Kemp inks new legislative and congressional district maps

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp signed new legislative and congressional district maps Thursday and immediately was hit with a lawsuit claiming they’re unconstitutional.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU’s Georgia chapter and a Washington, D.C.-based law firm charge new state House and Senate maps approved by the General Assembly’s Republican majority last month violate Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act.

The lawsuit cites the significant growth of Georgia’s minority population since the last once-a-decade redistricting session in 2011. On the other hand, the state’s white population has declined since the last decennial census in 2010.

Yet, according to the plaintiffs, Republicans failed to acknowledge that growth when they could have drawn at least a half-dozen new Black-majority state Senate or state House districts, effectively diluting Black voting strength.

“These newly drawn maps are a brazen attempt by Georgia politicians to undermine the political power of Black voters,” said Sophia Lin Lakin, deputy director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.

“There’s no legitimate justification for drawing maps that deny Black voters an opportunity to elect representatives who will fight for them.”

During last month’s special redistricting session, Republican lawmakers argued that Democrats targeted GOP congressional and legislative seats in the same way in 2001, the last time they controlled the General Assembly.

They also pointed to projections based on the new maps that show Democrats stand to gain at least one seat in the state Senate after the 2022 elections and a half dozen seats in the House.

While the ACLU lawsuit doesn’t address the new congressional map drawn by legislative Republicans, legal challenges to Georgia’s new congressional districts are likely to follow.

Unlike the legislative maps, the new congressional district lines are expected to add to the majority the GOP holds in the congressional delegation. By significantly reshaping the 6th Congressional District in Atlanta’s northern suburbs that heavily favors Republicans, the delegation’s makeup is likely to shift from an 8-6 GOP advantage to a 9-5 majority.

Kemp signed the new maps just before the legal deadline to do so. That gives the groups challenging the new district lines less time to make their legal cases before the March qualifying period for candidates for the General Assembly and Congress.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Middle, South Georgia law enforcement agencies land federal grants

ATLANTA – The Justice Department has awarded more than $2.2 million in federal grants to support a variety of community safety and criminal justice initiatives in Middle and South Georgia.

“These grants are substantial investments toward both necessary and innovative solutions for a wide-ranging set of criminal justice issues affecting communities across the Middle District of Georgia,” said U.S. Attorney Peter D. Leary.

“As the new year dawns, our office reaffirms our total commitment to our region’s shared goal of reducing violence and ensuring fair and equal justice in each community we serve.”

Here is a rundown of grants approved by the agency’s Office of Justice Programs:

  • $900.000 to the Beekeeper Reentry Program, an anti-recidivism initiative run by the Family Wellness Outreach Center of Georgia in Albany for 102 adults in 14 Southwest Georgia counties considered at highest risk for reoffending.
  • $622,903 to Beginning New Outreach Inc. in Columbus to provide ongoing mentoring for youth who are currently abusing or addicted to drugs, youth at risk for abusing and youth with family members who are currently abusing or addicted to drugs.
  • $250,000 to the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office to replace cell locks in the jail both to keep the facility in compliance and greatly enhance the safety and security of inmates, staff and visitors.
  • $150,000 community policing grant to the Fort Valley Police Department to create a stronger relationship between community and police, offer individual officer training and increase patrols in high-crime areas.
  • $141,687 to the Decatur County Board of Commissioners to help reduce violent crime in rural areas served by the South Georgia Judicial Circuit.
  • $104,731 to the city of Columbus for criminal justice initiatives including drug and gang task forces, enhancing public and officer safety, courts, corrections, education, treatment, technology improvement, crime victim support, and mental health programs.

The city of Albany received a grant $83,805 for the same types of criminal justice initiatives as the grant to Columbus, while the city of Americus was awarded $12,155 for those same initiatives.

The Office of Justice Programs provides federal leadership, grants, training, technical assistance and other resources to improve the nation’s capacity to prevent and reduce crime, advance racial equity in the administration of justice and help victims.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia lawmakers looking to beef up rural hospital tax credit

ATLANTA – Heading into the 2022 General Assembly session, a push is on to raise the annual cap on Georgia’s rural hospital tax credit from $60 million to $100 million.

In 2021, the program reached that cap by August, giving rural lawmakers and advocates for rural hospitals reason to believe more money will be needed in the coming year. That’s especially true given the pressure the omicron variant of COVID-19 is putting on hospitals as the new year begins.

“2022 is going to be a rather exasperating year to say the least,” said Jimmy Lewis, CEO of Cumming-based HomeTown Health, which represents rural hospitals in Georgia. “We’re going to find ourselves out of money going forward.”

Georgia’s rural hospital tax credit was launched in 2016 and hit the $60 million cap for the first time in 2018 after the General Assembly increased the value of the credit to 100%, giving donors a dollar-for-dollar state income tax benefit.

But contributions fell off in 2019 and again last year after the Internal Revenue Service declared that individual taxpayers could no longer receive an income tax deduction for charitable donations if they received a state tax credit for the same contribution.

At the same time, a state audit found that donations to the rural hospital tax credit program weren’t necessarily going to the neediest hospitals. The report called for greater accountability and transparency.

The program’s fortunes began to change when a follow-up audit released early last year concluded that both hospitals and taxpayers were complying with the law governing the tax credit.

In addition, Lewis said, rural hospital administrators have come to grips with the IRS changes by learning to market the program’s value beyond the tax benefit to contributors. It helps that donors can designate their contributions to benefit a specific rural hospital in their communities.

“This is a 1-for-1 donation to your hospital,” Lewis said. “It doesn’t change the amount of taxes you pay but who benefits.”

That message is hitting home, not just to potential donors but to rural lawmakers. The Georgia House Rural Development Council endorsed raising the cap on the tax credit in its list of recommendations for 2022 released early in December.

“Since its inception, the rural hospital tax credit has infused millions of dollars into the health-care systems in rural Georgia and prevented the closure of essential hospitals in rural communities,” the council’s report stated. “Taxpayers consistently donate funding that helps stabilize these critical health facilities.”

Rural hospitals also have been able to draw down federal COVID-19 relief funds since the coronavirus pandemic struck Georgia nearly two years ago.

But Lewis said that money has been used to offset the impact the additional burden COVID-19 has put on rural hospitals.

“That money went right back out the door, almost dollar for dollar,” he said.

Also, the American Recovery Plan Act President Joe Biden signed into law last March limits hospital funding to capital projects, Lewis said.

“That’s not operational,” he said. “The challenge we’ve got is money for operations.”

Despite the influx of federal dollars, hospitals in Cuthbert and Commerce shut their doors in late 2020, bringing to eight the number of rural hospitals in Georgia that have closed during the last decade. Only Texas and Tennessee have suffered more hospital closures during that period.

Lewis said he’s optimistic the General Assembly will see fit to increase the cap on Georgia’s rural hospital tax credit during the legislative session that starts Jan. 10. He pointed to the House Rural Development Council’s support as a positive sign.

“I think enough people have come to realize the fact that this is the cleanest way to get money into hospitals,” he said. “Suddenly, people realize the value of this.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Kemp commits $100 million to fight newest COVID-19 surge

ATLANTA – Georgia is throwing money and manpower at the latest surge in coronavirus.

Gov. Brian Kemp announced Wednesday that the state will spend $100 million to put up to 1,000 additional health-care workers on the job battling the spike in COVID-19 cases driven by the omicron variant.

Up to 200 Georgia National Guard troops also will be deployed beginning Jan. 3, Kemp said during an impromptu news conference. Half of those 200 will be sent to hospitals, while 96 will be assigned to help staff testing sites across the state operated by the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH).

The actions the governor announced came one day after the state set a record with 13,670 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 or likely cases detected by positive antigen rapid tests.

Despite the surge, Kemp vowed not to shut down the state’s economy with the kinds of restrictions imposed during the pandemic’s early days in March of last year.

“I will absolutely not be implementing any measures that shutter businesses or divide the vaccinated from the unvaccinated or the masked from the unmasked,” he said. “It is time to trust our citizens to do what’s right for themselves and their families.”

After speaking with the heads of nine health systems from across Georgia on Wednesday morning, Kemp said he was encouraged by data showing that those who have been vaccinated and boosted are likely to develop only mild symptoms even if they come down with COVID-19.

Kemp said 60% of eligible Georgians have received at least one shot, while 53% are fully vaccinated. Of the fully vaccinated, 35% have been boosted, the governor posted on Twitter.

The governor urged Georgians not to continue flooding hospitals for COVID tests. He said those wishing to be tested should go to one of the DPH testing sites, a mass testing site or use a reliable home test.

The DPH is increasing staff at its testing sites and working to open a new testing site near Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Kemp urged Georgians suffering through another wave of the pandemic to be patient and considerate of others.

“We’ve gotten through this before, and we will do it again,” he said. “We’re all in this fight together.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia adds Juneteenth to list of state holidays

ATLANTA – State workers will get a day off to observe Juneteenth for the first time this year, subject to the approval of the General Assembly.

A memo Gov. Brian Kemp sent to state agency heads last week lists Juneteenth – marking the freedom of enslaved Americans at the end of the Civil War – as one of 13 holidays when state offices will be closed.

The holiday will be observed on June 20 this year because June 19 – the actual Juneteenth holiday – falls on a Sunday.

The additional holiday requires legislative approval because current Georgia law only lists 12 state holidays. Legislation pre-filed in the state House of Representatives last week by Rep. Lauren McDonald, R-Cumming, one of Kemp’s floor leaders in the House, would authorize a 13th state holiday.

McDonald’s bill also requires Georgia to observe all federal holidays. President Joe Biden signed legislation last June officially designating Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

Juneteenth, a contraction of “June” and “nineteen,” marks the date in 1865 when Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3 in Galveston, Texas, proclaiming the end of slavery in the Lone Star State.

President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect Jan. 1, 1863, only applied to the 11 Confederate states, realistically areas of those states under Union control. It took the Union winning the war to enforce emancipation throughout the South.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.