Feds sue Georgia over new election law

Attorney General Merrick Garland

ATLANTA – The Justice Department sued the state of Georgia Friday over passage of an election reform law it claims violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act by intentionally discriminating against Black voters.

The Republican-controlled General Assembly passed the controversial legislation in March, voting along party lines, and Gov. Brian Kemp signed it into law that same day.

“Recent changes in Georgia’s election laws were enacted with the purpose of denying or abridging the right of Black Georgians to vote on account of their race or color,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said during a news conference.

Garland and Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general overseeing the department’s Civil Rights Division, said the law was passed in the aftermath of a record voter turnout in last year’s elections in Georgia, particularly among absentee voters.

“The provisions we are challenging reduce access to absentee voting at each step of the process, pushing more Black voters to in-person voting, where they will be more likely than white voters to encounter long lines,” Clarke said.

 Senate Bill 202 replaces the signature-match verification process for absentee ballots with an ID requirement. It also restricts the location of ballot drop boxes and prohibits non-poll workers from handing out food and drinks within 150 feet of voters standing in line.

The law’s critics have accused Republicans of passing the law in an effort to blunt the high voter turnout last November that saw President Joe Biden become the first Democrat to carry Georgia since Bill Clinton in 1992 and that propelled Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock to U.S. Senate runoff wins in January.

“We are happy to have the Biden administration join the fight to defend the very fabric of our democracy against Georgia’s reckless, unconstitutional Republican-led voter suppression laws, said Nse Ufot, CEO of The New Georgia Project Action Fund.

“These attacks are a direct backlash and whitelash against the progressive, multiracial, multigenerational, and multilingual coalition we built in Georgia that flipped the Peach State and secured a victory for President Biden and a Democratic Senate.”

“Brian Kemp and Georgia Republicans’ discriminatory anti-voting law violates Georgians’ civil rights, plain and simple,” added U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia. “It makes it harder for all Georgians to vote, and disproportionately harder for people of color and low-income voters to cast a ballot.”

Georgia Republican leaders came to the law’s defense, calling the lawsuit a politically motivated attempt aimed at a legitimate effort to restore election integrity in Georgia.

“The Biden administration continues to do the bidding of [2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee] Stacey Abrams and spreads more lies about Georgia’s election law,” Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said. “It is no surprise that they would operationalize their lies with the full force of the federal government. I look forward to meeting them, and beating them, in court.”

Kemp sounded equally confident during a late afternoon news conference in Savannah.

“Joe Biden, Stacey Abrams and Merrick Garland don’t scare me,” he said. “When I was secretary of state, I sued the Obama Justice Department twice and won. I look forward to making it three for three.”

Clarke also criticized the General Assembly for rushing the bill through the legislative process. She complained that the three-page bill that passed the Georgia Senate ballooned within days to more than 90 pages when it went over to the state House of Representatives.

Garland said the Justice Department also is examining election laws other Republican-led states have passed in the wake of last year’s elections.

He urged Congress to reverse a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision that invalidated a provision in the Voting Rights Act requiring states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to “preclear” any election law changes with the Civil Rights Division.

Giuliani loses law license over false claims of fraud in Georgia election

Rudy Giuliani urges Georgia Senate members to pick the state’s Electoral College electors at a hearing on Dec. 3, 2020. (Georgia Senate video)

ATLANTA – New York’s highest court Thursday suspended the law license of Rudy Giuliani, former President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, in large part because of false statements Giuliani made about last year’s Georgia election results.

The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court ruled that Giuliani, a former U.S. attorney and ex-New York City mayor, “communicated demonstrably false and misleading statements to courts, lawmakers and the public at large in his capacity as lawyer for former President Donald J. Trump and the Trump campaign in connection with Trump’s failed effort at reelection in 2020.”

Giuliani’s efforts on behalf of Trump included two appearances at the Georgia Capitol early last December, one in person and one virtual, where he rolled out witnesses and experts involved in a lawsuit to overturn election results that saw Democrat Joe Biden carry Georgia by 11,779 votes.

Witnesses claimed Georgia’s voting machines potentially switched thousands of votes in favor of Biden, while lawyers for Giuliani unveiled a surveillance video they claimed showed ballot-counting irregularities at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. 

Giuliani’s team also pressed state lawmakers to appoint electors to the Electoral College who would cast Georgia’s 16 votes in Trump’s favor. The Peach State’s electors met later in December and ratified Biden’s narrow win at the polls with their votes.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger praised Thursday’s ruling as a further demonstration of the validity of the arguments he made discounting the fraud charges while they were swirling.

“The judges recognized that the baseless conspiracy theories Giuliani repeated were not true and punished him for spreading lies, particularly about Georgia’s election,” Raffensperger said. “This decision backs up my own statements about Georgia’s election being fair and accurate.”

The court ruling came in response to a complaint against Giuliani filed by the New York Bar Association. The suspension is interim, which gives him a chance to appeal for reinstatement.

Controversial unemployment benefits cutoff looming in Georgia

Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler

ATLANTA – First-time unemployment claims in Georgia fell by 1,826 last week, but they’re about to drop much more dramatically as the state cuts off benefits jobless Georgians have been getting during the coronavirus pandemic.

Initial claims totaled 20,698 last week, the state Department of Labor reported Thursday.

Most of those claims are about to go away entirely. Beginning Saturday, Georgia will no longer participate in federal unemployment insurance programs Congress has enacted since COVID-19 struck the nation in March of last year. That’s going to cut off benefits to about 223,000 claimants, according to the labor department.

“After 66 weeks of benefits during the pandemic and the release of $22.5 billion, we look forward to refocusing our organization on reemployment and helping claimants find a career path that will provide the stability and support necessary to provide for their families,” Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler said Thursday.

But critics say the state is being premature in cutting off benefits the Biden administration plans to continue into September. The move, announced by Gov. Brian Kemp last month, means nearly two-thirds of Georgians who have been receiving unemployment benefits will be cut off, according to an analysis by the National Employment Law Project (NELP).

“The [federal] pandemic unemployment programs continue to be a critical lifeline for millions of people looking for work in a changed economy still jolted by the pandemic,” NELP Executive Director Rebecca Dixon said. “The decision by Governor Kemp and Labor Commissioner Butler to abruptly end these family-sustaining payments is callous and downright cruel.”

The labor department has processed more than 4.9 million initial unemployment claims since March of last year, more than during the last decade prior to the pandemic.

Kemp and Butler have argued there are plenty of good-paying jobs begging for someone to fill them. Georgia businesses have complained they can’t find enough workers because the federal benefits have been encouraging unemployed Georgians to stay out of the workforce.

Opponents of the looming benefits cutoff say legitimate reasons keeping people at home include difficulties finding child care and safety concerns over returning to work in a state where so many have not been vaccinated against COVID-19.

More than 221,000 jobs are listed on EmployGeorgia, the labor department’s website. Claimants receive access to job listings, support to upload up to five searchable resumes, job search assistance, career counseling, skills testing, job fair information and job training services.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission probe behind another delay at Plant Vogtle

ATLANTA – A new inspection of the nuclear expansion at Plant Vogtle the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (the NRC) announced this week could further postpone completion of the long-delayed project.

Donald Grace of Critical Technologies Construction, who serves as an independent monitor of the project, testified Thursday the NRC probe marks “an increased level of oversight” of the addition of two nuclear reactors at the plant south of Augusta.

“The fact the NRC is now getting involved … adds an additional degree of uncertainty over how long it’s going to take to get to the fuel load,” Grace told members of the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) during a hearing.

Prime contractor Southern Nuclear Operating Co. began hot functional testing of Unit 3, the first of two new reactors being built at Plant Vogtle, in April. The testing is conducted to make sure the reactor is ready for fuel loading, one of the final steps before the unit can go into commercial operation.

But fuel loading has been put on hold pending the outcome of the NRC inspection, which will focus on electrical cable systems needed to make sure safety-related equipment is powered to function properly.

William Jacobs of GDS Associates, another independent monitor, said the contractor found more than 600 cases of cable separation throughout the plant that need to be corrected.

“This is a big deal,” he said. “It reflects on … quality assurance, the quality control processes that were in place.”

Jacobs said hot functional testing of Unit 3 was delayed by a 60% failure rate of components needed to conduct the test.

The NRC inspection is just the latest of a series of delays that have plagued the nuclear expansion since the PSC approved the project 12 years ago. A major factor holding up the work was the bankruptcy of Westinghouse Electric, the project’s original prime contractor.

Georgia Power Co. and three utility partners underwriting the project originally expected the Unit 3 reactor to be completed in 2016, followed a year later by the second reactor, Unit 4.

The latest estimate is that Unit 3 won’t go into commercial operation until at least the first quarter of next year, followed by Unit 4 by the end of 2022.

The delays have run up the project’s price tag to nearly double the original $14 billion estimate.

On Thursday, Jacobs attributed much of the construction shortcomings the project has experienced to a rushed schedule. For example, the contractor committed to completing hot functional testing, a process that normally takes six months, in fewer than four.

“They have put production as a priority over quality,” Jacobs said. “They’ve got their production goals, and they’re intent on meeting them.”

Thursday’s hearing was part of a review of the project’s status the PSC undertakes every six months. As part of that, Georgia Power is requesting the commission to verify and approve $670 million in spending the project incurred during the last half of last year.

Despite their criticisms of the project, the independent monitors recommended that the PSC approve the spending.

Steven Hewitson, a lawyer representing Georgia Power, noted that recommendation in his cross-examination of the monitors.

Hewitson conceded the cable separation issue was a construction mistake, but he said errors are bound to occur in such a complex project.

“No one would expect on a project of this magnitude there would be 100% construction completion without some mistakes,” he said.

The NRC inspection is scheduled to take just two weeks.

But Steven Roetger, a member of the PSC’s Advocacy staff, said the probe could expand, depending on what the inspectors find.

The inspection team will release its findings and conclusions in a report to be issued within 45 days of completing its review.


Toll lane revenues show Georgia traffic getting back to normal

Chris Tomlinson

ATLANTA – Traffic is picking up in Georgia as the coronavirus pandemic wanes, and it’s reflected in new revenue projections for the state’s toll lanes.

The State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA) expects to generate $39.5 million from tolls during the fiscal year starting July 1. That’s more than double the $19.5 million SRTA has brought in during the current fiscal year, dominated by COVID-19.

“Traffic is coming back,” SRTA Executive Director Chris Tomlinson told the agency’s Board of Directors Wednesday.

Tomlinson said traffic in the toll lanes along interstates 75 and 85 is back to 77% of what it was before the coronavirus pandemic forced businesses to either close and lay off their employees or send them home to work.

The increase in traffic has been steady month to month until recently, when it began to accelerate, he said.

“People are coming back to offices,” he said.

The trend is expected to continue to the point that SRTA is projecting higher toll revenue during the coming fiscal year than in fiscal 2019, the last year not affected by the pandemic, when income from tolls was less than $35 million.

Tomlinson said that stems in part from the relative newness of SRTA’s toll lanes. Both the Northwest Corridor along I-75 in Cobb and Cherokee counties and the I-75 South toll lanes in Clayton and Henry counties opened in 2018.

“More people are getting used to these lanes,” he said.

In other business Wednesday, SRTA sold $417 million in revenue bonds at an average interest rate of 2.50% made possible by Georgia’s AAA bond rating with the three major rating agencies. Most of the proceeds will go toward refinancing SRTA’s debt on the toll lanes projects.

Tomlinson said the refinancing will ultimately save Georgia taxpayers $131.8 million.

“I’m grateful for the partnership we’ve had with the General Assembly through these unprecedented times,” said Gov. Brian Kemp, who chairs the SRTA board. “The incredible interest rates we’re getting have a lot of value for the taxpayers. … We’re coming out on the back side [of the pandemic] better than most.”