State gearing up to divide big pot of federal COVID-19 relief money

ATLANTA – Christmas is coming early this year for local governments, businesses and nonprofits in Georgia struggling to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

Starting Aug. 1, the state will be accepting applications for $4.8 billion in federal funding earmarked for Georgia in the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus bill Congress passed in March. The state will get the money in two installments of $2.4 billion each, one this year and one in 2022.

Three committees of state lawmakers and high-level leaders of executive branch agencies will begin meeting in September to sift through the requests and allocate the money in mid-October.

It promises to be a daunting task, said Georgia House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England, who will sit on all three committees.

“We may have literally thousands of applications to look at,” said England, R-Auburn.

The committees will have some help. The Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget (OPB) will review each funding application to make sure it complies with guidelines set by the U.S. Treasury Department, England said.

“The guidelines are out there,” he said. “OPB has a special website set up for [applicants] to look at.”

It’s no coincidence that two of the three committees are dedicated specifically to considering funding applications for broadband and water and sewer projects. The third committee will review proposals aimed at addressing the pandemic’s economic impact.

“Broadband and water and sewer are the only infrastructure [projects] specifically authorized in the federal legislation without strings attached,” said Clint Mueller, legislative director for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG).

A significant caveat applicants must follow is to request funding only for one-time projects. It was important enough that Gov. Brian Kemp included it in his prepared statement appointing the members of the three committees.

In the case of an infrastructure project, that means construction costs but not operational expenses. Local governments asking for funds to cover employee pay raises should make them one-time bonuses, not ongoing salary increases.

“There’s a lot of concern that people spend it right, that they don’t incorporate it in their budgets and when the money goes away, they can’t keep it going,” Mueller said.

The American Rescue Plan (ARP) money for broadband and water and sewer projects comes in addition to significant funding already available from other sources.

Kemp allocated $30 million in state funds this year to expand broadband connectivity in rural Georgia. Also, the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund has set aside $326.5 million for Georgia over the next 10 years.

On the private sector side, local electric membership cooperatives (EMCs) across the state are partnering with telecom providers to bring high-speed internet to rural communities for the first time.

“Funding is one of the major barriers to broadband expansion, so the additional resources come at a great time as momentum builds for providing adequate internet service to every part of the state,” said Jason Bragg, vice president[DW1]  of government relations for Georgia EMC. “EMCs are appreciative of Governor Kemp’s willingness to allocate ARP funds toward the critical issue of broadband access.”

State investment in water and sewer projects also has risen substantially. The Georgia Environmental Finance Authority approved $475 million in loans to cities, counties and local water and sewer authorities during fiscal 2021, which ended June 30, more than double the $192.3 million in loans the agency floated during the previous fiscal year.

Mueller said he expects fast-growing counties will account for most of the funding requests for water and sewer projects.

Broadband projects that seek to combine taxpayer funding with private partners including EMCs are most likely to win approval for ARP money, he said.

Mueller said smaller counties could be at a disadvantage in the process because of the red tape involved in submitting applications for funding.

“Smaller counties don’t have the staff resources to keep up with all of that,” he said.

England said one way around that problem would be for smaller cities, counties and nonprofit organizations to consolidate their applications under a larger umbrella.

“Some cities and counties don’t have grant managers,” he said. “ACCG or GMA (the Georgia Municipal Association), with their resources, could pool those together and make an application on their behalf. That’s what I hope we’ll see on some of these.”

State Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, the longest serving member of the Georgia House, said he’s been contacted by a lot of nonprofits interested in applying for ARP money to help fund their activities.

“You cannot leave out social justice and community-based projects,” said Smyre, who will serve on the committee to review applications aimed at the pandemic’s economic impact. “I think you’ll see those bubble up.”

Smyre said he expects a competitive process when the committees sit down to review the applications.

“Everybody was affected by the pandemic,” he said. “Their resources were hit. This is an opportunity to fund some of these programs.”


Plant Vogtle project encounters new delays, higher costs

The cooling tower of a third nuclear reactor at Plant Vogtle looms in the distance.

ATLANTA – Georgia Power’s nuclear expansion at Plant Vogtle is being delayed again due to “productivity challenges” and additional time needing for testing and quality assurance, the Atlanta-based utility announced Thursday.

Under the new schedule, the first of two new nuclear reactors being built at the plant south of August isn’t expected to go into service until the second quarter of next year. The second reactor won’t be ready until the first quarter of 2023. That amounts to a three- to four-month delay for each reactor.

The total capital cost of the project also is going up by $460 million, Georgia Power announced.

“Georgia Power is focused on safety and quality as we complete this project,” said Chris Womack, chairman, president and CEO of Georgia Power. “[The Vogtle nuclear expansion] remains a critical investment for the state to provide low-cost, reliable and emissions-free electricity for the state of Georgia for 60 to 80 years.

“This is too important to our customers, our state and our nation for us not to get it right, and we will.”

The first of the two new reactors at Plant Vogtle originally was to be completed in 2016, with the second reactor to go into service one year later. But the project has encountered a number of delays, due in part to the bankruptcy of Westinghouse Electric, the original prime contractor.

The cost of the project has nearly doubled from the original estimate of $14 billion approved by the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) a dozen years ago to about $26 billion.

Georgia Power is partnering with three other utilities on the project. The company’s share of the total capital cost is now an estimated $9.2 billion.

However, Georgia Power has not sought approval of any capital costs above the $7.3 billion share previously approved by the PSC. There also are special protections in place for customers during construction, including a reduction in Georgia Power’s return on investment for the project.

“We knew building the first new nuclear units in the U.S. in more than 30 years would be challenging,” Womack said. “The project has endured extraordinary circumstances during construction, including the pandemic.”

There was one bit of positive news for the project on Thursday. Georgia Power announced hot functional testing of the first of the two new reactors has been completed, meaning the unit is 99% complete.

During hot functional testing, plant systems achieved normal operating pressure and temperature, without nuclear fuel, to verify the successful operation of reactor components and systems together.

The total project, included the second reactor, is now 93% complete, Georgia Power announced.

The project’s opponents have long argued Georgia Power could have avoided the uncertainties of the nuclear expansion by putting more investment into renewable energy sources.

But utility officials continue to maintain the Vogtle expansion is the most cost-effective and reliable long-term deal both for Georgia Power’s shareholders and its customers.

Kemp puts up more state funds for fighting crime

Colonel Chris Wright is commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Safety.

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp is committing up to $2 million from the Governor’s Emergency Fund to the state Department of Public Safety’s Crime Suppression Unit.

Kemp’s announcement Wednesday is the latest initiative he and other Georgia Republican leaders have taken this spring and summer aimed at rising crime across the state but particularly in Atlanta.

“In April of this year, I asked Colonel Chris Wright and the Department of Public Safety (DPS) to develop and execute a plan to tackle crime and reckless street racing across the metro-Atlanta region,” Kemp said.

“Colonel Wright made a request of additional funds – up to $2 million – for the department to bring additional personnel onto the Crime Suppression Unit in order to strengthen their ongoing efforts. I have agreed to Colonel Wright’s request.”

In May, the governor committed $5 million from the emergency fund to fighting crime.

The $2 million he’s freeing up now is not part of that $5 million package, which was allocated for the fiscal year that ended June 30, Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said. However, not all of the earlier money had been spent when fiscal 2021 ended, Hall said.

Last week, Kemp told a legislative committee holding hearings on the crime wave he plans to include crime on the General Assembly’s to-do list during the special session he will call this fall to draw new congressional and legislative district maps.

During the same hearing, House Speaker David Ralston asked lawmakers to earmark $75 million to boost state law enforcement and mental health services when the legislature takes up the fiscal 2022 mid-year budget and fiscal 2023 budget this winter.

Also last week, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who presides over the Georgia Senate, proposed a $250 million state income tax credit to raise money for fighting crime.

Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, endorsed the governor’s latest funding proposal on Wednesday.

“This additional funding is necessary to keep the streets of Atlanta safe and protect residents and visitors alike,” the speaker said. “Our state law enforcement personnel are working around the clock to bring criminals to justice, and I greatly appreciate their work on behalf of all Georgians.”

State Department of Education creates new office to focus on rural Georgia

Bronwyn Ragan-Martin

ATLANTA – Rural education in Georgia is getting special attention in the form of a new office within the state Department of Education that will focus on the needs of rural schools.

The Office of Rural Education and Innovation will be headed by Bronwyn Ragan-Martin, a veteran education leader who served most recently as superintendent of the Early County School System and president of the Georgia School Superintendents Association.

Ragan-Martin will take on the title of deputy superintendent for rural education and innovation starting in October.

“It is a top priority of my administration to strengthen and bring greater opportunities and economic prosperity to rural Georgia,” Gov. Brian Kemp said Wednesday.

“The Georgia Department of Education’s new Office of Rural Education and Innovation will support those efforts to renew and revitalize rural Georgia and ensure our state remains the best place to live, work, and raise a family.”

 “Our rural schools and districts face unique challenges and resource gaps – and many of those challenges have only intensified due to the pandemic,” State School Superintendent Richard Woods added.

“There is also, though, an opportunity for a transformational investment in rural Georgia that could change the lives of children and the course of their communities. That’s what I’m tasking our new Office of Rural Education and Innovation with working toward.”

Woods said Ragan-Martin’s experience, commitment and deep roots in rural Georgia make her a perfect fit for her new role.

Ragan-Martin has been school superintendent in Early County, a system with about 2,000 students, since 2013. She also served on the school superintendents association’s Rural Task Force from 2018 until last year.

A native of Randolph County, Ragan-Martin holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, a master’s in English education from Georgia Southwestern College, and a doctorate in curriculum and instruction from Valdosta State University.

The new office will be supported with federal coronavirus relief funds and work to address educational needs in rural Georgia including connectivity, teacher retention and recruitment, resources and funding, and educator development.

Ragan-Martin and the staff she brings on will join school and community leaders to address gaps brought to the forefront during the pandemic and develop a roadmap for moving beyond recovery to renewal.  

Legislative Democrats call for adding Medicaid expansion to special session

Georgia Rep. Matthew Wilson

ATLANTA – Democrats in the Republican-controlled General Assembly are asking GOP Gov. Brian Kemp to add Medicaid expansion to the legislature’s upcoming redistricting special session.

A letter dated Tuesday signed by 67 Democratic members of the Georgia House and Senate called the need for legislative action to expand Medicaid coverage “urgent.”

“This governor has made it clear he wants to expand the scope of the session beyond redistricting,” said Rep. Matthew Wilson, D-Brookhaven, the chief signatory to the letter, referring to Kemp’s announcement last week that he will add tackling the recent rise in violent crime to the special session agenda. … If we’re going to include other items in the special session, Medicaid expansion must be a top priority.”

Georgia Democrats have pushed for Medicaid expansion since then-President Barack Obama steered the Affordable Care Act through a Democratic Congress in 2010 with no Republican votes.

But Georgia remains among 12 Republican-run states that have chosen not to expand Medicaid, with former Gov. Nathan Deal and now Kemp citing the program’s costs.

Instead, Kemp proposed a more limited expansion, which the Trump administration approved last year. But the new Biden administration has put that plan on hold because of concerns that it includes a work requirement for Medicaid recipients.

State Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, said the governor’s limited coverage plan isn’t going to pass muster with either the Democratic president or in the courts.

“[Medicaid] is a health-care program,” she said. “When you throw in work requirements on top of that, it is not only outside the aims of the statute. It doesn’t serve the purpose of the program.”

Kemp’s proposal would apply to adults earning up to 100% of the federal poverty level, covering about 50,000 Georgians, according to state estimates.

The Democrats’ letter claims a full-blown Medicaid expansion for those with incomes up to 138% of the poverty level would cover nearly 500,000 Georgians who make too much to qualify for traditional Medicaid but can’t afford to buy private health insurance.

Georgia’s two U.S. senators, Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, introduced a bill this month to let the 12 states that have not expanded Medicaid do so through a new Medicaid “look-alike” program.

Wilson, who has entered next year’s race for state insurance commissioner, said the General Assembly could pursue Medicaid expansion on a separate track while the federal bill makes its way through Congress.

“Georgians can’t wait,” he said. “Urgency requires us to act now.”

Still, Medicaid expansion is unlikely to land on the special session agenda. As governor, Kemp has the sole power to decide what the legislature takes up during special sessions.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, also expressed reluctance Tuesday to put additional business on the agenda. He pointed out that this year’s redistricting session must be held later than usual because of a pandemic-related delay in getting the U.S. Census data needed to draw new congressional and legislative district maps.

“The delay in Census data combined with the holidays in November and December simply make a prolonged special session difficult at best, especially with the regular session happening only a few weeks later in January,” Ralston spokesman Kaleb McMichen wrote in an email.

The once-a-decade redistricting session, which is usually held in August or September, isn’t expected to start this year until October at the earliest.