Fulton County DA sets timetable for charges in Trump election case

Then-President Donald Trump headlined a rally in Dalton in January 2021 (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis will announce “charging decisions” resulting from an investigation of alleged interference by then-President Donald Trump in Georgia’s 2020 elections between July 11 and the beginning of September.

Willis revealed that long-awaited timetable Monday in a letter giving Fulton Sheriff Patrick Labat a heads-up on her plans for releasing the findings of a special grand jury she assembled last year to look into whether Trump and/or any of his associates broke the law in attempting to change the outcome of the presidential voting in Georgia.

“Open-source intelligence has indicated the announcement of decisions in this case may provoke a significant public reaction,” Willis wrote. “We have seen in recent years that some may go outside of public expressions of opinion that are protected by the First Amendment to engage in acts of violence that will endanger of our community. As leaders, it is incumbent upon us to prepare.”

The special grand jury completed its work late last year after hearing from 75 witnesses including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer; Gov. Brian Kemp; U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; then-U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Greensboro; Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger; state Attorney General Chris Carr; then-Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan; and the late Georgia House Speaker David Ralston.

After a coalition of media organizations sought public release of the panel’s report, Fulton Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney allowed some of it to be released in February. The portion the public got to see indicated the grand jury was recommending that one or more witnesses be charged with perjury. However, it did not include names.

Willis suggested in her letter the need for heightened security at the Fulton County Courthouse in conjunction with the upcoming announcement of charges and indicated she was sending the letter to give the sheriff time to coordinate with local, state, and federal agencies. She said her office would work with the sheriff’s department on preparations.

The timing of the announcement of charges between July 11 and Sept. 1 coincides with a period the court will be in session.

Voting rights groups target line relief ban in Georgia election law changes

Photo by Beau Evans

ATLANTA – Voting rights groups are going to federal court to block part of a law the General Assembly passed two years ago prohibiting volunteers from providing food and water to voters waiting in long lines at the polls.

Groups including the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia are seeking a preliminary injunction as part of a broader lawsuit that challenges changes to state election law Gov. Brian Kemp and Republican legislative leaders pushed through the General Assembly along party lines.

Senate Bill 202 requires voters seeking to cast absentee ballots to show a photo ID, a provision that already applied to in-person voting. The law also limits the number of absentee ballot drop boxes and prohibits non-poll workers from handing out food and drinks within 150 feet of voters standing in line.

“There can be no reason for denying food or water to people in long polling lines, other than trying to prevent them from exercising their freedom to vote,” Poy Winichakul, senior staff attorney for voting rights with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said Monday. “These barriers to voting must be removed so all Georgians can have a voice to advocate for their communities in the crucial 2024 elections.”

“Our clients used to be able to offer a bottle of water or a snack to voters waiting in long lines at the polls,” added Rahul Garabadu, senior voting rights staff attorney at the ACLU of Georgia. “We’re now asking the court to strike down the unlawful provisions of the ban so that our clients can provide crucial support to voters across our state.”

The bill’s supporters justified banning non-poll workers from handing out food and drinks to voters in line at polling locations as a way to prevent campaign volunteers from seeking to influence voters within an area that is legally off limits to campaigning.

Civil rights groups sought to block the line relief ban before last year’s elections. But a federal judge denied the motion last August, arguing changing election laws close to an election would confuse voters.

However, the ruling only applied to last year’s elections, leaving the door open for the law’s opponents to seek court relief before next year’s voting.

Legislative leaders assemble rosters for tax credit review

ATLANTA – The chairmen of the two legislative committees responsible for tax policy will co-chair an upcoming review of all of Georgia’s tax credits.

The initiative, announced last month, is intended to make sure the various tax credits on the books in Georgia aimed at boosting economic development and job creation are giving taxpayers a good return on that investment.

Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, who presides over the state Senate, announced Monday he is appointing Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, to co-chair the review. House Speaker Jon Burns named House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Shaw Blackmon, R-Bonaire, to serve as the other co-chair.

Other appointees announced Monday include Sens. John Albers, R–Roswell; Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming; Bill Cowsert, R-Athens; and Michael “Doc” Rhett, D- Marietta; state Reps. Debbie Buckner, D-Junction City; Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton; Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta; and Bruce Williamson, R-Monroe. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Matt Hatchett, R-Dublin, will serve as an ex-officio member.

Georgia’s tax credits have posted a mixed record when it comes to bang for the buck. While the popular film tax credit – the state’s largest and most expensive – has vaulted the Peach State into a leadership position in the film industry, other tax credits haven’t paid off nearly as well. In some cases, audits have shown the jobs tax credits have generated likely would have been created anyway.

“My appointees are experts on tax policy and have been implementing and analyzing tax policy supporting economic development and Georgia’s ranking as the number one state in which to do business for over a decade,” Jones said Monday.

“I have called on some of the House’s most experienced leaders on tax policy to work on this important review,” Burns added. “I know they will work on behalf of all Georgians to support job growth and maintain a fair, competitive tax structure.”

The review will take place during the remainder of this year so that any legislative changes that may be proposed could be considered during next year’s General Assembly session. The lawmakers will work with the Governor’s Office of Planning & Budget, the state Department of Economic Development, the Georgia Department of Revenue, and business leaders throughout the process.

Public meetings of the group will be announced in the near future.

The science of reading undergirds Georgia’s new literacy-education laws 

ATLANTA – Georgia is gearing up to implement a new approach to teaching reading in the early grades.  

Gov. Brian Kemp recently signed into law two literacy bills passed during this year’s legislative session.  

About 36% of Georgia third graders read below grade level, according to the state’s 2022 Milestones test results, and around 17% of the state’s adults lack basic literacy skills.  

The new laws aim at improving those numbers by introducing two related approaches to literacy instruction: “the science of reading” and “structured literacy.”  

“Science of reading is sort of a relatively new term that bundles together … the role and necessity of systematic instruction on phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency as well as comprehension and vocabulary,” said Sarah Woulfin, an associate professor at the College of Education at the University of Texas-Austin.  

“It’s become a kind of streamlined way to talk about evidence-based reading instruction in an effort to change reading instruction in one particular direction.”

“Structured literacy,” as defined by one of the new literacy laws, refers to an “evidence-based approach to teaching oral and written language … characterized by explicit, systematic, cumulative, and diagnostic instruction.” 

The new law names six specific topics of focus: phonology, sound-symbol association, syllable instruction, morphology, syntax, and semantics.  

“The idea is giving guardrails and a strategic mindset to how literacy instruction is delivered,” said Matt Smith, director of policy and research at the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education (GPEE). 

“We’re talking about making reading instruction in the early grades more systematic. … There’s a process. You screen and identify the students that have reading deficits.”

Many of these ideas have been around for decades and are already included in Georgia’s education standards. The new laws, however, mandate that school districts use evidence-backed approaches and aim to ensure consistent adoption across the state.  

That’s key to ensuring educational equity, proponents of the approach argue.  

“Literacy is the social justice issue of our time, and the science of reading is our best tool to accomplish that,” said Ramona Brown, a science of reading professional development coach at the Rollins Center for Language and Literacy at the Atlanta Speech School.  

“It is helpful for all students and harmful to none, and … through these approaches, 95% of children will learn how to read whether they are here in Atlanta or they are in Crisp County.”  

“For a majority of kids in our country, whether you have dyslexia or whether you have experienced generational lack of access to opportunity, or you speak English as a second language … what we see from research is that an overwhelming majority of children require explicit instruction,” added Ryan Lee-James, chief academic officer at the Atlanta Speech School

“The explicit nature of the teaching means that we’re not leaving things to chance or for you to figure out on your own.”  

The lofty literacy goals found in the new legislation will need to be backed by careful implementation at the district and school levels to produce results.  

“There really needs to be a lot of systems and supports and resources in place so that people can have the time and space to learn about these approaches to be developed,” said Woulfin, the University of Texas professor.  

“If you don’t have the aligned professional learning opportunities for teachers and principals, so that everyone has time and space to learn about these new curricular materials, to try out these new instructional approaches, at the end of the day, classroom practice is not going to change.”

“There is an opportunity for this to go really well with different pieces collaborating and interfacing together,” Smith added. “But there is another kind of concern, which is that there is a lot going on, and so we have to keep our eye on the ball because a lot of different things are going to be going on at the same time.”  

One of the newly signed laws creates a literacy council made up of legislators, educators, and experts. Smith said that could be helpful in ensuring a unified approach and keeping things on track.

“I’m glad that both laws passed at the same time because I think it’ll be mutually beneficial for both in terms of strategy, public messaging around literacy, [and] also around the scientific evidence-based components of reading,” he said.  

Funding is another possible obstacle to the success of the initiative. The early literacy bill did not have specific funds in the budget earmarked for it. It’s possible that additional funds could be allocated to the measure during next year’s legislative session.  

Without the funding, the measure is like “an unfunded mandate,” said John Zauner, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association. He said that when Mississippi sought to turn around its poor literacy rate, the state backed the effort with millions of dollars, something that is currently lacking in Georgia.  

“We always need resources in order to teach reading effectively,” added Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators. “We need books in our classroom that are engaging on a variety of levels.” 

“We need to be providing our students with much more than just the standard textbook. … The books that we have in our classrooms need to reflect the diversity of our students in the world.”  

When Chattahoochee County implemented a science of reading approach, it took a large commitment of resources, said Kristie Brooks, the district’s superintendent

“It’s been a heavy lift financially. And it’s also a heavy lift, time-commitment wise,” Brooks said. “We have had two-and-a-half years of intense training and coaching and classroom modeling. It was so important that it was done correctly.”  

Brooks said the investment has been worth it for her district. 

“We have been just so pleased with the work that we have seen,” she said.

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

Kemp: Federal EV tax credits excluding Georgia manufacturers

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp is resuming a push to increase the list of electric vehicle manufacturers that will qualify for federal tax credits under legislation Congress passed last year.

In a letter dated Thursday, Kemp urged Georgia’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, to work with their legislative colleagues and the Biden administration to expand eligibility for the EV tax credits beyond U.S.-based manufacturers.

“The U.S. Treasury Department recently promulgated rules of electric vehicle tax credits which undermine the stated intent of the legislation by limiting qualifying vehicles to only 16 models produced by four manufacturers – none of which are located in Georgia,” the Republican governor wrote.

“These rules choose winners and losers by favoring certain EV manufacturers while Hyundai, Kia and other manufacturers interested in moving to Georgia are left out in the cold.”

Kemp first raised concerns about the issue last September after Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act. The legislation included a provision extending the tax credit only to purchasers of EVs made in North America.

Warnock introduced a bill around the same time to delay the made-in-North-America requirement until 2026. While the bill failed to move before Congress adjourned for the year, Warnock hasn’t given up, a spokesperson for the senator told Capitol Beat in an email Friday.

“The senator continues to press Senate leadership and the White House to address this issue in a way that benefits Georgia companies and consumers, including through legislation,” the spokesperson wrote.

Kemp’s letter went on to accuse Warnock and his Democratic colleagues in the Senate of “rewarding states with union workforces” over Georgia.