Georgia Senate passes transgender sports bill

ATLANTA – Controversial legislation prohibiting transgender students born male from competing in most girls’ sports in Georgia cleared the Republican-controlled state Senate Thursday.

The bill, which passed 34-22 along party lines, stems from complaints by parents of biological girls who have quit sports because they don’t want to have to compete against transgendered girls who were born male and, thus, enjoy an unfair advantage in strength and speed, said Sen. Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone, the measure’s chief sponsor.

“This bill is about fairness,” he said. “It’s simply not fair to force biological girls to compete against biological boys.”

But Senate Democrats argued the legislation stigmatizes transgendered students, a particularly vulnerable group of young people who suffer from a high suicide rate.

“This is hurting our kids,” said a tearful Sen. Sally Harrell, D-Atlanta, who is the mother of a transgendered child.

Harrell said the bill is premature, coming at a time when transgendered children aren’t well understood by many.

“Let society deal with this issue for a little while,” she said. “Let the sports associations try to figure it out.”

Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, said the measure is politically motivated, part of a conservative agenda Republicans are pushing under the Gold Dome.

“It’s another election-year bill about another fabricated problem,” she said. “Ostracizing vulnerable children to get votes is despicable.”

But Sen. Matt Brass, R-Newnan, said the bill is meant to safeguard the integrity of girls’ sports.

“Women’s sports is one of the greatest tools we have in the fight for gender equality,” he said. “This bill simply protects that tool.”

The bill now moves to the Georgia House of Representatives.

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

Georgia lawmakers mulling bill to grant refugees in-state college tuition

Georgia Rep. Wes Cantrell

ATLANTA – Legislation that would grant in-state college tuition to refugees from Afghanistan resettled in Georgia last year drew bipartisan support in a state House committee Wednesday.

House Bill 932 would waive the one-year residency requirement to qualify for in-state tuition at the state’s public colleges and universities that applies to students who have moved to Georgia from out of state.

“These refugees … worked with our military, primarily in Afghanistan,” Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, the bill’s chief sponsor, told members of the House Higher Education Committee Wednesday. “These folks want to be American and live the dream.”

Cantrell chaired a legislative study committee last year that looked for ways to strengthen Georgia’s economy by enabling foreign-born Georgians to contribute to the fullest extent possible. About 10% of Georgians today were born outside of the United States.

“We’ve got more jobs in Georgia than people,” Cantrell said. “We shouldn’t be putting up artificial limits to these people getting educated and becoming productive members of society.”

“It’s a common-sense way to address an economic development issue,” added Rep. Betsy Holland, D-Atlanta.

Darlene Lynch, chairman of the Business & Immigration for Georgia Partnership, a coalition of business and civic leaders, said refugees should be treated differently under the law governing in-state tuition than people who choose to move here from other states.

“Georgia is the only state they have ever called home,” she said. “They have been told to come to Georgia to resettle here.”

But committee Chairman Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, said he’s uncomfortable with waiving the one-year residency requirement for refugees while still applying it to others who move to Georgia.

“My struggle is putting these folks ahead of other folks,” he said.

The committee did not vote on the bill Wednesday but could decide whether to advance it as soon as next week.

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

State senator pitches lower-cost financing for Plant Vogtle expansion

Plant Vogtle

ATLANTA – Allowing Georgia Power to finance the Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion and other large projects through ratepayer-backed bonds could save customers hundreds of millions of dollars, supporters told a state Senate committee Tuesday.

But an executive with the Atlanta-based utility said such securitized bonds are risky and are typically reserved only for unexpected costs.

Senate Bill 421 would authorize Georgia Power to pursue securitized bond financing to recover some of the costs of the Vogtle project as well as what Georgia Power is spending to retire its fleet of coal-burning power plants and clean up the ash ponds surrounding those plants.

Going with securitized bonds would be voluntary on Georgia Power’s part and would be subject to a vote of the state Public Service Commission (PSC).

Securitized bonds would reduce interest rates compared to traditional bond financing, yielding utility customers huge savings, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, told members of the Senate Committee on Regulated Industries and Utilities. Twenty-two states have adopted laws allowing securitized bonds, Hufstetler said.

“Moody’s [Investors Service] says securitization is credit-positive,” he said. “This seems to work in other states.”

Representatives of both the state’s largest power customers – the Georgia Association of Manufacturers – and residential ratepayers testified in favor of Hufstetler’s bill.

Liz Coyle, executive director of the consumer advocacy group Georgia Watch, said Georgia Power’s customers have been paying for the construction of two additional nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle since 2011, even though the project still isn’t finished.

The utility has been earning a profit on the project during that time, despite extreme delays and cost overruns, Coyle said.

By the time the reactors go into service late this year and next year, the average customer will have paid $900 toward the project, she said.

“This bill is an opportunity for the power company and the commission to relieve some of the higher costs coming onto customers’ bills,” she said.

But Aaron Abramovitz, Georgia Power’s chief financial officer, said securitized bonds have been used in other states only for “unexpected, unusual, extraordinary expenses.” As examples, he cited Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the failure of the power grid in Texas during severe weather last winter.

Once the utility decided to use securitized bond financing, it would be irreversible, Abramovitz said.

“It could limit future financial flexibility not only for Georgia Power but for its customers,” he said.

Abramovitz said Georgia Power already has secured $5 billion in “inexpensive debt” in the form of federal loan guarantees for the Plant Vogtle expansion from the Department of Energy.

Also, the PSC has yet to determine whether to authorize recovery from Georgia Power ratepayers of any of the Vogtle project’s capital costs beyond an original commitment of $7.3 billion, he said.

Committee Chairman Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, said he wants to hear from members of the PSC on Hufstetler’s bill before voting on it.

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

Georgia House OKs rural tax credit program with troubled history

Georgia Rep. James Burchett

ATLANTA – The state House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed legislation Tuesday to authorize a second round of funding for a rural tax credit program created during the last decade.

The Georgia Agribusiness and Rural Jobs Act (GARJA), which cleared the House 153-11 and now moves to the state Senate, would provide $60 million in tax credits to companies in rural areas of the state with fewer than 250 employees, starting Aug. 1.

“This gives rural agricultural businesses another opportunity to borrow money,” said Rep. James Burchett, R-Waycross, the bill’s chief sponsor.

“In this state, small and mid-size family farmers are having to overcome obstacles that are vastly different from what we grew up with,” added Rep. Winfred Dukes, D-Albany.

Despite the strong support for the bill Tuesday, the tax credit has a checkered history in Georgia. Supporters tried to authorize a second round of funding last year as part of an omnibus tax credit bill, but the legislative conference committee that hashed out the final version of that bill pulled it out of the measure.

Its detractors argued its impact on creating jobs had never been evaluated in Georgia or proven effective elsewhere.

Their concerns appeared spot on late last year when the state released an audit declaring the jobs generated from the program’s initial round of funding didn’t come close to justifying the cost to the state in lost tax revenue.

“GARJA’s limited job creation claims have been called into question, and eight other states have tried and failed to implement similar deeply flawed programs, said Danny Kanso, a senior tax and budget policy analyst with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

Rep. Matthew Wilson, D-Brookhaven, who voted against the bill Tuesday, said it makes no provision going forward for determining whether the second round of tax credit proves effective.

Georgia Senate passes Parents’ Bill of Rights

ATLANTA – Legislation guaranteeing parents input into their children’s education cleared the Republican-controlled Georgia Senate Tuesday.

The bill, which passed 33-21 along party lines and now moves to the state House of Representatives, is part of an education agenda being pushed by GOP Gov. Brian Kemp that includes measures prohibiting the teaching of certain “divisive concepts” in Georgia schools and banning transgendered students born male from competing in girls’ sports.

The Parents’ Bill of Rights would give parents the right to review curriculum and other instructional material during the first two weeks of every nine-week grading period in public schools.

Principals or superintendents who receive a request for information from a parent would have three working days to provide it.

If the principal or superintendent is unable to share the information within that timeframe, they would have to provide the parent a written description of the material and a timeline for its delivery, not to exceed 30 days. Parents not satisfied with a local school’s decision on a request could appeal to the school district and, beyond that, to the state.

Parents also would be able to opt out of sex education instruction for their children and could prohibit photos or videos of their children unless necessary for public safety.

“At the end of the day, parents know what’s best for a child before the government,” said Sen. Jason Anavitarte, R-Dallas

Senate Democrats argued the legislation is unnecessary because parents already can play a role in their children’s education if they choose to.

“Parents are invited to back-to-school nights and parent-teacher conferences,” said Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta. “They can attend school board meetings and many do. They can elect school board members.”

The bill would create an adversarial relationship between parents and teachers when they should be working together, Parent said.

“This bill creates a process for investigation and appeals …  document production efforts that contribute to an atmosphere of censorship and overburdening of teachers,” she said.

Parent predicted the bill would worsen an already troublesome shortage of teachers in Georgia.

Supporters countered that a Parents’ Bill of Rights has become necessary in Georgia because in-home instruction during the coronavirus pandemic has shown parents what their children are learning that, in some cases, conflicts with their values.

“Our parents have learned more of what their children are being taught than ever before,” said Sen. Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone. “That’s what’s caused some of these concerns.”

“How can you sit here and fight against the rights of parents?” Sen. Matt Brass, R-Newnan, asked the bill’s opponents from the Senate well. “We are simply returning control back to the parents that they have lost.”

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