State income tax cut to take effect Jan. 1

ATLANTA – A $1 billion election-year tax cut the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed last year will take effect on New Year’s Day.

For now, the phased-in tax cut sets the state income tax rate for 2024 at a flat 5.49%, down from the current 5.75%. The tax rate will continue to decline annually, arriving at 4.99% in 2029.

However, Gov. Brian Kemp announced earlier this month that he plans to ask lawmakers to accelerate the reductions by one year. If legislators agree, the tax rate for 2024 would be set at 5.39%.

Supporters say across-the-board tax cuts are more effective at creating jobs than the assortment of tax credits and exemptions for specific industries the General Assembly has passed over the years.

“When you do it broad-based, you’re not giving any favoritism,” said Kyle Wingfield, president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a think tank that advocates free-market approaches to public-policy issues. “It takes the politics out of the policy.”

Wingfield said targeted tax relief also fails to benefit new industries that public policymakers can’t foresee.

“When you do more of a targeted approach, you’re giving tax relief to a company or industry you already know about,” he said. “With broad-based tax relief, you’re encouraging people out there who are creating the next company that will turn into a large employer.”

With Kemp and all 236 seats in the Georgia House and Senate on the ballot last year, the tax cut proved extremely popular. Only two House Democrats voted against it on the final day of the 2022 legislative session.

But the bill drew 13 “no” votes from Democrats in the 56-member state Senate. Opponents cited an analysis by the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute that House Bill 1437 would actually raise taxes on about 10% of taxpayers, while $620 million of the $1 billion tax cut would benefit only the top 20% of taxpayers.

“We are effectively raising taxes on the working poor,” then-Democratic Rep. Matthew Wilson of Brookhaven said at the time.

Wilson voted against the bill the first time it hit the House floor but in favor of it when it returned for a final vote on the last day of the session.

Republicans pushed back on the argument that the legislation would raise taxes on low-income Georgians.

“We haven’t been able to find anyone who pays more,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Shaw Blackmon, R-Bonaire, the bill’s chief sponsor, said on the House floor the day the bill gained final passage. “Everybody pays zero or less under this plan.”

Now, Kemp is calling on the General Assembly to speed up the tax cut by moving the 5.39% state income tax rate due to take effect in 2025 to 2024.

Georgia can easily afford accelerating the tax relief. The state has built up a surplus of $16 billion during the last few years, including $11 billion in undesignated funds.

 “Thanks to our conservative budgeting and strong state economy built on business-friendly policies, we are well-positioned to move the timeline up and put more money where it belongs – back into Georgians’ pockets,” Kemp said in announcing the proposal earlier this month.

The 2024 session of the General Assembly will begin Jan. 8.

State senator taking aim at ‘swatting’

State Sen. Clint Dixon

ATLANTA – A state senator plans to introduce legislation during the upcoming session of the General Assembly aimed at “swatting,” false reports of criminal activity that send police to the homes or offices of targeted victims.

Since Christmas Day, three Republican state senators, a Democratic state senator, GOP Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, and U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Rome, have been targeted by swatting calls.

“This issue goes beyond politics – it’s about public safety and preserving the integrity of our institutions,” said state Sen. Clint Dixon, R-Buford, one of the victims of swatting, who announced Thursday that he will back legislation strengthening penalties for false reporting and misuse of police forces.

“We will not stand for these threats of violence and intimidation. Those involved in swatting must be held accountable under the full extent of the law.”

Besides Dixon, other state senators targeted by swatting calls include Republicans John Albers of Roswell and Kay Kirkpatrick of Marietta, and Democrat Kim Jackson of Stone Mountain.

Greene told The Hill, a Washington, D.C.-based newspaper covering Congress, that her two daughters were targets of swatting on Thursday, just days after she experienced what she estimated was the eighth swatting call aimed at her.

“Whoever is doing this, you are going to get caught and it won’t be funny to you anymore,” Greene wrote on X, the social media platform known as Twitter.

The 2024 session of the General Assembly will begin Jan. 8.

Judge upholds new Georgia congressional, legislative maps

ATLANTA – Federal judges do not have the authority in voting rights cases to “reallocate political power between the two major political parties,” U.S. District Judge Steve Jones declared Thursday.

That was the crux of Jones’ ruling upholding the new legislative and congressional maps Georgia lawmakers drew during their recent special session.

Jones had ordered the General Assembly in October to redraw district lines the Republican-controlled legislature drew two years ago after voting rights and civil rights groups filed lawsuits claiming the maps violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

In a 516-page decision, Jones ordered lawmakers to draw one additional Black-majority congressional district, two more Black-majority state Senate districts, and five additional Black-majority Georgia House districts.

The consensus among political observers was that the new maps would result in Democrats gaining a seat in the state’s congressional delegation and reducing Republican majorities in the Georgia House and Senate.

But during a weeklong special session earlier this month, legislative leaders crafted maps that are expected to both retain the Republicans’ 9-5 advantage in the congressional delegation and allow the GOP to maintain control of the General Assembly.

“The committee and floor debate transcripts make clear that the General Assembly created the 2023 Remedial Congressional Plan in a manner that politically protected the majority party (i.e. the Republican Party) as much as possible,” Jones wrote in Thursday’s ruling on the congressional map. “However, redistricting decisions by a legislative body with an eye toward securing partisan advantage does not alone violate Section 2.”

Jones upheld the two new legislative maps using similar language.

In complying with the October ruling on the congressional map, lawmakers added a Black-majority district in western portions of metro Atlanta, as Jones had directed. But Republicans also eliminated a so-called “coalition” district in Gwinnett County – where neither Black, Hispanic, nor Asian voters constitute a majority but combined outnumber white voters.

In Thursday’s ruling, Jones declared the issue of coalition districts essentially moot because it was not brought up during the trial that led to his October ruling.

The judge also ruled that the Black-majority districts the General Assembly created in the new state House and Senate maps are in the areas of the state he declared in his October decision needed addressing.

U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Marietta, who won reelection last year in a new district after Republicans had drawn her out of her original district in 2021, declared after Thursday’s ruling that she will run next year in the new Black-majority district centered in western metro Atlanta. McBath currently represents the 7th Congressional District, the coalition district Republicans eliminated.

“I refuse to let a few extremist Republicans decide when my work in Congress is finished,” she said. “I hope that the judicial system will not allow the state legislature to suppress the will of Georgia voters. However, if the maps passed by the state legislature stand for the 2024 election cycle, I will be running for reelection to Congress in (the 6th District) because too much is at stake to stand down.”

Raffensperger renews call to end general election runoffs

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger

ATLANTA – Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has renewed his call for the General Assembly to end general election runoffs in the Peach State.

In a statement released last week, Raffensperger said getting rid of runoffs following the November elections would give Georgians a holiday-season pause from politics.

“Next year, there will be a contentious presidential election – and families across Georgia will be settling down for the holidays shortly after,” he said. “Let’s give them a break and take another costly and unnecessary election off the Thanksgiving table. I’m calling on the General Assembly to visit this topic next session and eliminate this outdated distraction.”

Raffensperger raised the issue of runoffs last December after incumbent U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., defeated Republican challenger Herschel Walker in a runoff. However, it didn’t gain any traction during this year’s legislative session.

While some second-place finishers in general elections have gone on to turn the tables and win runoffs, Warnock finished first in both the 2022 general election and runoff, lending credence to the argument that general election runoffs are an unnecessary waste of tax dollars.

Georgia lawmakers have made changes to the vote threshold general election candidates must meet to avoid runoffs since 1968, when voters approved a constitutional amendment requiring the governor’s race to go to a runoff if none of the candidates received a majority of votes in the general election.

After Democratic incumbent Sen. Wyche Fowler lost to Republican challenger Paul Coverdell in a 1992 runoff, the General Assembly’s then-Democratic majority reduced the 50%-plus-one vote requirement to avoid a runoff to 45%. That worked out for the Democrats four years later when the late Max Cleland won the seat of retiring Sen. Sam Nunn with more than 45% of the vote but less than 50%.

Republicans responded to that 1996 loss when the GOP won control of the legislature in 2004. During their first legislative session in power, Republicans changed the requirement back to the 50%-plus-one threshold.

Georgia and Louisiana are the only two states that feature general election runoffs. A handful of other states – mostly in the South – limit runoffs to primary elections in which no candidate receives a majority of the vote.

Barry Fleming tapped for Superior Court judgeship

Barry Fleming

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp has appointed longtime state Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, to a Superior Court judgeship in the Columbia Judicial Circuit succeeding the retiring Judge James Blanchard Jr.

Fleming, a lawyer, has served two stints in the Georgia House. He was first elected in 2002 after serving as chairman of the Columbia County Board of Commissioners.

Fleming stepped down in 2008 in an unsuccessful bid for Congress. He returned to the General Assembly in 2013.

Fleming has served in various leadership posts, including as House majority whip and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. He lost a bid for House speaker last year when he was defeated by current Speaker Jon Burns in a race to succeed the late Speaker David Ralston.

Fleming also headed a committee that steered controversial election reform legislation through the House two years ago.

Kemp must call a special election within 10 days of Fleming’s resignation from the House. The timing of his judicial appointment could put the special election on the same ballot as Georgia’s March 12 presidential primary.

Fleming’s 125th House District includes parts of Columbia and McDuffie counties.