Kemp, Abrams: Same gubernatorial candidates, different race

ATLANTA – Republican Brian Kemp won the governorship four years ago by narrowly defeating Democrat Stacey Abrams.

While this year’s gubernatorial race pits the two in a rematch, the dynamics are different. Kemp has a record to defend, while Abrams has the same record to attack.

Kemp’s narrative on the campaign trail has been that he was quick to reopen Georgia’s economy ahead of most states during the early months of the pandemic, which produced a record state budget surplus he is now using to underwrite tax cuts.

“We have excess revenue,” the governor told cheering supporters during a campaign stop in Alpharetta late last month. “We’re going to send it back to you the taxpayers.”

Abrams’ theme has been about the opportunities Kemp is missing to use a surplus generated by massive federal pandemic relief – not Kemp – to improve education, housing and health care for everyday Georgians.

“Billions of dollars are coming to this state because of [President] Joe Biden’s leadership,” Abrams said earlier this month as she launched a statewide bus tour from a Mexican restaurant in southeast Atlanta. “My intention is to spend those dollars on the funding needs of Georgia.”

If the economy is Kemp’s top issue this year, crime is a close second.

Kemp created a Crime Suppression Unit last year to use law enforcement personnel from several state agencies to help local police departments fight a pandemic-driven crime wave. The unit has served warrants on more than 600 criminal suspects, including 29 murder warrants.

“The men and women in law enforcement want a governor who stands with them in … going after street gangs and human traffickers,” Kemp said. “I’m going to go after bad people who are selling drugs and killing our children.”

Kemp has accused Abrams of being soft on crime by supporting an end to cash bail and has charged Democrats in general with wanting to “defund” the police, a talking point Republicans across the country have used to attack their opponents.

Abrams has countered that Kemp’s backing of legislation the Republican-controlled General Assembly enacted this year to let gun owners carry concealed firearms without a permit is making Georgians less safe.

“Street gangs did not shoot six Asian women,” she said, referring to the killings at three metro-Atlanta spas in March of last year by a lone gunman. “Street gangs are not the reason people are getting shot in grocery stores, parking lots, and schools. … We have a governor who has weakened gun laws across our state.”

Abrams has also criticized Kemp and two Republican predecessors in the Governor’s Mansion for not expanding Georgia’s Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act Congress passed in 2010, a step she said would provide health-care access to 500,000 currently uninsured Georgians.

“Thirty-eight states have spent the last decade proving Medicaid expansion works,” she said. “[Former New Jersey Republican Gov.] Chris Christie did it. Mike Pence did it [while governor of Indiana]. … This is not a partisan issue. This is a math issue.”

Kemp, who opposes Medicaid expansion as too expensive, called it a “broken government program.” His administration’s proposals for a more limited version of Medicaid expansion have been rejected by the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Abortion has become a hot campaign issue in Georgia and around the country since the U.S. Supreme Court last June overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion as a constitutional right.

The ruling allowed Kemp and GOP state Attorney General Chris Carr to put into effect the “heartbeat” law the Georgia legislature passed in 2019 banning abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, typically about six weeks into a pregnancy.

Kemp said during a debate earlier this month that he would not push for abortion restrictions beyond the heartbeat law, which includes exceptions for rape and incest, if a police report is filed, when the mother’s life is at risk, or if a serious medical condition renders a fetus unviable.

Abrams pointed to polls that show most Georgia voters oppose the heartbeat law.

“[Kemp] has weakened our privacy rights,” she said. “He has denied women’s rights to reproductive care.”

Democrats say the education agenda Kemp and Republican legislative leaders pushed through the General Assembly this year is diverting attention from the need for more funding.

GOP lawmakers voted along party lines to prohibit teachers from teaching “divisive concepts” to their students primarily about the history of racism in America, give parents a more direct role in their children’s education through a Parents’ Bill of Rights and essentially ban transgender students born male from competing in most girls’ sports.

Abrams said Kemp’s fulfillment of a pledge to raise teacher salaries by $5,000 a year during his first term isn’t enough. She said she wants to increase annual teacher pay by $11,000, set $50,000 as the starting salary for teachers, expand child-care slots by 30,000 and restore free community college tuition.

“Teachers are leaving the workforce because of low pay and overregulation,” she said. “We can do all this without raising a dime in taxes. … We’ve got the money.”

Kemp said the state is already funding K-12 education in Georgia at a record level coming off a recession and a global pandemic. Going forward, he is putting an emphasis on helping students recover from the learning loss they suffered when schools closed during the pandemic and students were forced to rely on online instruction.

The governor said this year’s education agenda was prompted by complaints from parents.

“People are tired of their kids being indoctrinated in the classroom,” he said. “People are tired of not having fairness in girls’ sports.”

Kemp and other Republicans – notably Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger – have pointed to record-setting turnout during the first week of early voting in Georgia as proof Democrats’ charges of voter suppression are unfounded.

After absentee voting played a huge part in Democratic victories in Georgia in the pandemic-era elections of 2020, the General Assembly passed a bill last year replacing the signature-match verification process for absentee ballots with an ID requirement and limiting the number of ballot drop boxes.

Lawmakers followed up this year with legislation giving the Georgia Bureau of Investigation the power to investigate complaints of election fraud unilaterally without having to be called in by local prosecutors.

“In Georgia, it’s easy to vote and hard to cheat,” Kemp said.

Abrams said Kemp has a history of trying to suppress the vote, going back to his days as secretary of state before he ran for governor. She said last year’s bill restored restrictions voting rights groups had gotten rid of through lawsuits following the 2018 elections.

“We need a governor who believes in access to the right to vote and not voter suppression,” she said.

Going forward, Kemp has outlined priorities for a second term as governor, including an additional $2 billion in income and property tax rebates and a further crackdown on criminal gangs.

Kemp has held a solid lead over Abrams in most recent polls. But if Abrams pulls an upset, she will face an uphill battle getting her agenda through a legislature that likely still will be controlled by Republicans.

Abrams said she has experience in that department, pointing to cuts in HOPE Scholarship benefits then-House Minority Leader Abrams and then-GOP Gov. Nathan Deal pushed through the General Assembly in 2011 to save a program facing a financial “cataclysmic cliff.”

Early voting in Georgia continues through Nov. 4 ahead of Election Day Nov. 8.

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

Georgia music industry advocates call for richer state tax incentives

The Columbia County Performing Arts Center opened earlier this year in Evans.

ATLANTA – Georgia is losing income-generating concerts and theatrical productions to other states with richer tax incentives, performing arts venue managers and music industry advocates told state lawmakers Thursday.

“We all support music,” Mala Sharma, president of Georgia Music Partners, the state’s leading music industry advocacy organization, told members of a legislative study committee looking for ways to grow the industry in the Peach State. “We need to bet on it now.”

The General Assembly passed legislation in 2017 providing tax incentives to musical productions, including both live and recorded performances. The bill was modeled after state tax incentives to the film industry that have played a key role in Georgia becoming a leading center for movie and TV production.

But Georgia’s music industry tax incentives have proven weak compared to incentives offered by other states, Sharma said.

“We were leapfrogged when Tennessee and other states … perfected their music incentives,” she said.

Josh Small, general manager of the $33 million Columbia County Performing Arts Center, which opened earlier this year in Evans, said the new facility lost a musical production to Louisiana despite featuring the latest amenities that make it easy to stage productions there.

“The producer would rather have used us,” he said. “They would have come here if we had the tax credit.”

Norm Easterbrook, executive director of the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts in Columbus, said the producer of a national tour of “To Kill a Mockingbird” was negotiating with the RiverCenter but went to New York state instead because it had better tax incentives.

Easterbrook said requirements in Georgia’s current music tax incentives that producers spend a certain amount of money and run productions for a certain length of time to qualify for the tax break are making it difficult for smaller venues around the state to land quality productions. Those 2017 tax incentives are due to expire at the end of this year.

“We’re asking for these adjustments so we can have an economic development tool,” Easterbrook said.

Easterbrook said there’s also a quality-of-life element to being able to stage musical productions in Georgia.

“It makes a top-drawer production that’s going to tour the country available to our cities at an affordable cost,” he said.

In addition to improving its tax incentives, Georgia also would benefit by creating a state office to support the music industry, said Brendon Anthony, who directs the Texas Music Office in Austin.

The four-person agency was formed as a standalone operation back in 1991 but didn’t really take off until it was put under the governor’s office and later under that state’s economic development and tourism operation.

Anthony said research compiled by his office has generated economic impact data that shows the benefits a vibrant music industry brings to a state.

The office also has launched a “music-friendly community” program that helps cities network with each other to promote their music venues. Every city in Texas with a population of more than 1 million is participating in the program, he said.

“We are lucky to have an office like ours,” he said. “We continue to affect how our industry operates in large ways.”

The study committee will hold one more meeting this fall before formulating its recommendations for the full General Assembly to consider during the 2023 legislative session beginning in January.

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

MARTA looks within own ranks to hire new chief

Collie Greenwood

ATLANTA – The MARTA executive who has been serving as interim general manager and CEO since January has been named to the post permanently.

The transit agency’s board of directors chose Collie Greenwood Thursday to head MARTA following a nationwide search.

“I am honored and humbled by this opportunity,” Greenwood said. “I love transit and have known since my days of driving a bus how vital it is to people and their communities.

“I am eager to get to work enhancing and expanding service in the metro Atlanta region.”

Greenwood rose through the ranks over 30 years to serve as chief service officer with the Toronto Transit Commission, the third largest transit system in North America. 

He joined MARTA in July 2019 as chief of bus operations and urban planning. He was named deputy general manager of operations early last year, overseeing all bus and rail operations and helping to develop and deliver major capital projects.

Greenwood was named interim general manager and CEO in January of this year following the suicide death of MARTA chief Jeffrey Parker.

A search conducted by a consultant identified 11 candidates with varying backgrounds in transportation and other business sectors to replace Parker. The search committee interviewed five candidates and concluded Greenwood was the best fit for MARTA.

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

Ossoff sees ‘signs of improvement’ at Atlanta federal penitentiary

U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff speaks with reporters after inspecting the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. (Photo credit: Dave Williams)

ATLANTA – Conditions at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta appear to be improving, U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., said Wednesday after inspecting a facility that has drawn complaints from staff whistleblowers and inmates.

But it’s far too soon to declare the prison problem-free, Ossoff told reporters across the street from the facility after he and Colette Peters, the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ new director, completed their inspection.

“I heard a firm commitment from the new leadership to continue improving the facility,” Ossoff said. “But I’m not satisfied yet and will continue to hold this leadership accountable.”

Ossoff, chairman of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, led a 10-month investigation of the Atlanta penitentiary that found lax security, inmates denied proper nutrition and hygiene products, and a lack of inmate access to legal counsel.

“It was the internal assessment of the Bureau of Prisons that problems of this facility were severe, and they posed a threat to the broader community,” he said.

Ossoff’s subcommittee held a hearing last July that featured testimony from two former administrators at the prison describing severe abuse of inmates and inhumane conditions going back at least to 2014.

The senator asked pointed questions of then-bureau Director Michael Carvajal and was not satisfied with his answers, Ossoff said at the time.

Not only has Carvajal been replaced since then, but the Atlanta facility also has a new warden.

On Wednesday, Ossoff and Peters toured the penitentiary’s security facilities, a special housing unit, medical facilities, and the kitchen and food hall. They also spoke to a “broad range” of staff and inmates, Ossoff said.

“Our [subcommittee] findings laid out a wide range of deficiencies requiring remediation,” he said. “I want to see improvements across the board.”

Ossoff and Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., introduced legislation last month calling for greater oversight of the federal prison system. The bill would establish an independent ombudsman in the Justice Department to investigate the health, safety, welfare, and rights of prison inmates and staff and create a secure hotline for relatives and representatives of inmates to lodge complaints.

On Wednesday, Ossoff said the bill’s prospects for passage are favorable because it has bipartisan support.

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

Pro-choice advocates argue against abortion law in state court

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney

ATLANTA – Both sides in the legal battle over Georgia’s 2019 law banning most abortions after about six weeks into a pregnancy made their cases during a trial in state court this week.

While the General Assembly enacted the abortion law three years ago, federal court rulings prevented it from taking effect until this summer after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion.

Pro-choice advocates then challenged the law in state court, arguing it is unconstitutional under the Georgia Constitution’s right to privacy.

During the trial in Fulton County Superior Court this week, lawyers for the plaintiffs presented expert witnesses including doctors, a public health expert and an ultrasound technician. The experts argued that the law has detrimental effects on Georgians’ health.

 “Georgia’s ban has disproportionately harmed communities that already face barriers to health care: Black, Indigenous, and people of color; people with low incomes; and those who live in rural communities,” Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said Tuesday after the court hearing concluded. “We have asked the court to end this state-inflicted trauma so that providers in Georgia can care for the patients who need them.” 

Lawyers for the state questioned the methods and conclusions of the plaintiffs’ witnesses and presented their own expert testimony in support of House Bill 481. 

“Human life begins when the sperm fertilizes the egg,  the moment of conception when that new human being becomes a genetically distinct person,” said Dr. Jeffrey Wright, a specialist in maternal-fetal medicine who practices in North Carolina who has served as an expert witness in abortion cases in other states.

Wright said Georgia’s law provides sufficient exceptions to allow physicians to decide to perform abortions if the life of the mother is at risk.

“[Doctors] can still provide that same medical care,” he said.

Fulton Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney said Monday he would not rule on the matter until after Georgia’s Nov. 8 midterm elections, in part due to the extensive evidence presented to him.

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