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Georgia Lawmakers Will Look at Voting, HOPE Funding and More



GEORGIA – Election reform will be front and center in this year’s Georgia General Assembly session, according to House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge).

At a news conference last week, Ralston outlined his agenda for the 40-day session, which started Monday, Jan. 11. He announced the formation of a special committee to look at election integrity, after widespread (and unfounded) allegations of fraud in President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. Many Republicans have called for tamping down on absentee voting, in particular. An unprecedented number of mail-in ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelmingly favored Biden.

Ralston said he would be reluctant to change a state law requiring a runoff if no candidate receives over 50% of the vote—something that came back to bite former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who led in the general election but then lost to now-Sen. Jon Ossoff in the Jan. 5 runoff. “Somebody would have to make a real strong case to convince me,” Ralston said.

Georgia’s other Republican senator, Kelly Loeffler, was forced into a runoff that she lost to Democrat Raphael Warnock by Georgia’s “jungle primary” rule for special elections, which put 21 candidates on the November ballot. “I don’t know who could be in favor of a jungle primary anymore,” Ralston said.

Ralston also threw cold water on calls to end no-excuse voting by mail. “I think the level of security for an absentee ballot should be just the same as in-person voting,” he said. “We might look at some tightening up, but I want elections to be open.”

Democrats are likely to fight any effort to put more hurdles in front of absentee voters. “I think we’re making a mountain out of a molehill,” said Rep. Spencer Frye (D-Athens), who noted that Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger only found two instances of dead people voting in the last election.

“I think we’re seeing a bunch of people who are just looking for a problem to pretend to solve in order to make it harder for citizens to vote in this state,” Frye told Athens-Clarke County commissioners at a Jan. 12 work session on the commission’s priorities for this year’s legislative session.

Ralston also backed away from his call for the General Assembly to appoint the secretary of state—an elected position—after Raffensperger did not attend or send a staffer to a House committee hearing on the debunked accusations of election fraud. “We’re going to have to talk about it,” Ralston said. “I’m not wedded to that idea only.”

Ralston’s remarks came against the backdrop of Donald Trump supporters—egged on by the president—storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 as Congress certified the Electoral College vote.

“There’s going to have to be a lot of discussion among the members and leadership of our Republican Party on a path forward, both in D.C. and here in Georgia.”

Ralston said the GOP has to get back to addressing “issues that make peoples’ lives better,” pointing to the passage of transportation funding reform and criminal justice reform measures, an income tax cut and parental leave in recent sessions. “We have to turn our attention from those seeking to divide us and focus our attention on work that brings us together,” he said.

Gov. Brian Kemp and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan also condemned the right-wing violence in Washington, D.C. after Raffensperger—who has received threats—and his staff evacuated the Capitol building in Atlanta in response to armed protesters outside. “Today is an incredibly sobering reminder of how delicate our democracy truly is,” Duncan said. “It is also a reminder of how dangerous it is when people in power act as if they are more important than that democracy.”

Ralston also said he expects to expand the state’s mental health system this year, calling it “a real priority of mine.” Mental health issues “touch almost every family in Georgia,” but treatment options are “disappointingly limited,” especially in rural areas, he said. “In rural Georgia, you have to get arrested and put in jail to get mental health treatment,” he said. “That shouldn’t be the case.”

Legislation to help small businesses hurt by the pandemic is also on the table, he said, such as extending a law limiting liability for COVID-19.

It may not happen until a special session in the fall, but legislators will also be redrawing district lines for the state House and Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. Ralston rejected Democrats’ calls for an independent redistricting commission, noting that Democrats unilaterally drew the maps when they were in power. “Let’s be very frank here,” he said. “Redistricting is a political process, and there’s nothing wrong with that.” [Blake Aued]

College on the Cheap

The University System of Georgia is trying to put degrees in more students’ hands for less money, Chancellor Steve Wrigley said in a keynote address at the University of Georgia’s Biennial Institute, an every-other-December training session for new state legislators.

“We have three goals: Be affordable, be efficient and graduate more students,” he said. Enrollment is up 7%, and the number of degrees bestowed is up 29% in the past decade. A record 71,000 students graduated from the state’s 26 public colleges and universities last year, Wrigley said. He touted decisions not to raise tuition in three of the past five years and free and low-cost textbooks that saved students $27 million.

Keeping costs down “is the best way, ultimately, to help people earn a degree,” Wrigley said, noting that college graduates earn twice as much over a lifetime as high-school graduates, and unlike those without a college education, they are almost fully recovered from the pandemic recession. “We stress getting a degree because there is a direct link between education, economic development and quality of life,” he said.

After going online in March and offering students and professors the option of Zoom classes last fall, UGA and other institutions will be mostly shifting back to in-person classes this semester, despite the COVID-19 pandemic still raging. Although many professors and students might not agree, “We believe in-person instruction is best for the vast majority of students, and our plan is to provide a safe return to the classroom,” Wrigley said. [BA]

Kemp Fends Off Critics

Meanwhile, Gov. Brian Kemp spent most of his Biennial keynote speech on Dec. 7 defending himself against Republican critics—some of them in the legislature—who wanted him to do something to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s narrow victory in Georgia.

In addition to commenting on the election process, Kemp applauded the work he and the Georgia General Assembly accomplished in the past year, albeit with a shortened session.

“By all measures, we were gearing up for another productive session under the Gold Dome until the COVID-19 pandemic reached our state’s borders,” Kemp said. “None of us could have anticipated that we would face a once-in-a-century global pandemic that literally uprooted our economy, sent our kids home from school for virtual learning for the balance of the year, and turned so many norms that we were used to on their heads in literally just a matter of a few short weeks.”

Kemp praised the state’s response to the pandemic, saying it plans to spend a total of $250 million to “shore up the needs in our hospitals” before the end of 2021. As COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the nation and throughout the state, Kemp said the legislature will continue to focus on public health in the next session. He urged the audience to continue to wear masks, social distance, wash their hands and follow the guidelines outlined in state executive orders. Additionally, he said people should receive a flu shot to avoid a “twindemic” from further testing the limits of state hospitals.

Kemp also pointed to foster care reform, pay raises for teachers and legislation passed to clamp down on human trafficking and “gang violence” as achievements for the past year. [TW]

HOPE for More Gambling Revenue?

It’s hard to believe in 2020, when sports betting has become ubiquitous and casinos are a perennial issue at the state Capitol, but there was a time when the Georgia Lottery was controversial.

When then-Gov. Zell Miller began pushing for it in 1992, pastors preached against “devil’s play” on Sundays, according to Cynthia Wright, who was Miller’s general counsel and is now a Fulton County Superior Court Judge. And state Rep. Alan Powell (R-Hartswell) said at a Biennial session, “Everybody loves to bet on sports, and if you don’t believe me, go to Sunday school on a Sunday morning, and everybody will tell you who they bet on Saturday night,”.

Of course, the lottery was eventually approved, once Miller promised all-powerful House Speaker Tom Murphy that it wouldn’t supplant existing education funds. Ever since, the scratch from scratch-offs has funded pre-K education and college scholarships for Georgia students.

But it doesn’t go as far as it once did. Most HOPE recipients no longer get a full ride, now paying for books and other expenses out-of-pocket. So lawmakers have been searching for a way to fill in the gap.

Lottery profits plowed back into education have grown by leaps and bounds—from $374 million in 1994 to $1.24 billion in fiscal year 2020, a record year despite the pandemic and economic downturn, lottery president and CEO Gretchen Corbin told legislators. But critics say the lottery corporation is not turning over a big enough share of its revenue to the state. Currently the profit margin is about 25–27%, and the lottery’s enabling legislation says it should be more like 35%, according to Sen. Bill Cowsert (R-Athens), who pointed out that lottery officials know exactly how much money they’ll make when they print the tickets. That’s an additional $150 million a year for pre-K and HOPE.

Powell and influential Democrat Calvin Smyre of Columbus said they support all three gambling options on the table: constitutional amendments, requiring two-thirds of both chambers and voter approval, to legalize sports betting and horse racing, and an amendment that would authorize local communities to decide whether to allow casinos.

However, Cowsert raised questions about how much revenue sports betting or horse racing would bring in. The state would be taxing a small fraction of bookies’ take, amounting to just $30 million–$50 million a year, he said. “When we do it, we are competing with ourselves as a state. We are competing with the lottery,” he said. On the other hand, casino gambling is potentially more lucrative than the lottery, he added.

Cowsert also said the state should educate gamblers on the dangers of gambling and put safeguards in place, like requiring bettors to pay bookies up front. “You’ve all seen people who don’t look like they probably have enough money to be playing the lottery standing in line to buy lottery tickets,” he said, in a nod to one of the criticisms of the lottery—that it’s essentially a tax on the poor to benefit the middle class. “We need to do something to make sure they don’t hurt themselves. Gambling can be a lot of fun but can also be addictive; it can be disruptive; it can be financially devastating.”

Additional gambling revenue could help college students stay out of debt, Smyre said. If gambling is expanded, though, the money might not necessarily go toward education. “If the people vote for casino gambling, that money should go to the No. 1 hole in the budget, and that’s health care,” Powell said. [BA]

It’s Gerrymandering Time

As the U.S. Census Bureau prepares to deliver its population findings, it’s unlikely that Georgia will pick up an additional seat in the U.S. House of Representatives during the reapportionment process, said Gina Wright, executive director of the Georgia General Assembly’s Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office.

Wright explained the decennial task of redrawing congressional and legislative districts to legislators at the Biennial. After Wright’s office analyzes the census data and determines how to split up the districts for federal and statewide offices, the legislature will hold a special session to adopt the districts for the next 10 years.

“As [the Census Bureau] takes a new count and they see how many people are in different areas and jurisdictions, you’re going to have to make changes to your district boundaries, so that each of the districts on any given map will have the same number of people as close as practical in each of the districts,” said Wright, who has participated in two redistricting cycles since joining her office in 2000. “That is the purpose—to balance out those districts in population size.”

Wright prefaced her presentation by explaining the difference between redistricting and reapportionment, which she said many people use interchangeably. “Reapportionment” refers to the number of representatives each state receives in the U.S. House, while “redistricting” refers to the redrawing of district maps. As states across the nation prepare to redraw their maps, they consider both legal requirements and recommended practices.

The new maps must comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, meaning the mapmakers cannot use race as a criterion for district boundaries, and each vote must count equally within a district. The mapmakers also consider the principles of compactness and contiguity, trying to avoid districts with odd shapes or “islands” split off from the rest of the district.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. Prior to the court’s decision, states with a history of discriminatory voting laws–including Georgia–had to seek approval from the U.S. Department of Justice or from the U.S. District Court in D.C. before any redistricting changes. Although these select states are no longer required to obtain approval for changes, they still need to abide by the rest of the Voting Rights Act, Wright said.

The mapmakers also try to respect political boundaries by keeping individual precincts within the same district, avoiding alteration of the district that an incumbent holds to prevent shortening their term and seeking to keep “communities of interest” together.

While the courts have determined that legislators cannot give themselves an unfair advantage to pick up seats through racial gerrymandering, there are no limitations on partisan gerrymandering. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in 2019’s Rucho v. Common Cause that partisan gerrymandering “claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.” Any further effort to outlaw partisan gerrymandering would have to move through the state court system.

Barring that, the Republican majority, which has been shrinking in recent years, will be able to consolidate power. Republicans currently occupy 103 of 180 state House seats, 35 of 56 state Senate seats and eight of 14 congressional seats despite Georgia voters trending toward Democrats. They can bolster those numbers by shifting voters around. Athens is a good example: Republicans split the county into two Senate districts in 2006 to keep a Democrat out of office, then turned a blue House district into a red one in 2011 to benefit a state representative who switched parties.