Georgia school districts awarded federal grants for electric school buses

ATLANTA – Georgia school systems will receive $51.1 million in federal grants for the purchase of electric school buses, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced Wednesday.

The Clean School Bus Program, announced last May, is aimed at accelerating the nation’s transition to zero-emission vehicles and produce cleaner air in and around schools and their communities.

Altogether, nearly $1 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure spending bill Congress passed last fall will go to 389 school districts spanning all 50 states; Washington, D.C.; and several tribes and U.S. territories.

“As many as 25 million children rely on the bus to get to school each day,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said. “Thanks to the Biden-Harris administration, we are making an unprecedented investment in our children’s health, especially those in communities overburdened by air pollution.

“This is just the beginning of our work to build a healthier future, reduce climate pollution, and ensure the clean, breathable air that all our children deserve.”

In Georgia, school bus grants are going to 15 school districts. The largest grants of $9.9 million each are headed for school systems in Atlanta, Clayton County and Savannah-Chatham County.

The awards announced Wednesday represent the first $1 billion of a five-year, $5 billion program created under the infrastructure law.

EPA is designing the next rounds of program funding to launch in the coming months. Through future rounds of funding, EPA will make available another $1 billion for clean school buses during the next fiscal year.

The agency encourages school districts not selected in the first round of grants – and those that did not apply this funding cycle – to participate in future rounds.

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

Joe Frank Harris endorses Kemp for governor

Joe Frank Harris

ATLANTA – Former Georgia Gov. Joe Frank Harris, a Democrat, endorsed Republican Gov. Brian Kemp Wednesday.

“Governor Kemp is a proven leader,” Harris said in a prepared statement. “I am proud of the tough decisions he has made during these challenging times.”

Kemp, who is seeking a second term in office, is being opposed by Democrat Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost to Kemp four years ago.

Harris, a businessman from Cartersville, served two terms as governor from 1983 to 1991. He later spent seven years as a member of the University System of Georgia Board of Regents.

“Georgia is better off today thanks to Governor Joe Frank Harris’ dedicated leadership and service to our state,” Kemp said Wednesday. “Thanks to his foresight and investment in our state’s education system, Georgia’s best and brightest days are ahead. We are honored to have Governor Harris’ endorsement and support.”

Harris is the second former Democratic governor to endorse a Republican candidate for statewide office in recent weeks. Former Gov. Roy Barnes threw his support behind GOP state Sen. Tyler Harper’s bid for agriculture commissioner earlier this month.

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

Mental health advocates urge Georgians to “vote for mental health”

Kim Jones, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Georgia, speaks at the state Capitol on Tuesday.

ATLANTA – Mental health advocates urged Georgians Tuesday to “vote for mental health” at a press conference at the state Capitol.  

“Mental health is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. It is a Georgia issue,” said Kim Jones, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Georgia. “Make sure your voice is heard and vote. … Every elected official … has influence on issues impacting people who are impacted by a mental health condition.”

Kristen Petillo, area director for the Georgia chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, praised the steps Georgia has already taken to address its mental health problems, such as passing a major mental health reform law during this year’s legislative session. The new law requires insurers to treat mental health conditions on par with how they treat physical conditions, along with many other new measures.  

But still more is needed, Petillo said, especially given widespread mental health problems among Georgia youth.  

Petillo cited a recent study that found more than half of Georgia’s middle- and high-schoolers reported feeling depressed, sad or withdrawn at least once in the prior month, and that one in eight have seriously considered suicide within the past year.  

“Although many Georgians are remarkably resilient, those who are exposed to unfavorable circumstances are at higher risk of experiencing behavioral health conditions,” Petillo said.

Petillo pointed to racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ community members, low-income groups and people living in rural areas as groups who face multiple socioeconomic and health challenges that can lead to greater mental health burdens.  

For example, people living in rural Georgia are about twice as likely to die by suicide as people living in suburban and urban areas because of the wider availability of lethal means,  greater social isolation and less access to care in many rural areas, Petillo said.

Petillo outlined several key priorities for going forward, such as working to increase access to mental health providers, holding insurers accountable for treating mental health conditions, and focusing on health equity and disparities.  

Darlene Lynch, head of external relations for the Center for Victims of Torture in Atlanta, said that more culturally and linguistically accessible care is needed to meet the needs of the one-in-10 foreign-born Georgians. 

“Because of the cultural and linguistic barriers, the lack of access in our state … compared to the other top 10 most diverse states in the nation, we lag behind” in providing care to such immigrants, Lynch said. She suggested creating a special division in the state government to focus on providing linguistically and culturally sensitive care.  

A recent report by the national organization Mental Health America found mixed results for Georgia.  

The organization’s overall ranking combining 15 factors related to mental health placed Georgia 24th in the country.   

But when the report zoomed in on specific measures, Georgia fared worse. For example, the Peach State was ranked first for prevalence of mental illness and for adults with serious thoughts of suicide. Georgia was ranked second for rates of youth with substance disorders in the past year and placed 49th in the access-to- care rankings.  

The state’s Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission has been meeting this fall to develop further mental health reform recommendations for the legislature to consider next year.

Jones said that Georgians can visit to learn more about mental health issues and voting in the upcoming election. Georgians seeking help with mental health or substance issues can also dial 9-8-8 to speak with a trained counselor.

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

Georgia political, business leaders break ground on massive Hyundai EV plant

Euisun Chung (left), executive chair of Hyundai Motor Group, toasts Hyundai’s electric vehicle manufacturing plant in Bryan County with Gov. Brian Kemp during a groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday.

ATLANTA – Georgia political and business leaders joined with their Korean counterparts Tuesday to break ground on the largest economic development project in the state’s history.

Hyundai Motor Group is about to begin construction on a $5.5 billion electric vehicle and battery manufacturing plant in Bryan County expected to create 8,100 jobs when fully built out.

“We are excited to be your neighbor and partner,” José Muñoz, president and CEO of Hyundai Group North America, said during a groundbreaking ceremony held at the plant site. “This is going to be a massive operation with a scale that’s hard to comprehend.”

Gov. Brian Kemp said the Hyundai plant is part of $13 billion in investment for electric mobility projects Georgia has landed since 2020. Those projects will create more than 18,000 jobs, Kemp said.

“Businesses know we’re not only a sure bet today,” he said. “We will continue to build on these achievements for years to come.”

Deputy U.S. Commerce Secretary Don Graves said the Hyundai plant dovetails with the Biden administration’s efforts to combat climate change by stepping up EV production. President Joe Biden’s goal of EVs making up half of U.S. car sales by 2030 would help the nation achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, Graves said.

“This plant was announced during my trip to the Republic of Korea in May, and I am excited the groundbreaking is happening months ahead of schedule,” Biden added in a prepared statement.

But Taeyong Cho, the Republic of Korea’s ambassador to the U.S., injected a note of caution. He said a provision in the Inflation Reduction Act Congress passed in August making EVs and EV batteries not fully manufactured in North America ineligible for a new federal tax credit disadvantages Hyundai.

“It is not good for the U.S.-Korea partnership or the state of Georgia,” Cho said.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., who attended Tuesday’s groundbreaking, introduced legislation in September to delay the made-in-North-America requirement until 2025 for batteries and 2026 for electric vehicles to give Hyundai a chance to ramp up the Georgia project.

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

State Supreme Court dismisses lawsuits challenging removal of Confederate statues

A Confederate monument in downtown McDonough was removed in 2020. (Credit: Henry Herald)

ATLANTA – The Georgia Supreme Court Tuesday upheld the dismissal of lawsuits against two county governments over the removal of Confederate monuments on public property.

The justices ruled that various Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCVs) groups lacked legal standing to bring the suits against Henry and Newton counties because they are not residents of those communities.

At issue in the case were votes by county commissioners in the two counties to remove Confederate monuments from the courthouse square in McDonough and from downtown Covington.

Both votes came during the summer of 2020, shortly after the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis by a white police officer. Floyd’s killing touched off a nationwide push to remove statues honoring the Confederacy and Confederate leaders.

The SCV groups alleged that the two county commission votes violated a law the General Assembly enacted in 2019 prohibiting the removal, relocation, or desecration of historic monuments located on public property.

Tuesday’s state Supreme Court ruling did not address the merits of the groups’ arguments. Instead, the court declared most of the plaintiffs didn’t have the legal right to sue.

“When a local government owes a legal duty to community stakeholders, the violation of that legal duty constitutes an injury that our case law has recognizing as conferring standing to those stakeholders, even if the plaintiff at issue suffered no individualized injury,” Presiding Justice Nels S.D. Peterson wrote for the court.

“Because the Sons of Confederate Veterans groups have not alleged anything resembling community stakeholder status … they do not have standing.”

But the court did declare one of the Newton County plaintiffs, T. Davis Humphries, is a resident of that county. As a result, the justices reversed a lower court dismissal of her complaint.

However, the court took no position on whether Humphries has legal standing for her claim for damages because the Confederate statue at issue in the Newton County case is still standing.

“Because damages are authorized only for conduct prohibited by the statute, and the statute does not prohibit a vote to remove a monument in the future, Humphries cannot seek damages here,” Peterson wrote.

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