Utility Worker Protection Act clears Georgia House committee

State Rep. Rob Leverett

ATLANTA – Criminals who attack utility workers in Georgia would be subject to stiffer fines and prison sentences under legislation that cleared a state House committee Wednesday.

The House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the Utility Worker Protection Act, sending it next to the House Rules Committee to schedule a vote of the full House.

House Bill 1033 is a follow-up to legislation the General Assembly passed last year providing enhanced penalties for intentionally damaging “critical infrastructure” including electricity, water, sewers, telecommunications, public transportation and public transit systems, hospitals, and emergency medical and rescue services.

“Last year, we protected the infrastructure,” Rep. Rob Leverett, R-Elberton, the bill’s chief sponsor, told members of the committee. “Now, we’re trying to give extra protection to the people who work on and maintain that infrastructure.”

Lee Swann, an investigator for the Georgia Transmission Corp., said attacks and threats of violence are not only occurring to electrical workers but to telecom employees.

“It’s a very real problem for us,” he said. “These are the people who are establishing the services to keep businesses running and keep your constituents online.”

Craig Camuso, regional vice president for government affairs for freight rail line CSX Corp., said rail workers and foresters clearing rights of way also are increasingly being victimized.

“This is happening more and more,” he said. “People are getting more brazen.”

Leverett’s bill would increase penalties that could be meted out for several categories of crimes against utility workers including simple assault, aggravated assault, simple battery and aggravated battery. Those found guilty of aggravated assault or aggravated battery would face prison sentences to three years to 20.

The legislation specifies that enhanced penalties only would apply to attacks on utility workers engaged in their official duties at the time of the offense.

Kemp signs antisemitism bill

Gov. Brian Kemp

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp signed legislation Wednesday defining antisemitism and incorporating it into Georgia’s hate crimes law.

“There is no place for hate in this great state,” Kemp said during a ceremony at the state Capitol. “In Georgia, we stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters, today and every day.”

House Bill 30 was introduced in the General Assembly last year and overwhelmingly passed the House. However, it failed to make it through the state Senate.

The bill’s backers in both legislative chambers renewed their efforts early in this year’s session, with the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants on Israeli civilians as a backdrop.

Kemp said a troubling rise in antisemitic acts across the nation and in Georgia in recent years has included not just harassment and intimidation but violence.

The legislation codifies in state law the definition of antisemitism used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an intergovernmental organization founded by Sweden’s prime minister in 1998. It allows prosecutors to seek enhanced penalties when crimes have been committed because the victim is Jewish.

Kemp described the bill Wednesday as a follow-up to hate crimes legislation the General Assembly passed in 2020 following the murder of Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick.

When the legislation was debated on the House and Senate floor last week, some lawmakers argued it violates the First Amendment right to free speech because it would allow Georgians to be charged with a hate crime for simply criticizing the Israeli government’s war on Hamas that has killed thousands of Palestinian civilians.

But the measure ended up passing both chambers by large margins, 44-6 in the Senate and 129-5 in the House.

Port of Brunswick sets record for autos

Port of Brunswick

ATLANTA – The Port of Brunswick enjoyed a banner year in 2023, but it was an off year for the Port of Savannah.

Brunswick handled a record 775,565 units of autos and machinery last year, an increase of 15.6% over 2022.

The increased traffic at Brunswick came at the same time the Georgia Ports Authority was investing $262 million to expand Colonel’s Island.

The list of improvements includes three new warehouses, 122 acres of new Roll-on/Roll-off cargo storage space, and a fourth Ro/Ro berth now in the engineering stage. Planning has begun for a new rail yard.

“At its current rate of growth, the Port of Brunswick is poised to become the nation’s busiest gateway for Roll-on/Roll-off cargo,” said Griff Lynch, the ports authority’s executive director. “We will be ready to serve this growth with our capital improvement projects underway and available land to expand to demand.”

Meanwhile, the Port of Savannah’s containerized cargo business suffered a decline last year. Savannah ended 2023 with a total of 4.9 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of cargo, a decrease of 16% from the previous year.

Ports officials blamed the decline on inflation and higher interest rates that slowed consumer spending, resulting in higher inventories in warehouses.

“We are using this time to invest in capacity for future needs,” Lynch said. “With the new year, we are beginning to see renewed strength in container volumes, which should result in more favorable comparisons moving forward the next six months.”

The ports authority has committed to $4.2 billion in improvements at the Port of Savannah during the next decade. The project list includes expansions of Container Berth 1 at the port’s Garden City Terminal and storage space at Savannah, a new on-port office and refrigeration facility for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, and a new transload facility for faster movement of containers from ships to over-the-road trailers.

State House committee approves coastal marshland ownership bill

ATLANTA – Legislation that would make it easier for owners of marshland property in Georgia under grants that date back to the 1700s to establish that ownership narrowly cleared a state House committee Tuesday.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 6-5 to send House Bill 370 on to the Rules Committee to schedule a vote of the full House.

About 10% of the state’s total marshland – more than 36,000 acres – is privately owned through titles that date back to grants from the English king or – later – a Georgia governor.

But when owners seek to establish clear title to their properties, they must navigate a cumbersome, expensive process through the state attorney general’s office that can take years to complete.

The bill would turn over the process of reviewing claims to marshland property to the State Properties Commission.

“This bill streamlines the process and puts some deadlines on it,” Rep. Matt Reeves, R-Duluth, the measure’s chief sponsor, said Tuesday.

Reeves pitched the bill to the committee as a way to restore marshland disturbed by rice farming over the years to its natural state. The legislation limits the use of privately owned marshland to conservation purposes.

“For 200 years, rice farms and manmade alterations have not repaired themselves,” Reeves said. “Mother Nature needs help.”

Reeves said providing a faster way to clear up “clouded” titles to privately owned marshland property would allow conservation projects stalled by legal disputes to begin.

While no one spoke in opposition to the bill Tuesday, representatives of environmental groups warned at a previous hearing that the legislation would make the process of clearing title to marshlands so easy it would encourage false claimants to step forward and take advantage of state tax credits.

The version of the bill the committee approved Tuesday would give the State Properties Commission nine months to resolve title disputes. The original bill limited that review to six months, but opponents argued the complex nature of legal disputes dating back centuries requires more time to resolve.

If a dispute is still unresolved after nine months, the case would go to a special master. Any cases not resolved by the special master could be appealed to superior court.

Georgia House Rules Committee Chair Richard Smith dies at age 78

Georgia Rep. Richard Smith

ATLANTA – Longtime state Rep. Richard Smith died suddenly overnight at the age of 78 after fighting the flu.

Smith, R-Columbus, was chairman of the House Rules Committee, the “traffic cop” that decides which bills make it to the floor of the chamber.

“This morning, the entire Kemp family is saddened by the news of Representative Smith’s passing,” Gov. Brian Kemp said in a prepared statement. “A longtime public servant and valued friend, he represented the Columbus area well and had an important impact on the entire state.”

After serving as a cooperative extension agent with the University of Georgia, Smith joined the Columbus’ consolidated government as interim city manager in 1989. A decade later, he was elected to the Columbus City Council.

Smith moved on to the state House of Representatives in 2004 and rose through the ranks to his appointment to chair the Rules Committee in 2020.

Members of the Columbus House delegation from both parties paid tribute to Smith Tuesday from the well of the House.

“Columbus has lost a giant of a man,” said Rep. Carolyn Hugley, D-Columbus. “He always kept the city of Columbus before him.”

Rep. Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain, said Smith had a “big heart” but could be tough on his legislative colleagues when it came to deciding whether to let bills reach the House floor.

“You better come to him with something great,” he said. “If not, it went in the trash.”

Rep. Debbie Buckner, D-Junction City, sat beside Smith in the House chamber for years.

“He could act gruff, almost scary at times to prove a point, to share his feelings,” she said. “But underneath, he was a really good man.”

Smith was the third House Rules Committee chairman to die in office in recent years. Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, died of stomach cancer in 2018 at the age of 74. Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, died unexpectedly a year later at the age of 67.