Kemp bans vaccine passports in Georgia

Georgia Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey (right) receives the COVID-19 vaccine as Gov. Brian Kemp (left) watches on Dec. 17, 2020. (Kemp Twitter photo)

ATLANTA –  Gov. Brian Kemp signed an executive order Tuesday prohibiting state agencies, state service providers, and state properties from requiring COVID-19 vaccine passports.

The order also forbids vaccine passports as a condition for entering Georgia and prohibits state agencies from treating unvaccinated employees differently from those who have received vaccinations.

“While I continue to urge all Georgians to get vaccinated so we continue our momentum in putting the COVID-19 pandemic in the rearview, vaccination is a personal decision between each citizen and a medical professional – not state government,” Kemp said in a prepared statement.

“This order also clearly states that data held by the Georgia Department of Public Health and their immunization system will not be used by any public or private entity for a vaccine passport program.”

Other Republican-led states have taken similar steps to ban state agencies from requiring vaccine passports, while some have gone further by banning private businesses from requiring such documentation.

But some countries have moved to require travelers to show proof they’ve been vaccinated against the virus or proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test as a condition for entry.

In California, venues can allow more people to enter if they prove they have received vaccinations.

Georgia completes purchase of pristine Ceylon tract

The Ceylon tract (Photo Credit: Open Space Institute)

ATLANTA – The Georgia Board of Natural Resources voted Tuesday to acquire 11,662 acres of undeveloped coastal habitat in southeastern Georgia slated to become part of a state wildlife management area.

The site represents about three-quarters of the so-called Ceylon tract in Camden County. The state already has purchased the remaining 4,320 acres from The Conservation Fund and the Open Space Institute.

The Ceylon tract, the largest undeveloped tract of coastal Georgia, is located along the south bank of the Satilla River. The diverse landscape of salt marshes, tidal creeks and longleaf pine forests is home to threatened and endangered species including the gopher tortoise and indigo snake.

The site is close enough to the Interstate 95 corridor that it likely would be developed without the state and the conservation groups stepping in.

“This property is zoned to be able to take over 20,000 single-family homes, high density,” said Andrew Schock, Georgia state director for the Conservation Fund. “Three million square feet of commercial space and up to two deep-water marinas all were possible on this site.”

The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) got a lot of help coming up with the $17.5 million purchase price for the acquisitions approved Tuesday. The Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Fund, a tax on the sale of sporting goods approved by Georgia voters in 2018, put up $4.6 million, Steve Friedman, the DNR’s chief of real estate, told board members Tuesday.

Other contributions came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Atlanta-based Woodruff Foundation, the Bobolink Foundation and the Knobloch Family Foundation, Friedman said.

The U.S. Navy donated $5 million for a conservation easement, Friedman said. Leaving the Ceylon tract undeveloped helps preserve the area as a buffer to the adjacent Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base.

Butch Miller enters 2022 race for lieutenant governor

Butch Miller

ATLANTA – Republicans are starting to step into the vacuum left when GOP Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan announced last week he would not seek a second term.

Georgia Senate Pro Tempore Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, entered the race for lieutenant governor Tuesday. Miller, a car dealer, was elected to the Senate in 2010 and chosen president pro tempore by his legislative colleagues in 2018.

“As a state senator, I’ve worked with visionary conservative leaders to make our state the No. 1 state for business and a safe haven for the conservative, traditional values that made our state and nation great,” Miller said.

“I’m running for lieutenant governor to defend our conservative accomplishments, to enrich Georgians with jobs-friendly policies, to defend our constitutional rights, and to protect and promote the sanctity of life and opportunity.”

Miller noted in declaring his candidacy that he stepped up to preside over the Senate back in March during the floor debate that led to the passage of a controversial Republican-backed election bill Democrats criticized as voter suppression. Republican backers defended the measure as a way to restore trust in Georgia’s electoral process.

Duncan, who normally presides as Senate president, stepped away from the rostrum during the debate, signaling his opposition to a provision doing away with no-excuse absentee voting that was later removed from the bill.

Duncan said last week he’s leaving statewide office at the end of next year to focus on creating a political organization called “GOP 2.0” aimed at “healing and rebuilding” the national Republican Party amid the fallout from former President Donald Trump’s continued claims of voter fraud in the 2020 elections.

Several Democrats have emerged to run for the second-highest position in state government, including  state Reps. Erick Allen of Smyrna and Derrick Jackson of Tyrone.

The only other Republican candidate for lieutenant governor thus far is GOP activist Jeanne Seaver of Savannah.

Georgia Power investing in racial equity, social justice efforts

ATLANTA – Georgia Power Co. and the utility’s nonprofit foundation announced a $75 million, five-year commitment Monday to advancing racial equity and social justice.

The money will support initiatives focused on equity in education, criminal justice and economic empowerment.

“At Georgia Power, we’re standing with our communities as, together, we tackle systemic equity issues across our state,”
Georgia Power President Chris Womack said.

“This financial investment and our commitment to mentoring, while just part of our overall equity efforts, are so incredibly critical because they’re one way we can make a real impact in distressed and disadvantaged communities.”

The education component of the Atlanta-based utility’s plan includes scholarships for underrepresented groups and investment in Georgia’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

The criminal justice piece will focus among other things on reducing racial profiling by police, creating prearrest diversion options and supporting programs that help incarcerated individuals transition back into society.

Economic empowerment efforts will take the form of grants and investments in Black-owned businesses and business owners.

Georgia Power also will work to build a team of 250 employees across the state each  year who will act as mentors.

The utility’s $75 million commitment is part of a combined $200 million in community investments Georgia Power parent Southern Co. is pledging during the next five years.

Stone Mountain to downplay Confederate symbols without removing carving

Left to right: Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson are carved into the side of Stone Mountain. (Image from Stone Mountain Memorial Association proposals summary)

STONE MOUNTAIN – The state board that oversees Stone Mountain Park voted Monday to tone down its Confederate imagery but stay in keeping with a state law prohibiting the removal of historic monuments from public property.

The Stone Mountain Memorial Association’s Board of Directors passed four resolutions to give the giant carving of three Confederate leaders on the side of the mountain historic context with a museum exhibit to be located at the park’s Memorial Hall.

The resolutions also call for relocating the Confederate flags that line the park’s main walk-up trail to the base of the mountain, designing a new logo for the park and seeking national historic site designation for a covered bridge at the park designed and built by a Black contractor from Athens.

“By law, Stone Mountain Park is a Confederate memorial,” Bill Stephens, the association’s CEO and a former state senator, said following Monday’s votes. “But there were things we could do to tell a complete story that’s acceptable to the 3 million Georgians who come here every year.”

The Stone Mountain carving was sculpted during the last century over a period of decades, a time that saw the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan at a 1915 gathering atop the mountain and the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court order desegregating schools.

The project was conceived during the Jim Crow era, when  Confederate monuments sprang up across the South glorifying the “Lost Cause” of the Civil War as an honorable struggle for Southern independence rather than a fight to preserve slavery.

That interpretation of the war later fell into disfavor, particularly during the Civil Rights era and – more recently – during the protests against police brutality that spread across the nation last year following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man from Minneapolis, by a white police officer.

With Confederate statues toppling across the South, critics of Stone Mountain’s depictions of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson have called for the carving to be removed.

Representatives of the Stone Mountain Action Coalition and other groups showed up at Monday’s meeting with signs carrying messages including “Don’t Celebrate Treason” and
“Tell the Truth: Remove the Carvings.”

Dennis Collard, a member of the Stone Mountain Action Coalition, said Stone Mountain Park is the wrong place to honor the Confederacy.

“This is not a battlefield. This is not a cemetery,” he said. “People come here for recreation. … It is time to stop pretending this place is about Civil War heritage.”

But Grady Vickery, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said Stone Mountain is an appropriate place to remember the war dead.

“This carving is a monument,” he said. “This carving is to stand for 80,000-and-some unknown soldiers who put it all on the line to go fight. … That monument Is for all of those who never came home.”

Rev. Abraham Mosley, who took the reins recently as the association’s first Black chairman, said there was no way the board could please everybody, given such polarized views on the park’s purpose.

“We want to tell the whole story, the good, the bad and the ugly,” he said. “History isn’t good and pleasant to all of us. But it’s history.”

The proposed museum exhibit provided for in one of the resolutions approved on Monday will be developed by a seven-member advisory committee, to include members of the board as well as community leaders.

The board is due to adopt a design for a new logo by July 1.

The resolution calling for the Washington W. King Bridge to be designated a national historic site sets a goal of Sept. 1.