Raffensperger moves to end distraction of Coffee County elections flap

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has stepped into the controversy over unauthorized access to election machines in Coffee County by allies of then-President Donald Trump’s in efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.

Raffensperger announced Friday that his office is replacing the election equipment in Coffee County to dispel any questioning of the accuracy of this year’s election outcomes.

“To allay the fears being stoked by perennial election deniers and conspiracy theorists, we’re replacing Coffee County’s election machines,” Raffensperger said.

“The investigation into the former Coffee County election officials who allowed the unauthorized access continues, and anyone who broke the law should be punished to its full extent. But the current election officials in Coffee County have to move forward with the 2022 election, and they should be able to do so without this distraction and the misinformation surrounding it.”

Footage from security cameras at the Coffee County elections office from January of last year shows former Coffee County election officials allowing unauthorized individuals to access equipment that under state law should have been secured.

“Voters expect to be able to trust their election officials and we rely on Georgia’s local election officials to follow the rules and laws that protect the integrity of Georgia elections,” Raffensperger said.

Meanwhile, groups challenging in a broader lawsuit the use of touchscreen voting machines in Georgia rather than hand-marked paper ballots accused Raffensperger’s office this week of dragging its feet in moving to investigate the Coffee County breach.

“We’ve never seen a voting system heist of this extent,” said Marilyn Marks, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition of Good Governance. “The people who went into Coffee County imaged the touchscreen machines, the server, the large-scale scanner. They got end-to-end software and voting system data.”

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit accused the secretary of state’s office of becoming aware of the breach as early as last February but not taking action.

Raffensperger said Friday both the State Election Board and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation are on the case.

“If the ongoing investigation … uncovers violations of the law, those individuals should be prosecuted and punished to the full extent of the law,” he said.

State officials previously replaced Coffee County’s election management server and central scanner workstation.

The county also will be receiving 100 ballot-marking devices, 100 printers, 10 precinct scanners, 21 poll pads, and new flash cards and thumb drives in time for installation and testing before voting begins.

Raffensperger has opposed Trump’s efforts to reverse Democrat Joe Biden’s victory in Georgia in the 2020 election since early January 2021, when during a recorded phone call with the then-president, he refused to “find” the 11,780 votes Trump would need to carry the state.

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

Good-government measure aimed at suspended elected officials tops proposals on statewide ballot

Former Georgia Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck is the poster child for a proposed constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot.

ATLANTA – After Gov. Brian Kemp suspended then-state Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck in 2019 following Beck’s indictment for fraud and money laundering, he continued collecting his annual taxpayer-funded salary of $195,000.

Those dismaying political optics would be avoided in the future if Georgia voters approve a constitutional amendment on the November ballot prohibiting statewide elected officials and members of the General Assembly from being paid after they have been indicted for a felony and suspended from office.

The proposal is one of four voters will decide Nov. 8 along with the fates of a myriad of candidates for federal, state, and local offices.

A second constitutional amendment would allow cities, counties and local school districts to temporarily exempt disaster victims from paying property taxes. Two other ballot questions contain tax exemptions for farmers and foresters.

Supporters say amending the state Constitution to prevent indicted elected officials from collecting salaries while awaiting trial would close a glaring loophole in state law.

Georgia Sen. Larry Walker III, R-Perry, the amendment’s chief sponsor, called it a “common-sense measure” when it was debated on the Senate floor.

“As elected officials, we have a duty to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money,” Walker said. “In the business world … you wouldn’t pay someone convicted of a felony to do a job.”

With bipartisan support, the amendment passed the Senate unanimously, then cleared the state House of Representatives overwhelmingly.

The constitutional amendment aimed at helping disaster victims was prompted by a strong tornado that hit Heard, Coweta, and Fayette counties in March of last year.

“We had so many homes and properties destroyed,” said state Rep. Lynn Smith, R-Newnan, the amendment’s chief sponsor. “We’re still recovering from the storm.”

Smith said property owners who lost everything that spring still were hit with property tax bills last fall, forcing some to pay taxes on homes and businesses that essentially didn’t exist.

“The cities, counties, and school systems had no way to waive what was due from these homeowners who were devastated,” she said.

The amendment would let local governments and school boards grant temporary tax relief to owners of properties that have been severely damaged or destroyed by a disaster and are located within a nationally declared disaster area.

Details such as how long temporary that tax forgiveness would last are yet to be worked out. Smith said if voters approve the constitutional change, lawmakers will take up an “enabling bill” during the 2023 General Assembly session specifying how the tax exemption would work.

The third proposal Georgia voters will decide is a ballot question that would exempt from state property taxes equipment used in the timber industry.

Georgia ranks as the No.-1 forestry state in the nation, tops in commercially available timberland with 22 million acres, tops in the volume of timber harvested each year, and tops in forest product exports with an estimated annual trade value of $3.9 billion, according to the Georgia Forestry Association.

The tax exemption would include not only the heavy equipment used to harvest timber but also the tractors used in planting trees for reforestation, said Matt Hestad, vice president of engagement for the forestry association.

“Some of these pieces of equipment can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Hestad said.

The fourth and final question on the ballot would expand an existing property tax exemption for agricultural equipment by applying it to equipment shared by two or more family farms.

“The intense amount of capital required to farm makes neighbors share equipment sometimes,” Walker, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said during a recent summit on agricultural issues in Perry. “Becoming as efficient as we can in how we use technology is one part of solving the equation.”

The ballot question also would add dairy products and unfertilized poultry eggs to the tax exemption.

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

New poll: Kemp leads Abrams; Warnock, Walker tied

ATLANTA – Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has opened a seven-point lead on Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams, while U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., is tied with GOP challenger Herschel Walker, according to a new poll.

The survey, conducted by the progressive think tank and polling firm Data for Progress, shows Kemp leading Abrams 51% to 44% in their second race for governor. Kemp narrowly defeated Abrams in 2018.

Warnock, who is running for a first full term in the Senate, and Walker, the University of Georgia football icon, each polled 46% of the vote.

In both races, a Libertarian candidate is polling in the single digits.

The poll also found President Joe Biden well underwater with Georgia voters. The Democrat is viewed favorably by 42% of voters surveyed, while 57% hold an unfavorable view of the president.

Former President Donald Trump did somewhat better, with a 47% favorable rating and 51% viewing the Republican unfavorably.

Just more than half of those surveyed – 51% – said their biggest concern heading into the November elections is addressing economic ills including inflation. Well below the economy were the 17% of voters who said they were most concerned that the Democratic Party is moving too far left.

Next on the priority list came the need to protect access to legal and safe abortions, the most important issue for 16% of voters surveyed. Another 14% said they’re most concerned that the Republican Party is moving too far right.

Data for Progress interviewed 1,006 likely Georgia voters between Sept. 16 and Sept. 20. The sample was weighted to be representative of likely voters by age, gender, education, race, geography, and voting history.

The poll had a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3%.

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

Senate committee considers how to help veterans homes in Georgia  

Georgia veterans commissioner Patricia Ross (left) and state Sen. Tonya Anderson (right) – both U.S. Air Force veterans – after the study committee meeting on Thursday. (photo credit: Rebecca Grapevine)

ATLANTA – A state Senate study committee focusing on veterans nursing homes in Georgia met Thursday to hear about problems Georgia veterans face and what the state can do to help.  

Though most veterans health-care services are spearheaded by the federal government’s Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), states also have an important role to play in helping veterans apply for and manage their benefits.  

In Georgia, the Department of Veterans Service (DVS) maintains two skilled nursing facilities in Milledgeville and Augusta. Currently, the two homes can provide skilled nursing services to around 400 Georgia veterans, said Russell Feagin, director of health and memorials at DVS. 

But around 2,000 veterans in Georgia need such placements, according to a VA estimate cited during the meeting.  

A variety of factors have stymied the state’s ability to serve more veterans in such homes.  

Funding is one. The veterans homes are financed by federal dollars that Georgia must match, Feagin said. 

State budget cuts over the past decade decreased funding while costs have risen, Feagin said, meaning the two homes can afford to serve fewer veterans.  

And like other health-care facilities nationwide, the veterans homes face challenges hiring and keeping enough staff, especially because they cannot match private-sector wages, he said.  

“An increase in dollars will help solve the problem in Milledgeville and actually Augusta,” said DVS Commissioner Patricia Ross. “But we still will not come close to that 2,000 number that the VA says we should have within the state.”  

Ross, who took over as commissioner of the agency last year, said Alabama will soon open its fifth veterans home despite having about half the number of veterans as Georgia. South Carolina also has five such homes and a smaller population of veterans.  

Georgia will face increased demand over the next two decades as the post-9/11 cohort of veterans ages, Ross added.  

A research center at Kennesaw State University is conducting a study about which locations in Georgia would be best suited to build new veterans homes, she said. Those results are expected later this fall.  

Beyond the numbers, new facilities could provide the state with the opportunity to embrace more recent health-care trends, such as smaller communities built around cottages or pods, Ross said.  

“We need to be moving on a path to making the situation better,” said the committee’s chairwoman, Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, R-Marietta, noting veterans issues tend to draw broad bipartisan support. Her resolution during this year’s legislative session created the committee.  

Kirkpatrick said the committee will meet again in December to discuss the findings from the Kennesaw State study.  

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

State awards first two medical cannabis production licenses

ATLANTA – The agency in charge of Georgia’s medical cannabis program has awarded the first two production licenses for a product the General Assembly legalized seven years ago but that has yet to materialize.

The Georgia Commission for Access to Medical Cannabis voted this week to award licenses to Trulieve Georgia Inc. and Biological Sciences LLC to grow marijuana and convert the leafy crop into low-THC cannabis oil for sale to patients suffering from a range of diseases.

Trulieve is building an indoor cultivation facility in Adel, while Biological Sciences will set up shop in Glennville.

The legislature tried to launch a medical cannabis program back in 2015 by legalizing possession of low-THC cannabis oil. But the law didn’t provide a legal means of obtaining the drug until 2019, when lawmakers put in place a licensing process for companies interested in getting into the medical cannabis business in Georgia.

The commission issued tentative production licenses to six companies more than a year ago, but the process quickly bogged down when losing bidders filed protests claiming the selection of winners was unfair and arbitrary.

After a bill aimed at getting the process back on track failed during this year’s legislative session, Gov. Brian Kemp set aside $150,000 from the Governor’s Emergency Fund to expedite hearings for those companies that had been denied licenses.

Officials with Florida-based Trulieve Cannabis Corp. said Wednesday the company will hit the ground running with its production license.

“The Georgia team is hard at work to begin operations as soon as possible to ensure those in need have access to Trulieve’s  line of products,” Trulieve Georgia President Lisa Pinkney said. “We’re also excited to share that Trulieve’s operation and its ancillary business partners are projected to create a wide range of jobs in the state as the business grows.”

Trulieve will have an initial allocation of five medical cannabis dispensaries in Georgia and will seek to open additional dispensaries as the patient population grows, according to a news release.

Under the 2019 law, low-THC cannabis oil may be used in Georgia to treat patients with diseases including seizure disorders, Parkinson’s disease, terminal cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder and sickle-cell anemia.

To get the drug – which is available by prescription only – patients must enroll in a registry overseen by the state Department of Public Health.

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