Harris brings Economic Opportunity Tour to Atlanta

Vice President Kamala Harris (Photo Courtesy of The White House)

ATLANTA – The Biden administration has taken important steps to help Black Americans achieve home ownership and start small businesses, Vice President Kamala Harris said Friday.

But more needs to be done to make them aware of those opportunities, Harris said during a forum at the 38th annual conference of the mentoring organization 100 Black Men of America in Atlanta.

“This is a room full of people who can help get the word out on what is available,” she said.

Harris’ stop in Atlanta was the fifth in her nationwide Economic Opportunity Tour touting the Biden administration’s work to create jobs, make housing more affordable, and erase student loans and medical debt.

She and Biden have been actively courting Black voters, a demographic Democrats often have taken for granted, at a time the president’s polling numbers are slipping particularly among Black men and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is aggressively seeking Black support. In a case in point, Biden served as the keynote speaker during last month’s graduation ceremonies at Morehouse College.

Harris said Black Americans have a lot to overcome if they are to gain equal access to business opportunities enjoyed by whites. She said only 2% of venture capital investment goes to Black-owned businesses, while Blacks are three times less likely to apply for loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration, which she attributed to their fear of being disappointed when they’re rejected.

Harris said the solution likes in stepping up federal investment in community banks. She pointed to $12 billion Congress appropriated to community banks for small business startup loans while she was a member of the U.S. Senate.

“Putting the money into community banks is about putting it into a place where people can walk in with a sense of dignity that is respected and actually be able to have access to capital,” she said.

On the housing front, Harris said the difficulty Black Americans encounter obtaining loans to finance down payments goes back to the post-World War II era, when Black men returning from overseas were discriminated against when they tried to take out housing loans through the GI Bill.

She said the Biden administration is proposing a plan to give Americans who are the first in their family to seek homeownership a $25,000 credit for a down payment and $400 per month to help with mortgage payments.

“Homeownership is probably one of the most effective, efficient, and fastest ways to grow inter-generational wealth,” she said.

Harris also touted the administration’s recent order providing nearly $160 billion in loan forgiveness to nearly 4.6 million student borrowers. The offer will go not only to students who have obtained degrees but to those who haven’t graduated but still owe on their loans, she said.

To help Americans saddled with expensive medical bills, Harris said the Biden administration has proposed a new rule that would eliminate medical debt from Americans’ credit scores.

Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group, released a statement Friday criticizing Harris’ appearance in Atlanta as a “campaign tour highlighting the supposed successes of ‘Bidenomics.’ “

“Despite multiple visits from administration and campaign officials, we have one message for Vice President Harris: the Biden-Harris administration’s reckless spending and ham-fisted regulations are directly responsible for the economic hardships facing Georgians,” said Tony West, the group’s Georgia state director. “We will continue to advocate for sensible policy solutions that foster economic opportunity and growth.”

Spread of solar farms in Georgia about to get legislative scrutiny

ATLANTA – Georgia is the largest state east of the Mississippi River, with eight million acres of prime farmland.

Yet, there’s so much concern over the spread of solar farms eating up huge portions of that acreage with vast fields of solar panels that the state Senate has formed a study committee to explore what can be done to save the most fertile land for farmers.

“We’ve lost a little over two and a half million acres of farmland in the last 40 years,” said Sen. Billy Hickman, R-Statesboro, who will chair the Senate Study Committee on the Preservation of Georgia’s Farmlands. “We’ve got to make sure to protect our farmland.”

Other factors are playing a role in the rapid shrinkage of farmland in Georgia, including the construction of housing subdivisions to accommodate population growth, warehouse-distribution centers and – most recently – data centers.

But solar projects also have cropped up across the state during the last decade, including some rooftop installations on individual homes and businesses but mostly the larger “utility-scale” deployments of fields of solar panels known as solar farms.

The industry operates on two models. Farmers lease their land to solar companies, which build and operate the solar farms for a set period of time. In other cases, a solar company owns the land and sells the power to utilities.

For example, Nashville, Tenn.-based Silicon Ranch sells the electricity generated at the solar farm sites it owns and operates to Green Power EMC, the renewable energy supplier for 38 of Georgia’s electric membership cooperatives. Green Power EMC has more than 40 community and utility-scale solar projects spread across about 10,000 acres.

As of last year, Georgia ranked seventh in the nation in total installed solar capacity, producing 5,936 megawatts, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. One megawatt of electricity is enough to power 750 homes. The 250 solar companies currently operating in Georgia have invested $6.5 billion and created 5,382 jobs.

Solar companies have found willing partners in Georgia farmers because they offer security in an agricultural industry plagued by uncertainty, said Jeff Clark, president of Advanced Power Alliance, a clean-energy industry trade association active in Georgia and 10 other states.

“(Farmers) are getting killed by big corporate farms and overregulation … commodity prices, and fluctuations in the weather,” he said. “For them, it’s an opportunity to diversify and have a steady source of income. … That’s why I think it’s really taking off.”

“For the farmers, it’s a hard opportunity to turn down because the financial opportunities are so great it may allow them to continue to farm other parts of their properties,” added Will Bentley, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council.

The downside to the spread of solar farms is the huge amount of farmland they take up.

“Southwest Georgia is largely prime farmland,” said Bryan Tolar, who preceded Bentley at the agribusiness council and now runs his own government affairs firm. “Are we going to take away prime farmland?”

Bentley said his chief concern over solar farms is what happens to the land solar farms occupy when the leases farmers enter into with solar companies expire, typically after 20 years.

“Is the land returned to production or left a mess?” he asked.

The General Assembly sought to address that issue this year by passing legislation requiring solar companies that lease property for solar farms to restore the land to its natural state after the lease expires.

Restoration activities include removing the foundations of solar arrays from the ground to a depth of at lease three feet, filling holes that have been dug to accommodate solar panels, and removing cables and overhead power and communications lines.

House Bill 300, which takes effect July 1, also requires the companies to provide financial assurance at least equal to the estimated cost of removing solar arrays and returning the property to its natural state.

“At the end of a solar project’s life, that family gets the land back, and the project is removed,” Clark said.

The Senate study committee will hold its first meeting next month in Statesboro, with subsequent meetings to take place in Cornelia and two locations in Southwest Georgia yet to be chosen. The panel is due to make recommendations to the full Senate by Dec. 1.

“We won’t have all the answers, but hopefully we’ll learn a lot more,” Hickman said. “It’s probably going to be more about raising an awareness of the need to preserve farmland.”

State tax revenues continue downward slide

ATLANTA – Georgia tax collections continued to fall last month, dropping 1.1% compared to May of last year, the state Department of Revenue reported Friday.

With just one month remaining in the current fiscal year, tax revenues are down by 1.2% compared to the first 11 months of fiscal 2023. However, that doesn’t account for the fact the state wasn’t collecting sales taxes on gasoline and other motor fuels during the first half of the last fiscal year.

As a result, the 11 months that ended May 31 saw a net decrease in tax revenues of 4.3% from fiscal 2023.

Individual income tax receipts for May were down 3.3% compared to the same month last year, driven largely by a 32.9% decline in individual tax return payments.

Net sales tax collections rose slightly last month, increasing by 0.4% compared to May a year ago.

Corporate incomes taxes fell by 35.1% percent in May due to the combination of a 23.1% decline in payments and a huge increase of 497.5% in refunds issued by the revenue agency.

With the state likely to show tax revenues down at the end of fiscal 2024 June 30, Gov. Brian Kemp has been warning of leaner times ahead. However, the $16 billion budget surplus the state has built up during the last three years should provide ample cushion to avoid major spending cuts.

Wade says he’s not to blame for delays in Trump case

Nathan Wade

ATLANTA – While special prosecutor Nathan Wade’s romantic relationship with Fulton County District Attorney was “bad timing,” Wade said he doesn’t believe it is responsible for delaying the election interference case against former President Donald Trump.

“I’m very proud of the things we were able to accomplish under my leadership,” Wade told CNN Wednesday during an interview with the network’s Kaitlan Collins. “I would never have done anything I thought would jeopardize that hard work.”

Wade stepped down from the case in April after Fulton Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee ruled that Willis could continue prosecuting Trump for allegedly attempting to overturn the 2020 presidential election results in Georgia only if Wade discontinued his role as special prosecutor. He resigned within several hours of the ruling.

Wade blamed Trump’s defense team for using Wade’s relationship with Willis to delay the case.

“It’s an interesting trial strategy to attempt to defend your client by attacking the prosecutors involved,” he said.

After a Fulton grand jury indicted Trump and 18 co-defendants last August, Willis was hoping to bring the case to trial by this summer. But the legal wrangling over a defense motion to remove Willis from the case because of her relationship with Wade has dragged on for months, making it a virtual certainty that the case won’t go to trial until after voters decide whether to reelect President Joe Biden or put Trump back in the White House.

In the latest development, the Georgia Court of Appeals put the case on hold last week pending the outcome of Trump’s appeal of McAfee’s ruling allowing Willis to remain.

On Wednesday, Wade said he believes the case could go forward after the November election even if Trump wins and becomes president again in January.

“I don’t believe it looks good to the rest of the world, but I don’t think there’s anything that would prevent that from happening,” he said.

At one point, the interview was interrupted when Collins pressed Wade for details on when his relationship with Willis began and ended. He started to answer, but took off his microphone and stepped away to talk with an aide. When he returned, he referred her question to previous testimony in court hearings on the case rather than answer directly.

Wade said he and Willis remain friends and keep in close contact. However, with him no longer on the case, he said they talk about other matters, including the death threats the two continue to receive.

Port of Savannah reports 22% growth in containers

Port of Savannah

ATLANTA – A strengthening retail market and new customers are combining to drive growth at the Port of Savannah.

The port handled 490,330 twenty-foot equivalent container units (TEUs) last month, up 22% compared to May of last year, the Georgia Ports Authority reported Thursday.

In fact, the Port of Savannah has seen an increase in container volumes every month of this calendar year compared to 2023. So far this year, the ports authority has handled 2.2 million TEUs, an increase of 12.7% over the first five months of last year.

The port is benefiting from source shifting, as more manufacturers establish production facilities in Southeast Asia locations that favor delivery via Savannah, said Griff Lynch, the ports authority’s president and CEO.

“Major retail customers tell Georgia Ports they have increased their orders to rebuild inventories to meet rising consumer demand,” Lynch said. “Additionally, we’ve seen an increase in trade among … suppliers for the new Hyundai Meta Plant.”

May was also a good month for the Appalachian Regional Port in Northwest Georgia, which receives shipments of containers by rail and loads them onto trucks for transport to markets in the Mid-South and Midwest. The inland terminal moved a record 3,600 containers last month.

The ports authority is building a second inland port in Gainesville, a $127 million project due to be completed in 2026.