Georgia Power Foundation awards grant to Georgia Justice Project

ATLANTA – Georgia Power Co.’s nonprofit foundation announced an investment of $500,000 Wednesday toward helping remove barriers to employment and housing for Georgians with criminal records.

The grant, part of a $75 million commitment the foundation made in May toward advancing racial equity and social justice, will be used to help implement a new law that makes it easier to expunge criminal records in certain circumstances.

The legislation, which passed the General Assembly unanimously last year and took effect last Jan. 1, expands the ability to seal criminal records for about 1.5 million Georgians who now have access to record restriction for the first time.

It applies to those arrested when there has been a final disposition to their cases other than a conviction or a certain time period and conditions have been met since a conviction.

“We are proud to support this initiative that will help citizens working hard to be self-sufficient,” said Mike Anderson, senior vice president of Georgia Power and president and CEO of the Georgia Power Foundation.

“Our commitment to this important work … is one way that we can make a real impact to help both individuals and our state.”

The foundation’s grant will go to the Georgia Justice Project, which for 35 years has served Georgians impacted by the criminal justice system.

“Many rehabilitated Georgians are now eligible to seal a conviction history to remove barriers to employment, housing and other opportunities,” said Brenda Smeeton, Georgia Justice Project’s legal director. “But a new law is only effective if the people who need it most can access it, and this grant will allow us to host expungement desks and events around the state.”

Ossoff unveils plan to install clean-energy projects along interstate highways

LAGRANGE – Undeveloped interstate highway rights of way could be used to house solar panels, broadband projects and electric-vehicle charging stations under legislation being introduced by U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff.

The Sustainable Highways Innovation Act is modeled after The Ray, an 18-mile stretch of Interstate 85 in LaGrange used to test clean energy technologies, Ossoff, D-Ga., said Wednesday during a news conference held beside a solar array at the site.

The Ray, a nonprofit named in memory Ray Anderson, an environmentalist and founder of the flooring company Interface Inc., also features a drive-over tire safety inspection station.

“We’re working in Congress to make a generational investment in clean energy,” Ossoff said.

The solar array at The Ray contains 2,600 panels that generate 1 megawatt of electricity, enough to power 170 homes. The five-acre site is owned by Georgia Power Co. under a 30-year lease with the state Department of Transportation.

“This is the best example in the country of a higher use of empty roadside land for the benefit of clean energy,” said Allie Kelly, The Ray’s executive director. “Everybody wins when we develop more roadside land for energy generation.”

The Georgia Public Service Commission gave the green light for The Ray as a demonstration project in 2016.

“Over the last five years, we’ve worked hard to partner with the DOT, state government and the Federal Highway [Administration] to allow us to bring technology from around the world here to be tested,” said Harriet Anderson Langford, the daughter of Ray Anderson and The Ray’s president and founder.

Ossoff is positioning himself as a leading advocate in the Senate for investing in forward-looking sustainable-energy projects. Last week, he introduced legislation that would offer tax credits to U.S manufacturers of solar panels.

On Wednesday, he said he would like to fold both the tax credit bill and the Sustainable Highways Innovation Act into broader infrastructure legislation being pushed by the Biden administration.

“This is all about envisioning where America needs to be in the near future,” Ossoff said. “We are serious about making the necessary investment.”

Kemp appoints new commissioner to state Department of Human Services

ATLANTA – A veteran of the Georgia Department of Human Services (DHS) is stepping up to become the agency’s commissioner.

Gerlda Hines, who has been serving as the department’s chief of staff, will take over the lead role July 1, Gov. Brian Kemp announced late Tuesday.

Hines joined the DHS in 2015, serving as interim commissioner and chief financial officer before moving to chief of staff. Before that, she filled financial roles with the Georgia Department of Community Health, the Georgia Student Finance Commission and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.

Hines’ 17 years in state government also included a stint as a policy analyst with the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget.

“I am excited for Commissioner Hines to lead the Department of Human Services as it continues to create new economic opportunities for all Georgians while also protecting our state’s most vulnerable citizens and providing essential care to those in need,” Kemp said.

One of Hines’ first missions will be serving on one of three committees Kemp named Tuesday to help determine how the state should spend $4.8 billion in federal coronavirus relief.

Hines will succeed Robyn Crittenden at the DHS. Crittenden is taking over as commissioner of the state Department of Revenue.

Kemp appoints committees to allocate federal pandemic aid

Gov. Brian Kemp

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp is turning to a bipartisan group of Georgia lawmakers, state agency heads and other state officials to help determine how to spend $4.8 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Kemp named three committees Tuesday to sift through applications for the money from state and local governments, businesses and nonprofits. The three committees will focus separately on offsetting the economic impact of the pandemic, providing funding to extend broadband connectivity and helping pay for needed water and sewer projects.

“These committees will ensure federal coronavirus relief dollars are allocated strategically across our state and address one-time funding needs in these three key areas,” the governor said in a prepared statement.

The Economic Impact Committee will include Pat Wilson, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development, State Economist Jeffrey Dorfman, Georgia House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia.

The Broadband Infrastructure Committee will include Georgia Commissioner of Transportation Russell McMurry, State School Superintendent Richard Woods and Eric Toler, executive director of the Georgia Cyber Center.

The Water and Sewer Infrastructure Committee will include state Attorney General Chris Carr, Georgia Commissioner of Natural Resources Mark Williams and Rick Dunn, director of the state Environmental Protection Division.

Democrats named to the panels include Georgia Rep. Calvin Smyre of Columbus, the longest serving member of the House, and state Sen. Freddie Powell Sims of Dawson.

The committees will receive applications beginning Aug. 1 at Applications will close on Aug. 31, and grants are due to be announced the week of Oct. 18. The dates are subject to change as guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department continues to evolve.

The $4.8 billion in direct federal aid allocated to Georgia is part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Congress passed in April.

July 1 bringing in mix of new state laws

ATLANTA – The controversial election bill the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed in March garnered the most publicity by far of anything lawmakers did during this year’s session.

But the legislature approved a host of other bills during 40 days under the Gold Dome covering a variety of issues that, like the election measure, take effect on Thursday.

July 1 will see the implementation of a state tax cut and a series of new tax breaks for Georgia businesses. Local police departments will get new protections from budget cuts, and a new crime applicable to a type of theft popularized during the pandemic will go on the books.

The tax cut will increase the standard deduction for married couples who file joint state income tax returns by $1,100. Single taxpayers can deduct an extra $800, while Georgians ages 65 and older can deduct another $1,300. Married couples filing separately will be able to deduct an additional $550.

House Bill 593 is a follow-up to legislation the General Assembly adopted in 2019 lowering Georgia’s income-tax rate from 6% to 5.75%.

Mostly lower- and middle-income families will benefit from the higher standard deduction, said Georgia House Speaker David Ralston.

“Today marks another chapter in Georgia’s continuing commitment to provide sustainable, meaningful tax relief to Georgians to let them keep more of their hard-earned money,” Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said after the mid-March vote passing the bill.

Separate legislation also taking effect Thursday serves up a smorgasbord of new tax breaks aimed at spurring business investment in Georgia. It offers tax credits to medical equipment and pharmaceutical manufacturers, aerospace defense projects, performing arts venues, short-line railroads and developers of corporate “mega-sites.”

While most of the bill doles out more largesse in the form of tax credits, Senate Bill 6 also seeks to rein in tax breaks that don’t give enough bang for the buck. It requires independent audits of up to five tax credit programs each year to determine whether their economic impact justifies the loss of state tax revenue.

“This is a large bill,” state Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, said as the multi-faceted measure was being debated on the Senate floor during the final day of the 2021 legislative session. “It brings checks and balances. It has us measure the return on investment, and it keeps Georgia the No.-1 place to do business.”

Republican legislative leaders focused much of their attention this year on crafting friendly tax policies to help Georgians and Georgia businesses cope with the economic damage wreaked by the pandemic.

But another thread that ran through the 2021 session stemmed from last year’s murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis, which sent demonstrators into the streets of America to protest racism and police brutality.

An offshoot of those protests was the “defund the police” movement, as some on the left called for slashing police budgets and redirecting those funds to social programs aimed at the causes of a nationwide surge in violent crime.

Georgia lawmakers reacted by passing legislation limiting local government from reducing funds for police more than 5% during a 10-year span.

“This legislation sends a strong message that we support our law enforcement officers and we will never defund police here in Georgia,” said Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, chief sponsor of House Bill 286.

Legislative Democrats overwhelmingly opposed the bill as a power grab by the state over local governments. Critics also argued it would stall efforts to fund other areas like mental health, housing and education that aim to keep people from landing in jail.

Lawmakers also were divided over a bill criminalizing “porch piracy,” a form of theft that hadn’t been given much thought before the pandemic prompted shoppers hunkered down in their homes to do most of their buying online.

House Bill 94 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. 

“This was a problem before the pandemic,” Rep. Bonnie Rich, R-Suwanee, the measure’s chief sponsor, said during a committee hearing on the bill. “It has become even more of a problem now.”

While the legislation drew some support from Democrats, others questioned the severity of the bill’s penalties, noting porch pirates could face more jail time and a worse criminal record than those who commit petty theft at a retail store.

Other bills the General Assembly passed this year that take effect July 1 include:

  • House Bill 112 – extends COVID-19 liability protections for Georgia businesses and hospitals into the summer of 2022.
  • House Bill 317 – extends the state tax on hotel and motel rooms to “marketplace facilitators” including Airbnb and Vrbo.
  • House Bill 511 – prohibits spending money deposited in nine state dedicated trust funds on any other purpose.
  • House Bill 617 – lets student-athletes at Georgia colleges, universities and technical colleges receive compensation for their name, image and likeness.
  •  Senate Bill 34 – allows victims of human trafficking to petition to change their name without public disclosure.