Small business owners testify at congressional field hearing

ATLANTA – Inflation and rising interest rates are squeezing small businesses in Georgia and across the country, several small business owners from Georgia testified Friday during a congressional field hearing in Peachtree City.

“Costs for everything have increased tremendously,” Lisa Winton, CEO of Winton Machine Co. in Suwanee, told members of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee.

Winton said her company, which employs 40 workers, saw a 49% increase in sales after Congress passed tax cuts in 2017 sought by then-President Donald Trump, allowing her to hire additional employees. However, changes in tax policy by the Biden administration threaten the company’s profitability, she said.

Specifically, Winton cited limits now being placed on tax deductions for interest paid on business loans and on expensing of capital investments.

“Both of these changes are like a tax on manufacturing growth,” she said.

Matt Livingston of West Point, who owns a restaurant and residential construction business, said inflation is forcing him to raise menu prices, while a workforce shortage has forced him to close the restaurant at times. In some cases, employees failing to show up for work have said they can make more money staying home and collecting unemployment benefits, he said.

Livingston said he used to own four restaurants but had to close three because he couldn’t find enough workers.

“Employees expect higher pay for less work,” he said. “There’s no concept of an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.”

Republicans on the committee blamed President Joe Biden for pursuing policies that hurt small businesses.

“If we continue to raise taxes on small businesses and disincentivize people to go to work … small businesses will close,” said Rep. Drew Ferguson, R-West Point.

From the other side of the aisle, Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., said the Biden administration has helped small businesses by creating manufacturing jobs and has helped their employees by lowering health-care costs and extending the federal child tax credit.

Rachel Shanklin, Georgia director for the advocacy group Small Business Majority, urged Georgia policy makers to enact a state-level earned income tax credit and to expand the state’s Medicaid program, which she said would create 56,000 jobs and insure an additional 500,000 Georgians.

Rivian to install electric vehicle charging stations at state parks

ATLANTA – The Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is stepping up to help roll out a network of electric vehicle chargers across the Peach State.

EV maker Rivian, working with the DNR and Georgia Power, will install charging stations at five state parks and one state historic site.

“Rivian is a valued partner in electric vehicle innovation and in growing the EV market here in the No.-1 state for business,” Gov. Brian Kemp said Thursday.

The governor joined Georgia Commissioner of Natural Resources Mark Williams and executives from Georgia Power and Rivian at Tallulah Gorge State Park to announce the initiative.

“We are excited to partner with Rivian and Georgia Power to help our visitors and Georgia travelers reduce emissions and protect our great state’s natural beauty for generations to come,” Williams said. “We have strategically placed these chargers at state parks that are accessible to smaller cities and towns.”

Besides Tallulah Gorge State Park in Northeast Georgia, EV charging stations will be installed at Fort Yargo State Park near Winder, Cloudland Canyon in Northwest Georgia, High Falls State Park near Jackson, Skidaway Island near Savannah, and at Wormsloe Historic Site, also in the Savannah area.

While the chargers are Rivian models, they will come equipped with a plug making them compatible with all types of electric vehicles.

The Level 2 chargers can add up to 25 miles of driving range for each hour they’re plugged in, making them ideal for EV drivers visiting the parks for extended periods of time, either a few hours of hiking or an overnight stay.

Rivian will install the chargers and maintain them for five years at no cost to the state or taxpayers.

“This partnership represents two things of great significance to Rivian: our commitment to zero-emission outdoor adventure and our deepening partnership with Georgia,” said Michael Callahan, Rivian’s chief legal officer. “Rivian will bring jobs, technology and investment to Georgia – as well as some fun.”

Rivian is currently building a $5 billion manufacturing plant east of Atlanta that will create 7,500 jobs.

Georgia unemployment rate still flat in March

Georgia Commissioner of Labor Bruce Thompson

ATLANTA – Georgia’s unemployment rate stood at 3.1% in March for the eighth consecutive month, the state Department of Labor announced Thursday.

The Peach State also had the highest labor force participation rate in the Southeast at 61.1%, while the number of jobs rose by 7,600 last month to a record high of nearly 4.9 million.

“With consistently low unemployment and jobs at an all-time high, the [labor department] is well- positioned to help Georgians during one of the most vulnerable times in their lives,” state Commissioner of Labor Bruce Thompson said.

Among job sectors, private education and health services reported a record high of 653,400 jobs, while the 515,700 leisure and hospitality jobs also was at an all-time high.

Sectors with the most gains between February and March were accommodation and food services, which gained 4,300 jobs, and the health care and social assistance sector with a gain of 3,000 jobs.

The number of employed Georgians rose for the fifth consecutive month to nearly 5.1 million. The over-the-month increase of 10,796 jobs was the most significant since March of last year.

Initial unemployment claims declined last month by 4% from February to 22,106. However, first-time jobless claims for the year were up 16%.

More than 125,000 jobs were listed online last month for Georgians to access. The industries with the most openings included health care at 28,000; accommodation and food services with 11,700; and retail trade with 11,300 openings.

Meanwhile, the labor department continued making progress on a series of improvements Thompson launched when he took office in January, including modernizing the system for processing unemployment claims to expedite the procedures and reduce fraud, and moving data to a cloud-based system to bolster security.

Simone Edmonson is Georgia’s new mental health parity officer  

ATLANTA – Georgia native and insurance-industry veteran Simone Edmonson has been selected to serve as the state’s new mental health parity officer.  

Last year’s landmark mental health legislation, House Bill 1013, created the position within the Office of Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner. Edmonson started in the new role last month.  

In her new role, Edmonson will be responsible for implementing many of the insurance-related provisions of the mental health act, including making sure Georgia health insurers cover treatment for mental health and substance abuse problems on par with how they cover physical problems.  

“Parity requires our insurance to provide coverage for mental health and substance use disorders, and we want to make sure that our Georgians get that treatment and that it’s fair,” Edmonson said.  

Watching family and friends face mental health struggles drove Edmonson’s interest in the new role.  

“I understand what [parity] can do and how important it is … that care is actually offered and care is not restrictive and not limited,” she said. “It was near and dear to my heart when I learned about mental health parity.” 

Edmonson grew up in Savannah, where she attended  Johnson High School, and then graduated with a bachelor’s degree in community health education from Georgia Southern University.  

She spent several years working in public health, including in a community lead-risk prevention program in Savannah, before going on to work in the insurance industry for more than two decades.  

Edmonson gained project management skills as well as knowledge of contracts and insurance policies during her time in the private sector.  

“When I was offered this position, I was like ‘Yes, this is something I can see myself doing,’ ” Edmonson said. “I’ve always been an advocate for mental health with my own family.”  

In her first month on the job, Edmonson has spent her time reviewing health plans for compliance.  

She is focused on preparing a report that will be delivered to the governor and legislature in August about how health insurers are complying with the new mental health parity law.

If Georgians think they are not getting fair health-insurance coverage for mental health and substance abuse problems, Edmonson said they can file a complaint with the Department of Insurance on its website

The mother of a daughter in her twenties, Edmonson said she recharges by going for long hikes, spending time with her family members, friends and pets, and reading. She recently hiked around Amicalola Falls in North Georgia.  

Mental health is a problem that affects all communities in Georgia, Edmonson said.

“We have a melting pot, people coming from everywhere,” she said. “When it comes to mental health [problems], there is no discrimination at all. It happens to all of us.” 

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

University system extends waiver of test requirements

ATLANTA – The University System of Georgia (USG) will waive SAT and ACT test requirements at most of the system’s 26 institutions for another academic year.

The waiver will apply to all of the system’s colleges and universities except the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Georgia College & State University.

The university system began waiving the test requirements in March 2020 with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The waiver has been in effect for all but 10 months since then.

Most academic researchers have concluded that high school grade-point averages are a better indicator of future success in college than test scores, system Chancellor Sonny Perdue told members of the system’s Board of Regents Wednesday.

The regents heard a presentation during Wednesday’s meeting on the campus of the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega showing that freshman enrollment plummeted last year when the system briefly reimposed the testing requirement. Enrollment rebounded when the system went back to the waiver late last year.

Preliminary data for this coming fall – with the testing waiver remaining in effect – shows an increase in both applications and acceptances, Scott Lingrell, vice chancellor of enrollment and student affairs, told the regents.

“We’re cautiously optimistic about the fall,” he said. “We’re looking really good across our institutions.”

Dana Nichols, the system’s vice chancellor of academic affairs, said nearly 79% of accredited colleges and universities across the nation don’t require standardized tests for admission, including most schools in the neighboring states of Alabama, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Many of the schools in Florida and Tennessee also are test-optional, she said.

Perdue said the waiver will include a hold-harmless provision for Georgia College & State University, which will compensate the Milledgeville liberal-arts college financially for any declines in enrollment that occur because it is still requiring testing while most other USG institutions are not.

Perdue said extending the testing waiver through the 2024-25 academic year will help the regents decide whether to go back to testing when the waiver expires.

“This will give us better data analytics next year to make a decision,” he said. “We’re looking for the best data that can guide us for the future.”

In other business during the two-day meeting, the regents did not act on tuition for the coming school year, which they normally do in April. Perdue said the $66 million cut the USG took from the General Assembly in the fiscal 2024 budget left the system’s bean counters unprepared for a vote on tuition this month.

The regents have not raised tuition during five of the last seven years.

Perdue said the funds likely will be restored when lawmakers take up the mid-year budget during next year’s legislative session.

“I believe they understand that higher education … has been the backbone of economic development over the last 20 years,” he said.

The board is expected to vote on tuition at next month’s meeting,