardware and software experts who would be good fits for the spectrum warfare group.

“Robins Air Force Base is critical to our national security,” said Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga. “These upgrades will ensure that this base is strong for decades to come.”

Republican divisions expected to highlight state convention

ATLANTA – Sharply divided Georgia Republicans will gather on Jekyll Island June 4-5 for the party’s biennial state convention.

On one side of the split are loyalists to former President Donald Trump who believe last November’s election was stolen from him and that Democrat Joe Biden is not a legitimate president.

“The Georgia Republican Party is the party of Trump,” said Debbie Dooley, who became active in Georgia politics by helping to found the national Tea Party more than a decade ago.

On the other side are Republicans disappointed with but accepting of Biden’s victory who believe dwelling on Trump’s defeat is hurting the party’s future prospects.

“Staying stuck with what happened in 2020 isn’t going to win back voters we lost,” said Buzz Brockway, a former state representative from Gwinnett County who ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state in 2018. “The vast majority of Georgians want to move on.”

While Republicans who want to put aside last year’s results  are backing the re-election bids of Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, those loyal to Trump are joining his call for mounting GOP primary challenges against the two incumbents.

Kemp, Raffensperger and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan refused to back Trump’s attempts to overturn Biden’s narrow victory in Georgia or support the flurry of lawsuits alleging voter fraud, all of which were eventually dismissed for lack of evidence.

Duncan was the most vocal in refuting the “Big Lie” that Trump actually carried Georgia, appearing frequently on national cable news outlets. The lieutenant governor announced two weeks ago he wouldn’t seek a second term.

“Duncan seemed to take the Liz Cheney route and be very aggressive about it,” said Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University, referring to the Wyoming congresswoman drummed out of House Republican leadership for voting in January to impeach Trump and condemning the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters. “He made himself unelectable.”

Swint said Kemp appears better positioned for re-election than Raffensperger, who is being challenged for the Republican nomination for secretary of state by U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Greensboro, and former Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle.

Kemp, on the other hand, has yet to draw a high-profile GOP primary opponent, although former state Rep. Vernon Jones, a Democrat turned Republican from DeKalb County, has entered the gubernatorial primary contest.

Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said the absence of a top-tier primary opponent could force some Trump loyalists to back the governor.

“If no strong person comes forward to run against him, there may not be any place to go,” Bullock said.

But Dooley warned against underestimating Jones, who established himself as a strong supporter of Trump by appearing at the then-president’s campaign rallies and echoing Trump’s “Stop the Steal” message.

“Vernon Jones was fighting election fraud when Brian Kemp was sitting on the sidelines cowering,” she said. “I have faith in Vernon Jones. He’s charismatic, just like Trump, because both speak from the heart.”

Dooley said the momentum going into the state convention is with the Trump loyalists. She started a group on Facebook dedicated to defeating Kemp and Raffensperger and said it’s adding 200 members a week.

Several congressional district Republican conventions around the state earlier this month passed resolutions condemning Duncan and Raffensperger for not fighting to overturn Trump’s loss in Georgia, and delegates at the 7th Congressional District convention in Atlanta’s northeastern suburbs also condemned Kemp.

Brockway conceded Raffensperger “is in for a fight” to recapture the Republican nomination for secretary of state. But he said Kemp is in better shape to win the gubernatorial nod.

The governor has taken a number of steps in recent weeks to build support inside the GOP. He got behind controversial  legislation overhauling Georgia’s election laws that is popular among Republicans, opposed a proposed Biden administration education plan to emphasize the existence of systemic racism throughout America’s history and banned state agencies from requiring COVID-19 “vaccine passports.”

Brockway said Kemp also deserves credit for keeping Georgia’s economy open during the coronavirus pandemic, mitigating the losses suffered by Georgia businesses.

“I believe when the emotion dies down and people look at Governor Kemp’s record, there’s a lot for Republicans and independents to be proud of,” Brockway said.

“He’s made every conservative move he possibly can,” Swint added. “[But] he’s still going to suffer some blowback. … Trump hates him because he wouldn’t overturn the election.”

The divisions among Georgia Republicans have Democrats salivating at their prospects for 2022.

“Less than a year out from their primaries, the Georgia GOP is an absolute mess,” said Rebecca Galanti, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Georgia.

“As the Georgia GOP drives itself off the rails to please the far right, Georgia Democrats will be laser-focused on the issues that actually matter to Georgians – helping communities recover, expanding access to affordable health care and growing economic opportunities here at home.”

But Swint said Democrats will have to be careful to keep to the center politically and not stray too far to the left.

“There’s potential everywhere,” he said. “[But] they have to handle it right and try to maintain their coalition of suburban Atlanta voters with other pockets around the state.”

Former North Georgia judge heading to prison after corruption convictions

ATLANTA – A former chief magistrate judge in Pickens County has been sentenced to 15 years in prison for corruption, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr announced Thursday.

William “Allen” Wigington was found guilty of 44 felonies and five misdemeanors for a variety of crimes, including racketeering, forgery, theft by taking, unauthorized use of a financial transaction card and violating his oath of office.

“Mr. Wigington violated the public’s trust in the worst way, and he will now serve time for his deceitful behavior,” Carr said Thursday. “The theft of taxpayer funds will not go unpunished, and we will continue to root out this type of public corruption in our state.”

An investigation into Wigington’s crimes began when the secretary of a Masonic lodge in Jasper where he was treasurer noticed in 2019 that he had paid his personal credit card bill using the lodge’s bank account.

A joint investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Pickens County Sheriff’s Office last year revealed Wigington had been using his county-issued credit card to purchase thousands of dollars of personal items from Amazon. He also was found to have been billing the county for trips in 2017, 2018 and 2019 that turned out to be family vacations.

In another incident, a local defense attorney gave Wigington $200 to buy a suit for a high school student who had been selected to participate in a mock trial. Wigington pocketed the money instead and used his county purchasing card to buy one suit for himself and another for the student.

Wigington was appointed chief magistrate judge in Pickens in 2011. He resigned early last year because of the charges.

Carr said Wigington will serve five years of his sentence followed by the remainder on probation.

Georgia scores AAA bond rating again this year

Gov. Brian Kemp

ATLANTA – The state of Georgia will be able to able to sell more than $1.1 billion in bonds next month for building projects at the lowest possible interest rates.

The three main credit rating agencies have again given the Peach State a AAA rating on its general obligation bonds, Gov. Brian Kemp announced Thursday.

Georgia has benefited from AAA ratings for decades, but that top score was far from guaranteed in 2021.

“In a year of unprecedented challenges – working with the General Assembly – we cut taxes, balanced the state’s budget, invested in essential services and avoided draconian budget cuts,” Kemp said.

“These decisions resulted in an unemployment rate below the national average and the lowest of the 10 most populated states, record job and investment growth and being named the top state for business for the eighth year in a row.”

The state’s financial situation looked precarious last year. After the coronavirus pandemic forced businesses to close and lay off workers, Kemp and the legislature imposed 10% spending cuts on state agencies across the board.

But the pandemic-driven recession didn’t have nearly as much impact on tax collections as had been expected. As a result, the fiscal 2022 state budget taking effect July 1 restores many of this year’s spending reductions.

Georgia is among only nine states to receive a AAA credit rating on its general obligation bonds this year from Fitch Ratings, Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings.

“Georgia’s AAA long-term rating is supported by our view of the state’s overall strong credit fundamentals, including its large and diverse economic base that exhibited comparative resilience relative to the U.S. in light of uncertain public health and safety risks presented by COVID-19,” S&P wrote.

“In our view, Georgia made necessary budget adjustments and emerged from this challenging social and economic landscape in a comparatively steady financial position.”