Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Georgia Capitol

Final stretch

With Crossover Day in the rearview mirror and the current session of the Georgia General Assembly now hurtling towards adjournment on March 29, Soundings asked The Current’s editors and reporters to identify the legislation taken up by lawmakers that they deem especially significant for Coastal Georgians. Here’s what they told us.

From Editor-in-Chief Margaret Coker

Georgia’s 37-cent tax on cigarette packs is second lowest in the country. Yet despite strong bipartisan support, bills sponsored by Richmond Hill Republican Ron Stephens to increase the cigarette tax died after the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee declined to give them a hearing.

HB 191 and HB 192 proposed moderate increased taxes on cigarettes and vaping products. Stephens, a pharmacist, said that made good business sense for the state, which currently subsidizes healthcare costs at about $699 million in Medicaid expenses linked to tobacco-related illnesses.

The annual health care expenditures in Georgia caused directly by tobacco use is about $669 billion, he said. But the anti-tax faction of Stephens’ Republican Party kept the bills from reaching a vote at the House, spelling doom for the measure.

From Managing Editor Susan Catron

SB 215 would hide identifying public information for state, county, city and federal employees and elected representatives — including addresses, business licenses or permits, and phone numbers — held online by local governments. It heads to the House. Another bill didn’t. SB 176 would’ve imposed penalties for identifying government employees in documents, a measure that would also apply to more than 700,000 government employees and lawmakers. One implication: Under 215, if you’re an elected public official or a steward of the people’s tax money, voters won’t be entitled to know who you are and what you own.

Passage of this measure or part of the other would be a further blow to government transparency and accountability. Georgia lawmakers have already exempted themselves from the state’s open-records laws. And under the rules of the current legislative session, the public has no access to the locations where their elected representatives are lobbied or the lobbyists from whom they receive information before they decide on legislative measures affecting their districts.

HB 538, the “Georgia Early Literacy Act,” would increase emphasis on what educators say is a crucial cohort: students from kindergarten through third grade. Among other things, the measure would require school boards to provide high-quality instructional materials for teachers overseeing these students and require “intervention plans” for students with reading deficiencies.

Environment Reporter Mary Landers

The Okefenokee Protection Act, HB 71, would prohibit future strip mining on the area known as Trail Ridge near the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. By Friday, the bill had amassed 91 co-sponsors, enough to assure its passage if put to a vote in the house.

But it looks like it won’t get that chance: The bill is stuck without a hearing in Chairman Lynn Smith’s (R-Newnan) House Natural Resources Committee, or what the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club dubs ‘Smith’s funeral parlor.’ Last year’s version of the bill died in the same committee.

HB 370, sponsored by Rep. Jesse Petrea(R-Savannah), seeks to make it easier to prove private ownership of salt marsh for parcels that trace back to a King’s grant from the colonial era or to a land grant issued later by the state of Georgia. Cosponsors are Republican coastal representatives Buddy DeLoach, Steven Sainz, and Ron Stephens, as well as Democrat Al Williams. It passed out of the Judiciary Committee on Friday.

Proponents, including Savannah’s Dr. Jerry Williams, argue they need clear title to be able to use their marsh land, in some cases after paying property taxes on it for decades, to produce income through wetlands mitigation programs. Opponents, including the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club, don’t see the need to tinker with Georgia’s current regime of marsh protection.

Public Safety Reporter Jake Shore

SB 63 one of a spate of “tough on crime” bills that have been advanced by the GOP-dominated legislature this session. It designates dozens more offenses as “bail-restricted” — meaning that a judge would be required to set dollar amounts for their release.

Those offenses would include racing, fleeing from police and voluntary manslaughter, as well as misdemeanors such as criminal trespass, petty theft, and marijuana possession. On Feb. 23, the measure passed the Georgia Senate 31-23 and made its way over to the House, where it currently sits.

Coco Papy, public policy director for Savannah-based nonprofit, Deep Center, says she and other criminal justice reform advocates have not received clear answers from bill sponsors over how the proposed law would affect 17-year-olds, who are criminally charged as adults and not juveniles under Georgia state law.

A teenager charged with a newly-bail restricted offense like an “affray,” which is fighting, could end up in jail rather than juvenile court. That’s just one example how SB 63 would “accelerate that school to prison pipeline,” she says.

Papy says she hopes to persuade House lawmakers that the proposed law would worsen public safety and wipe away the bipartisan progress made in criminal justice reform under former Republican governor, Nathan Deal.

Data Reporter Maggie Lee

Republicans in the state Senate are taking a strong interest in the deeds — and possible misdeeds — of district attorneys. Sponsor Randy Robertson, a Catuala Republican, did indeed mention former Brunswick DA Jackie Johnson’s alleged protection of murder suspects, when he urged his state Senate colleagues to approve his SB 92 — which would set up an oversight committee on elected district attorneys.

But his bill isn’t specifically a response to Johnson — in fact, Robertson has called out several DAs, accusing them of reckless management and of believing they can prosecute based on feelings instead of evidence. His SB 92 passed the state Senate on March 3. A state House Committee has approved a similar bill, HB 231. Both chambers would need to approve identical language by the end of session to send a bill to the governor’s desk.

McIntosh County can’t collect property taxes on some of its most valuable beaches, rivers and marshesTownsend Republican Rep. Buddy DeLoach told a panel of his state House colleagues last week, because the state of Georgia owns that land. The state’s property tax exemption is a problem because those taxes pay for things like local schools and roads. “They barely have any money to operate any kind of government,” DeLoach told the House Regulated Industries Committee.

DeLoach’s answer? Bingo. The committee OK’d DeLoach’s House Bill 473, which would allow McIntosh to apply for a state license to establish electronic or human-run bingo games for profit.

georgia ballot box vote

Voting ferment

A joint MIT-University of Georgia poll conducted after last November’s mid-term elections found that 99% of all Georgia voters reported “no issues” in casting their ballots.

The largely incident-free mid-term voting led many Georgia lawmakers — Coastal Georgia’s included — to conclude that after all the bitter controversies over voting in the state — little attention would be paid to the state’s voting procedures during the current legislative session.

So much for predictions.

The raft of voting-related measures is moving through the state Senate and House includes HB 642, which gives Cherokee County Commission the power to reconstitute the county’s election board, and SB 227, which would shift the authority to choose an election supervisor in Macon-Bibb County from the county’s election board to Macon’s mayor and city commissioners.

Then there’s HB 422, which would enable Ware County’s GOP to remove and replace individuals who are currently serving on the county’s election board, a majority of whom are Black, according to J. James Billings, former chairman of the Macon-Bibb Democratic Party.

Not least there’s SB 221, which would ban counties from offering absentee drop boxes, expand the opportunity for mass challenges of voter eligibility and spell out more security measures for ballots.

The voting-reform ferment extends beyond the Gold Dome.

The Brunswick News reported last week that the McIntosh County Commission “wants a bigger say in how the local board of elections is appointed.”

And the running spat over the Georgia vote in the 2020 presidential election spilled over into Washington last week, as U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Gabriel Sterling, chief operating officer for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, tangled during a meeting of the House Election Integrity Caucus.

Camden County
Cumberland Island National Seashore sign at the waterfront pavilion Credit: Jeffery M. Glover/ The Current

‘Increasingly alarming rate’

In a rare example of bipartisanship, U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff and Coastal Georgia Rep. Buddy Carter have teamed up to urge the U.S. Department of Interior to prioritize funding for the study of erosion impacting the Cumberland Island National Seashore.

“Today, the shores of this remarkable island are eroding at an increasingly alarming rate. Until the root causes are known, there cannot be appropriate actions to mitigate and prevent further damage to this unique habitat,” Ossoff and Carter wrote in letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

Meanwhile, Carter, in his weekly newsletter, extols the “Parents Bill of Rights Act” introduced last week by House Republicans. The bill has no chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate, but with the House Republican conference hard-pressed to get anything concrete done on Capitol Hill due partly their own internal divisions, the bill is a measure they can rally around.

The “Parents Bill of Rights” counters efforts by “Washington Democrats” to prevent parents from having a say in their child’s education, says Carter, warning: “Left unchecked, parents could end up being locked out of school buildings completely!”

To make his case, Carter cites an oft-repeated GOP assertion: “The FBI labeled concerned parents as ‘domestic terrorists’ for making their voices heard in school board meetings. (Don’t believe me? Check out this video).”

That factual basis of that assertion has been challenged here, here, and here, as well as by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland himself, in testimony last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

More than a dozen officials participated in the ceremonial groundbreaking of Hyundai Motor Group’s planned electric vehicle plant in Bryan County. Among them were (from left) South Korea ambassador to the U.S. Taeyong Cho, Hyundai chairman Euisun Chung, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, and U.S. Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. Credit: Benjamin Payne/GPB News


  • Gov. Kemp: Hyundai Supplier PHA to Create Over 400 Jobs in Chatham County” (News Release, Office of Governor Brian Kemp, March 6, 2023) “Governor Brian P. Kemp today announced that PHA, a global auto parts manufacturer that will supply the Hyundai Metaplant in Bryan County, will create 402 new jobs and invest more than $67 million in a new facility in Chatham County.”
  • City, HUD allege misuse of federal dollar, misconduct at housing authority” (Brunswick News, March 2, 2023) “City Hall was the site of a showdown Wednesday between the leadership of the Brunswick Housing Authority and Brunswick Mayor Cosby Johnson over a report from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department alleging many instances of mismanagement, misuse of government funds and conflicts of interest.”
  • Opioid Distributors Cleared of Liability to Georgia Families Ravaged by Addiction” (New York Times, March 1, 2023) “The case illustrates the enormous challenges that victims of the opioid crisis have had in getting compensation from the pharmaceutical industry, despite its pledge of billions of dollars to state and local governments.”

State Senate passes educational voucher bill  

The bill would provide students in low-performing school districts $6,000 to spend on private school tuition.

Georgia House passes tenants’ rights bill

House Bill 404, which now moves to the state Senate, would require rental properties to be “fit for human habitation” upon signing a lease, and landlords would be required to maintain their properties throughout the lease.

Georgia Senate shoots down sports betting bill

The bill’s supporters argued it would not require a constitutional change because it would not legalize either casinos or pari-mutuel betting, the only forms of gambling expressly prohibited by Georgia’s Constitution.

We want to meet your friends! If you like this newsletter be sure to share it.

Support non-partisan, solutions-based investigative journalism without bias, fear or favor on issues affecting Savannah and Coastal Georgia.

Craig Nelson is a former international correspondent for The Associated Press, the Sydney (Australia) Morning-Herald, Cox Newspapers and The Wall Street Journal. He also served as foreign editor for The...