Jones hoping sports betting, school vouchers succeed in session’s final stretch

Lt. Gov. Burt Jones presides over the state Senate (Photo credit: Rebecca Grapevine)

ATLANTA – With less than two weeks remaining in this year’s General Assembly session, Lt. Gov. Burt Jones has morphed from a lighting-rod political figure to a de facto life coach for anxious lawmakers.

“Everything’s gonna be alright” is the advice Republican Jones is handing out as the legislative session hits the final stretch.  

As lieutenant governor, Jones presides over the state Senate, wielding his heavy gavel from the dais overlooking the chamber where he spent a decade as a senator representing Jackson and central Georgia.   

“I don’t think there’s one piece of legislation out there that the state of the Republic depends on — other than the budget,” the new lieutenant governor said of his approach to the frenetic final days of the session.  

Speaking of the budget, Jones is pleased about across-the-board $2,000 pay raises for state employees as well a property tax rebate drawn from Georgia’s historic budget surplus.  

And he’s applying his equanimous approach to a sports betting measure making its way through the legislature.  

It’s a proposal Jones supports personally but, even if it doesn’t pass, “the following day will still come,” he said.  

Sports betting — after appearing to have died prior to the all-important “Crossover Day” deadline earlier this month– may have gained new life this week when it was tacked onto an unrelated bill about soap box derbies.   

Jones said he thought it was wise for the legislature to consider sports betting apart from other gambling measures.

“History has shown that when you either put sports betting and casinos or sports betting and horse racing together, they usually don’t go anywhere,” he said.

“I had told people in the [Republican] caucus who were interested in sports betting that it would get a fair look, and so we’re gonna see how it does by itself.”

Jones contends that sports betting proceeds could help increase state revenues for the HOPE scholarship and help pay for expanded offerings such as scholarships for technical schools and early childhood learning.  

“I think you’re going to need to pick up additional revenue streams [for those programs], and this one is legal in 36 other states,” he said. 

Jones also would like to see a school vouchers measure pass. The bill would provide Georgia students in low-performing schools with $6,000 scholarships to pay for private school or certain other educational costs.  

“If we can get final passage, that will be a big win for us,” Jones said. 

Legislative Democrats have criticized the bill for diverting money from the public school system and noted that the scholarship amount is insufficient to cover the full cost of private-school tuition.  

“Six thousand dollars could be the difference between closing the gap for those families that would like to have another option,” Jones said in response to that concern. “I think it’s a good first step.”  

A vouchers bill passed by the Senate is slated to be taken up by a House committee. If approved, it could be sent to the full House for a floor vote.  

“I’ve seen school voucher bills fail in the Senate. I’ve seen them fail in the House, and I’ve seen them pass both chambers,” Jones said. “But there’s never been a time when they were successful in passing both chambers, so we’ll just have to wait and see.”  

Jones is also optimistic about prospects for this year’s mental health bill.

After the bill breezed through the state House of Representatives, Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, R-Marietta, has announced that the Senate Health and Human Services Committee will consider a modified version of the bill in a case of inter-chamber wrangling. 

“There’s a lot of subject matter there to tackle, a lot of moving parts,” Jones said. “We’re trying to get to a place where we’ll have something both chambers can agree on.”

Far more controversial is a bill that would prohibit transgender youths in Georgia from receiving either hormone-replacement therapy or gender-affirming surgery even if their parents and doctors approve.  

­­­“I don’t think we need to make it OK for something as drastic as trying to either through medication or surgical procedures …. do permanent changes to a child that could have significant long-term effects in a negative way,” Jones said.

The lieutenant governor said he is not concerned the controversial measure could damage Georgia’s reputation with large businesses.  

“I haven’t heard from the business community at all on this,” he said. “There will be things we do that the business community doesn’t like … but in most cases, it’s not the majority.”

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

Lawmakers weighing overhaul of compensating wrongfully convicted Georgians

ATLANTA – It was eight minutes after midnight last April 5 when the Georgia Senate voted unanimously to compensate Kerry Robinson financially for spending more than 17 years in prison for a rape he did not commit.

One minute later, another unanimous Senate vote awarded financial compensation to Dennis Arnold Perry, who spent more than 20 years behind bars for two murders he did not commit.

Technically, the two resolutions gained final passage after the midnight deadline for the 40th and final day of the 2022 legislative session.

Waiting until the last moment to do right by the two men was a glaring example of the need to overhaul Georgia’s system for compensating the wrongfully convicted, state Rep. Scott Holcomb said on the House floor earlier this month.

“That’s not how this process should be handled,” said Holcomb, D-Atlanta. “We’ve got to do better.”

Holcomb’s remarks came just before the House voted 157-17 in favor of his bill calling for a new system for compensating the wrongfully convicted.

House Bill 364 would create a five-member panel of experts in the criminal justice system, including a judge, retired judge, or retired justice; a district attorney, a criminal defense lawyer; and two attorneys, forensic experts, or law professors with expertise in wrongful convictions.

Georgians who have been exonerated of a crime for which they were wrongfully convicted, often through DNA evidence that was not available at the time of their trial, could submit compensation claims to the Wrongful Conviction Compensation Review Panel.

The panel would determine whether compensation is warranted, fix an amount of compensation, and refer its findings to a newly created Claims Advisory Board chaired by Georgia’s secretary of state and including the state commissioners of human services, corrections, and transportation.

The board, in turn, would report the findings to the chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, who would include any recommendations for compensation in that year’s state budget.

Compensation awards under the bill would fall between $50,000 to $100,000 for each year of wrongful incarceration, depending on the panel’s judgment.

The new system would replace a process that requires the wrongfully convicted to find a legislative sponsor for a private compensation resolution and convince the House Appropriations Committee to pass it.

“HB 384 would remove much of the partisan politics from the compensation process and impose clear criteria for determining innocence and granting compensation,” Blis Savidge, spokeswoman for the Georgia Innocence Project, an advocacy group that works to free the wrongfully convicted, wrote in an email to Capitol Beat.

“Rather than snap judgments being made by legislators based upon partial information conveyed in short legislative hearings, the Wrongful Conviction Compensation Review Panel would be composed of relevant experts and have research and investigative capabilities.”

Molly Parmer, a Georgia Innocence Project board member, said 35 states and the federal government already use the compensation system proposed in Holcomb’s legislation.

“It’s been thoroughly vetted,” she said. “It’s modeled after those existing bills.”

Parmer said there’s nothing automatic about the new compensation system. The wrongfully convicted still would have to prove their cases warrant financial compensation but in a more appropriate venue, she said.

“Certainly, the experts will be in a better position to dole out compensation if they think it’s warranted,” she said.

The House passed similar legislation last year, also sponsored by Holcomb, but it died in the Senate. This year’s bill is pending before the Senate Appropriations Committee but has yet to get a hearing.

State Senate panel OKs electric vehicles bill

ATLANTA – The General Assembly moved closer Thursday toward putting a framework in place to accommodate the growing popularity of electric vehicles in Georgia.

The state Senate Regulated Industries Committee unanimously approved legislation that would pave the way for a planned network of public EV charging stations across the state. The bill passed in the Georgia House of Representatives early this month, also unopposed.

Under House Bill 406, EV drivers would be charged by the kilowatt-hour for the electricity they purchase to power their vehicles, rather than the current system based on the length of time charging takes. The change is necessary in order for Georgia to qualify for $135 million in federal funding to build the public charging stations.

The legislation calls for the state Department of Agriculture to inspect the charging stations for accuracy, as they do now with gasoline pumps.

To offset the loss of revenue from the state’s sales tax on motor fuels as more motorists switch to EVs, the bill would impose an excise tax of 9 kilowatt-hours on purchases of electricity to power electric vehicles.

Two speakers at Thursday’s committee hearing complained that’s too much. Mark Woodall, legislative chairman for the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club, said the proposed excise tax would be the highest in the nation, while the flat annual fee of $217 EV owners now pay is the nation’s second-highest.

“We think we ought to be incentivizing EVs,” Woodall said.

Doug Teper, policy manager for Georgia Conservation Voters, said the proposed tax would send the wrong message at a time Gov. Brian Kemp’s goal is make Georgia a leader in electric mobility.

“We don’t want to be known as the state that taxes the most,” he said.

But Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, who co-chaired a legislative study committee that helped develop the legislation, said the proposed rate is designed to be equivalent to what Georgians pay in taxes on a gallon of gasoline.

“We’re not trying to increase the cost of an electric car more than gasoline,” he said.

Gooch said the General Assembly needs to pass the legislation this year in order to make Georgia eligible for the federal funding.

Committee Chairman Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, suggested there will be time later to make adjustments in the tax if necessary because it wouldn’t take effect under the bill until 2025.

The measure now moves to the Senate Rules Committee to schedule a vote of the full Senate.

State retirement fund managers confident of little impact from bank failures

ATLANTA – Georgia’s Teachers Retirement System (TRS) lost about $33 million when two large banks – Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) and Signature Bank – failed earlier this month. 

TRS lost $18 million from the SVB failure and $13 million from the Signature Bank failure, TRS Executive Director Buster Evans said Thursday.

But the loss is just a sliver of a fraction of the TRS’ $88 billion in total assets – 0.04% — and is not expected to impact the overall health of the fund or retired employees’ benefits. 

“The impact would be pretty negligible,” Evans said. “Our portfolio is very diverse and we are not dependent on any one industry for performance. Year-to-date, our fund is up.” 

The Employees’ Retirement System of Georgia (ERSGA) also took a relatively small loss of $7.1 million from the two bank failures, Executive Director Jim Potvin told Capitol Beat. As at TRS, the loss represents just 0.04% of the ERGSA’s total assets of $17.7 billion. 

The TRS administers the fund from which the pensions of teachers and many University System of Georgia employees are paid retirement benefits. ERGSA administers a number of retirement plans for state employees, including retired judges and state legislators. 

Both Potvin and Evans said they are confident their funds will thrive despite current market volatility. 

“This occurrence in no way has an impact on either our retirees or active members in their current and future retirement benefits,” Evans said. 

“One of the key features of a defined benefit plan [like ERSGA] … is that sort of insulation from market events,” Potvin added.

Both Potvin and Evans said they are uncertain about whether they will benefit from any restitution plans the federal government develops. 

“Not counting on any of that,” Potvin said. “If we get anything later, it’ll be a nice little bonus.”

As in Georgia, other states’ retirement systems are facing losses from the two banks’ failures. 

“It’s important for everybody to realize TRS didn’t do anything wrong investing in [Silicon Valley Bank]. It was the 16th largest bank in the country,” said Anthony Randazzo, executive director of the Equable Institute, a bipartisan nonprofit focused on retirement plan sustainability and accountability.  “As part of the S&P 500, it was a totally reasonable bet.” 

Georgia teachers also approve of TRS’ overall performance. 

“TRS has a very solid investment policy,” said Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators. “Our educators and retirees are very happy with TRS.”

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

State Senate committee resurrects sports betting

ATLANTA – Legislation to legalize sports betting in Georgia left for dead after Crossover Day in the General Assembly last week was brought back to life Thursday.

None of the four measures on sports betting introduced early in this year’s session made it through the Crossover Day deadline for bills to pass at least one legislative chamber to remain alive for the year.

But on Thursday, the Senate Economic Development and Tourism Committee inserted a lengthy sports betting bill into a much shorter measure declaring the Southeast Georgia Soap Box Derby the state’s official sports box derby.

The sports betting measure, introduced by freshman Sen. Derek Mallow, D-Savannah, would authorize the Georgia Lottery Corp. to oversee online sports betting in Georgia. Twenty-two percent of the adjusted gross income derived from sports betting would support the state’s HOPE Scholarships and pre-kindergarten programs.

To discourage addictive gambling, the bill would allow bettors to use debit cards only. Betting would be allowed on professional and college sporting events but not high school games.

Committee Chairman Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, thanked Lt. Gov. Burt Jones for helping put together the sports betting measure. As a state senator, Jones introduced sports betting legislation three years ago.

“He’s been a strong advocate for sports betting for a long time,” Beach said.

But Sen. Mike Duggan, R-Carrollton, objected to sports betting advocates essentially stealing the soap box derby bill for their own purposes. He said passing sports betting that way would set the industry back in Georgia by five years.

“When you hijack a soap box derby and put sports betting on the back of it, every person who was on the fence in Georgia has picked a side of the fence,” Duggan said. “It will not pass on the [Senate] floor.”

Freshman Rep. Leesa Hagan, R-Lyons, the original bill’s chief sponsor, went so far as to ask Beach to remove her bill from the sports betting legislation if the committee was determined to try to push sports betting through the General Assembly that way.

“I don’t want my soap box derby to be associated with sports betting,” she said.

Beach told Hagan he would find another bill moving through the legislature and attach her legislation to it.

The sports betting bill now heads to the Senate Rules Committee to schedule a floor vote.

State Senate committee expands bill banning lengthy housing moratoriums 

A state Senate committee widened the scope of a bill sponsored by Rep. Dale Washburn, R-Macon, that would ban lengthy local moratoriums on the building of housing.

ATLANTA – A state Senate committee Thursday widened the scope of a bill that would prohibit local governments from imposing moratoriums on the building of housing for longer than 180 days.  

As passed by the state House earlier this month, the bill only barred such local government moratoriums on single-family housing. On Thursday, the Senate Economic Development and Tourism Committee approved an amendment broadening the bill to include all housing.  

Sponsored by Rep. Dale Washburn, R-Macon, the bill also would prohibit local governments from continually renewing moratoriums and instead require a 180-day break between such moratoriums. 

The bill provides some exceptions to the bar on lengthy moratoriums, such as in the case of natural disasters or other emergencies.  

The bill would also let local governments extend moratoriums if they need more than 180 days to allow for the completion of studies on topics such as land use or infrastructure, whether those studies are completed in house or by third-party contractors.

Local governments would be allowed to waive impact fees for housing that is smaller than 2,500 square-feet in order to incentivize construction. Local governments sometimes impose impact fees to cover the infrastructure costs of new housing developments.  

The bill has drawn the support of a newly formed housing coalition made up of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the Home Builders Association of Georgia, the Georgia Association of Realtors and Habitat for Humanity.  

“We think it’s a small, modest step in the right direction,” said Austin Hackney of the Home Builders Association of Georgia. “Unfortunately, some local governments are using those development moratoriums to put a hard stop on new housing, in their local area, in a blanket manner.”  

The bill now moves to the Senate Rules Committee to schedule a vote of the full Senate.

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