Kemp nixes call by Trump supporters for special legislative session

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp pushed back Thursday against a call by ultra-conservative Republicans for a special legislative session to punish Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis for seeking to indict former President Donald Trump.

Kemp he disagrees with Democrat Willis’ strategy politically but doesn’t see that she’s done anything illegal.

“We are now seeing what happens when prosecutors move forward with a highly charged indictment during an election,” the governor told reporters during a news conference at the Georgia Capitol. “[But] a special session of the General Assembly to end-around this law is not feasible and may ultimately prove unconstitutional.”

Kemp’s comments were aimed at calls for a special legislative session targeting Willis from freshman state Sen. Colton Moore, R-Trenton, and other members of the Georgia Freedom Caucus. The group plans to hold a news conference next week to air their grievances against Willis.

Another freshman Georgia senator, Republican Shawn Still of Norcross, is among 18 defendants a Fulton County grand jury indicted in mid-August along with Trump on racketeering charges in connection with alleged attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in Georgia.

Trump has called the indictment a politically motivated effort to stop his 2024 presidential bid. The former president waived arraignment Thursday and entered a plea of not guilty.

Kemp compared the current call for a special session to similar efforts by some legislative Republicans in the aftermath of the 2020 election. He refused to do so at that time based on the same argument that he lacked the legal authority.

“As long as I am governor, we’re going to follow the law and the Constitution,” Kemp said.

Kemp called efforts to punish Willis by impeachment or some other means a political loser for Republicans.

“We’re going to focus on the issues that affect all Georgians,” he said. “That’s what wins elections.”

Hurricane Idalia cleanup underway in South Georgia

ATLANTA – Utility and highway crews fanned out across South Georgia Thursday restoring power and clearing roads in the aftermath of Hurricane Idalia, which tore across the region for hours on Wednesday.

“We are fortunate the storm was narrow and fast-moving,” Gov. Brian Kemp told reporters Thursday during a news conference at the Georgia Capitol. “But if you were in the path, it was devastating.”

One fatality was reported during the storm when a tree fell on a vehicle in Lowndes County, one of the areas hardest hit by Idalia, while minor injuries were reported across the region.

At the height of the storm Wednesday afternoon, 277,000 electric customers had lost power, said James Stallings, director of the state Emergency Management/Homeland Security Agency. By Thursday morning, that number had been reduced to 107,000, he said.

The storm also damaged 32 cellphone towers, Stallings said. Most had been restored by Thursday morning, he said.

“There’s nowhere that we don’t have overlapping service,” he said.

Stallings said the Georgia Ports Authority, which closed both the ports of Savannah and Brunswick during the storm, was expected to reopen Savannah by late Thursday morning and the Port of Brunswick by mid-afternoon.

Two major bridges in Coastal Georgia that were closed to traffic on Wednesday, the Talmadge Bridge in Savannah and the Sidney Lanier Bridge in Brunswick, had been reopened by Thursday morning.

Nine state highways remained closed on Thursday, as crews from the Georgia Department of Transportation worked to clear storm debris.

While the Biden administration has approved federal disaster declarations for Florida and South Carolina, Stallings said his agency is continuing to assess the damage in Georgia.

“We had the storm in our state a lot longer than Florida or South Carolina,” he said. “We’ve got a long track of damage to look into.”

Kemp said some areas have reported significant crop damage, including downed pecan trees and damage to expensive center-pivot irrigation equipment.

“Hopefully, the peanuts will be all right because they’re still in the ground,” he said.

Kemp said he and Georgia First Lady Marty Kemp plan to tour storm damage on Friday.

Hurricane Idalia hits South Georgia with high winds, heavy rain

ATLANTA – Hurricane Idalia barreled into South Georgia Wednesday morning as a Category 1 storm, downing trees and powerlines and flooding local roads and highways.

About 61,000 customers were without power, Gov. Brian Kemp told reporters during a noon news conference at the State Operations Center in Atlanta. That number had risen to more than 200,000 by late Wednesday afternoon.

Areas in the hurricane’s path were being hit with sustained winds of up to 80 miles an hour, with gusts up to 90 mph, the governor said.

Some areas could get deluged with nine to 10 inches of rain, Kemp said. He said no injuries or deaths have been reported thus far.

“The good news is this is a narrow storm and very fast moving,” Kemp said. “We feel fairly confident we’re going to be able to get crews moving as we get into the afternoon. We have resources ready to do that.”

Idalia made landfall early Wednesday morning in the Big Bend area of Florida’s Gulf Coast as a Category 3 hurricane before weakening as it moved inland and into Georgia at about 10 a.m. It is expected to exit Georgia into South Carolina as a tropical storm between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Wednesday, Kemp said.

Idalia is not expected to cause as much damage in Georgia as Hurricane Michael, which tore through Southwest Georgia in 2018 as a Category 5 storm, battering farms and forests in the agricultural heartland of the state.

“It’s nothing to the scale Michael was,” Kemp said. “I’m hopeful it’s a good sign that I haven’t gotten calls.”

James Stallings, director of the Georgia Emergency Management/Homeland Security Agency, said it likely will be up to 72 hours after the storm before utility crews can get to the hardest hit areas to assess the damage and begin repairs.

“Our goal is to circle behind the storm and start providing resources as soon as we can,” he said.

While shelters are open and state parks are available, Stallings said there hasn’t been a large influx of Floridians in South Georgia fleeing the hurricane.

“They’re a very resilient state,” he said.

Kemp warned Georgians to remain vigilant as the storm moves through the Peach State.

“This is still a bad storm,” he said. “People need to be ready.”

Wellstar, Augusta University partnership up and running

ATLANTA – The partnership the Wellstar and Augusta University health systems (AUHS) announced last December went into operation Wednesday.

Under a 40-year agreement the two parties announced in March,  Wellstar plans to invest nearly $800 million over the next decade in AUHS facilities and infrastructure, including more than $200 million that will go to Augusta University Medical Center, a more than 600-bed safety net and teaching hospital. Capital for a new hospital, medical office building and ambulatory surgery center in Columbia County also is included in the funding.

“We’re excited this day has come,” said Sonny Perdue, chancellor of the University System of Georgia. “It’s an opportunity … to make health care better than ever in Georgia.”

Augusta University President Brooks Keel said the partnership will allow AUHS to expand its telemedicine program, which will particularly benefit rural Georgia, where residents frequently have to drive 45 minutes to an hour to see a doctor.

“The wealth of experience Wellstar brings to the table and the experience we already have will let us expand what we’re already doing,” Keel said. “Wellstar fit the bill because they share our mission and our vision.”

Wellstar President and CEO Candace Saunders said the training opportunities the partnership will provide will help address a chronic shortage of physicians and nurses in Georgia.

“We need more doctors, more nurses,” she said. “[The partnership] is going to help bring care to everyone who needs it.”

The partnership has drawn criticism from state lawmakers representing districts in metro Atlanta, who complained Wellstar’s decision to close the 460-bed Atlanta Medical Center (AMC) last fall combined with the closing of a smaller Wellstar hospital in East Point earlier in 2022 has left a “health-care desert” in majority Black areas of central and southern Fulton County.

But Wellstar officials said closing the hospitals was unavoidable due to aging infrastructure, low patient volumes, skyrocketing labor costs and the loss of coronavirus relief funds that had been available earlier in the COVID pandemic.

Saunders dismissed comparisons between the new partnership and the two closings.

“They’re two independent and separate situations,” she said.

The new unified system will be known as Wellstar MCG Health.

Georgia Power agrees to limit cost recovery for Plant Vogtle reactors

ATLANTA – Georgia Power has agreed to spare the utility’s customers $2.6 billion of the $10.2 billion it’s costing the company to build two additional nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle.

Under an agreement between Georgia Power and the state Public Service Commission’s (PSC) Public Interest Advocacy Staff announced Wednesday, the company would pass on nearly $7.6 billion of the project’s cost to customers, with shareholders picking up the rest.

If the PSC approves the agreement, the average residential customer’s monthly bill would increase by $8.95.

The first of the new reactors at the plant south of Augusta, Unit 3, went into commercial operation late last month after years of delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns. Fuel loading has begun at Unit 4, which is expected to go into service late this year or early next year.

Several environmental advocacy groups that have opposed the project worked with Georgia Power and the PSC staff on the proposed agreement. As part of the deal, the utility has agreed to expand its energy efficiency and senior discount programs.

“We reached key settlement terms to mitigate bill hikes for Georgians with limited incomes and expand efficiency programs to help reduce energy usage and lower bills,” said Bob Sherrier, a staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“While project delays and overruns do mean Georgians will be paying for this project for decades, Georgia Power agreed to significantly lower the construction costs they were expected to pass on to customers.”

PSC Chairman Jason Shaw said the agreement is the products of “countless hours of analysis,” probably with more evidence presented than for any other project in the commission’s history.

“The culmination of construction on this historic project marks the expansion of clean energy production for another 60 to 80 years here in Georgia,” Shaw said.

Under an agreement the PSC and Georgia Power reached in 2018, any Vogtle-related rate increase the commission approves would not take effect until a month after Unit 4 goes into commercial operation.