ON AIR NOW

LISTEN NOW

Weather

cloudy-day Created with Sketch.
69°
Broken Clouds
H 82° L 60°
  • cloudy-day Created with Sketch.
    69°
    Current Conditions
    Partly Cloudy. H NaN° L 59°
  • cloudy-day Created with Sketch.
    NaN°
    Today
    Partly Cloudy. H NaN° L 59°
  • partly-cloudy-tstorms-day Created with Sketch.
    82°
    Tomorrow
    Chance of T-storms. H 82° L 60°
LISTEN
PAUSE
ERROR

Wsb news on-demand

00:00 | 00:00

LISTEN
PAUSE
ERROR

Wsb traffic on-demand

00:00 | 00:00

LISTEN
PAUSE
ERROR

Wsb weather on-demand

00:00 | 00:00

Georgia Politics

    Legislation that increases taxes on consumers who purchase used cars passed the state Senate Friday. House Bill 340, sponsored by Rep. Shaw Blackmon, R-Bonaire, is designed to rectify a 2012 law that allows used-car dealers to benefit from the tax structure. “The concept is you’re going to actually pay tax on what you pay for like every other thing in the state of Georgia,” said state Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, who carried the bill in the Senate. “You pay so much for vehicles that you do not get to keep that it was greatly discouraging leasing in the state of Georgia.” The bill, Hufstetler said, was also written to level the playing field between counties. State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, who spoke against the bill said it targets working-class Georgians who are more likely to purchase used cars rather than lease. “When is revenue neutral not revenue neutral? When you get hit,” he said. “The combination of this passing preys on used car buyers and tax decrease on people who lease makes it revenue neutral — except if you’re the one paying the tax increase.” But state Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Ellenwood, said provides a business incentive to lease cars. “By having an opportunity to change the law, we now put leasing on equal footing with regular retail any other way that we sell automobiles in the state,” he said. Jones, who works in the automobile industry, said because he did not feel he would personally benefit nor violate any rules, he felt comfortable voting in favor of the bill. “This bill is about collective taxes. It is not about any money that accrues in any way to my dealership,” he said. In other legislation
  • His Republican rivals call him “Darth Vader,” a “lightweight liberal” and a “puppet of the left.” Fellow Democrats vow to block his “coronation” and paint him as an outsider. More than $1 million has already been spent to bog down his candidacy. Democrat Jon Ossoff has transformed the race for suburban Atlanta’s 6th Congressional District, and his soaring donations and groundswell of support from energized Democrats have fast painted a shiny target on his back as he scrambles to flip Tom Price’s ruby-red turf. Just about every candidate in the crowded April 18 special election to represent the district, which spans from east Cobb County to north DeKalb County, has assailed the 30-year-old former congressional aide. And Republicans determined to keep a GOP stronghold are readying more attacks. But even Ossoff’s Republican adversaries marvel about his campaign’s field operations and the more than $3 million he’s raised in 10 weeks — and worry about their own fractured field of 11 GOP candidates battling each other for their own slice of the electorate. All 18 candidates in the race are on the same ballot, and if none get a majority of the vote, the top two vote-getters will square off in a June 20 runoff. Some worry Ossoff could win the race, upending the national debate about President Donald Trump’s popularity in one of the first votes since his election. “If we have 65 percent of the GOP vote and spread it out over 11 candidates — do the math,” Michael Fitzgerald, the district’s GOP chairman, said in sobering remarks to Republicans at a recent forum. “The question is: Are we going to resist these outsiders taking over our district?” Bruce LeVell, running on a pro-Trump platform, took it a giant step further, saying Ossoff embodied the very essence of evil: “His party is from the Dark Side — Darth Vader.” Ossoff has largely stuck to his talking points, hoping to deprive Republicans of red-meat attacks. He’s pivoted toward the House GOP’s beleaguered health care plan, criticizing funding cuts to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that could hit a disease-fighting initiative. And he and his supporters talk increasingly of landing a knockout punch: the long odds of winning the race outright in April. After all, a runoff against a unifying Republican with the full weight of the party behind him or her would neutralize many of Ossoff’s advantages. “The only way to approach any election is to try to win it outright,” Ossoff said. “That’s what my team and I are trying to do every day.” ‘Make Trump Furious’ A virtual unknown in Georgia political circles, Ossoff jumped in the race in January with the endorsements of U.S. Reps. John Lewis and Hank Johnson and more than $250,000 in cash commitments — instantly making him the leading Democratic contender. Since then, he’s become a national Democratic darling with his “Make Trump Furious” mantra and support from the liberal Daily Kos website, which has raised more than $1.2 million for him from more than 70,000 donors. The seat has been in GOP hands since Jimmy Carter’s presidency, launching Newt Gingrich, Johnny Isakson and Price to higher orbits. But Democrats hope to capitalize on Trump’s struggles here — he carried the district by 1 point in November — in the most competitive contest since the president’s election. Operatives on both sides of the aisle know that the race could prove a template for how congressional candidates wage campaigns in the era of Trump. And Republicans have sprayed a scattered-shot wave of attacks seeking to cripple his campaign. “We’ve now almost given him a spot in the runoff. A month out, everyone is fighting for that other spot,” said GOP strategist Chip Lake, who is not working for any candidate in the race. “Whether or not Ossoff wins, this should be a wake-up call to the Republicans nationally about how energized the Democratic base is against this president.” The bulk of them paint Ossoff as a naïve newcomer. Bob Gray, a former Johns Creek city councilman and GOP candidate in the race, called him an “embarrassment” with little experience. Another Republican contender, businessman David Abroms, said voters should “fight fire with fire” against Ossoff and turn to another youthful outsider. A House GOP super PAC unleashed a $1.1 million ad campaign featuring footage of him dressed as Han Solo while at Georgetown University — and claims he “lied about his resume” by asserting he worked for five years as a national security staffer with top security clearances. Ossoff and his campaign said he was granted those privileges working for Johnson after his 2006 election, while the super PAC said he’s claiming time spent as a junior staffer as part of that calculation. More recently, Republicans have probed for other weaknesses. Georgia GOP Chairman John Padgett seized on a fundraiser that U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi held for Ossoff last week in Washington, declaring him a “puppet of the left.” And former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, the biggest GOP name in the race, used her debut ad to slam his investigative film company’s work for Al-Jazeera, a Qatar-based network described by critics as a propaganda outlet. Ossoff has struggled to keep up with the swirling attacks. He rushed out a trio of TV and radio spots — spending more than $1 million in advertising buys — depicting himself as a can-do public servant with support from Lewis and former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes. He and his campaign have declined to comment on some of the criticism. Others they label as “absurd” or describe as cheap shots. “Jon condemns partisan attacks that appeal to fear,” his campaign said of the Al-Jazeera focus, “and stands by his work as a journalist and businessman.” No ‘coronation’ Ossoff has found little safe quarter with fellow Democrats. A recent forum featuring the five Democrats in the race opened with one little-known candidate, Ragin Edwards, asking the crowd of more than 400 voters to raise their hands if they lived in the district. Ossoff’s hand was one of the few not to alight. It was a reminder of another issue that could plague his campaign. He lives south of the district’s border with his girlfriend of 12 years, an Emory University medical student, so they can be within walking distance of her work. Members of Congress don’t have to live in their districts, and Ossoff said he will move to the 6th after she graduates. But that’s left an opening for opponents to peg him as an outsider. Former state Sen. Ron Slotin has tried to exploit that gap by calling himself the “adult” on the Democratic side of the race. He criticized Ossoff for “not having a business in the United States,” a reference to his London-based firm, and said Ossoff is doomed to fail. “This is not going to be a coronation. You have to earn it,” Slotin said. “He stands no chance against a Republican in the runoff. And that’s what I’m letting people know. The party shouldn’t pick favorites.” Ossoff has tried to brush off the criticism while contending his rivals are getting “dragged into partisan politics.” “I grew up in this district. I grew up in this community,” the north DeKalb native said. “Folks want decent representation, not partisan representation. I will offer effectiveness, integrity, humility and responsiveness.” He’s likely to remain a low-risk target for Republicans who remain largely wary of criticizing each other. That was on vivid display at a recent Republican breakfast in Johns Creek, where a string of candidates took the stage — and then took aim at the Democrat. “I am going to challenge Jon Ossoff. I’m not going to be scared,” said Amy Kremer, a tea party activist and cable news pundit. “We have to be bold about what we stand for. Now is the time for fighting.” After the plates had been cleared and the coffee cups trashed, there was much hand-wringing from veteran Republicans worried Ossoff could actually win. Greg Williams, a Republican activist, said he’s been sounding the alarm bells for weeks that the Democrat is legit. “We are not going to be caught sleeping,” he said. “We are not going to have a repeat where they sneak in and steal a seat.”
  • The Georgia Senate set up negotiations with the House on a final budget deal Wednesday by passing a spending plan that includes pay raises for 200,000 teachers and state employees and more than $1 billion worth of new construction projects. The plan also includes $485,000 so Senate committee meetings can be streamed over the internet. Currently, House meetings are streamed, but the Senate has in the past resisted making its meetings accessible to people who can’t attend live. Both chambers must agree on a spending plan for fiscal 2018, which begins July 1, before the session ends March 30. Both the House and now the Senate have approved versions of the budget that largely follow what Gov. Nathan Deal proposed in January. Negotiators will work on the differences between the two chambers and fit in any last-minute spending additions the Deal admininstration requests. The total spending plan tops $49 billion when federal and other funds are included. It would provide 2 percent pay increases for teachers and most state employees, and a 19 percent raise for child protection workers. The raises cost the state about $360 million. Retired state employees would get a 3 percent one-time bonus, as they did last year. The spending proposal includes more than $1.15 billion in new borrowing. High on the list is $105 million to build a new state courts building on the site of the former archives building in Atlanta, which was brought down earlier this month. Under the budget, doctors would receive an increase in payments for treating Medicaid patients, and millions more would go to increasing autism services for children in the program, which provides health care to the poor and disabled. The Senate added $46 million to increase payments to nursing homes. Both chambers also added funding for dentists who treat low-income Medicaid patients, for school counselors, and to address the backlog in processing DNA rape evidence packages. The budget for the upcoming year includes $223 million to help keep the state’s Teachers Retirement System on strong financial footing. State officials said the payment is one of the largest subsidies — if not the largest — in the program’s history.
  • Gov. Nathan Deal reissued an executive order to have flags flown at half-staff Friday after catching heat for calling the Dallas demonstrations where police were gunned down Thursday night an “anti-police protest.”Deal made the original comment when ordering U.S. and Georgia state flags flown at half-staff at all Department of Public Safety buildings following the shootings.The police shootings occurred at a demonstration in Dallas against the recent shootings of black men in Minnesota and Louisiana by police officers.Two hours after the original order, Deal’s office sent out a statement saying, “I’ve reissued the executive order regarding lowering flags to half-staff in memory of the fallen officers in Texas to mirror the presidential proclamation.“In addition, I’d like to clarify the previous executive order I issued. The anti-police incident to which I referred was the shooting of law enforcement officers, as that was the stated intent of the shooters, and not of those peacefully demonstrating.”“Again, my thoughts and prayers are with all those who’ve suffered loss of a loved one this week.”Deal signed the original executive order early Friday to fly the U.S. and Georgia state flags at half-staff.“Today we mourn the lives of five law enforcement officers who were gunned down in a coordinated sniper attack during an anti-police protest,” Deal wrote in his original executive order.He immediately came under heat on Twitter. Some of the responses:
  • Following last year’s fight over a charter school amendment to the state constitution, school choice was expected to return this year as a primary issue on the General Assembly’s education agenda. Now, in response to last month’s fatal shootings of 20 children and six adults at a school in Newtown, Conn., school safety has also risen as a top concern for the legislative session that begins Monday. It’s hard to predict what can happen in a 40-day session, but other education issues that could draw attention this year include school funding, which has taken a significant hit since the recession began in 2008, and the potential expansion of a program that helps provide assistance to students entering private schools. But school safety is now the hot issue, with legislation now being prepared by state Rep. Paul Battles, R-Cartersville, that would allow one or more administrators to carry a weapon at school, at a school function or on a bus. Battles’ legislation is a response to last month’s shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which launched discussions across the country about how to improve safety in schools. Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association’s executive vice president, called for armed officers in every school in the country. Battles doesn’t go that far in his proposal. It would allows schools to choose whether they want to allow armed administrators in schools and at school functions. It would require peace officer training for anyone chosen to carry a weapon. The idea of armed officers in schools has broad support. “We do support additional school resource officers in our schools,” said Tim Callahan, director of public relations for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. “They are a plus and, in conjunction with strong school safety plans, provide a first line of defense.” Districts are already wrestling with how to improve security. For example, the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office has beefed up its presence at schools in the county. Cherokee Schools Superintendent Frank Petruzielo told school board members earlier this month that he has formed a committee to examine safety protocols in the district’s schools. Many high and middle schools already have armed resource officers, but adding them to more schools could be costly. Georgia Superintendent John Barge said he likes the idea of having an armed resource officer at every school. But in stressing that he does not endorse the NRA’s position, Barge has raised questions about the cost of having an armed resource officer at every school. Local school districts, already facing tight budgets, would have to get help from the state to add resource officers, Barge said. While the climate seems hospitable for the passage of legislation crafted to improve school safety, key legislators such as Sen. Fran Millar, a Dunwoody Republican and chairman of the Senate’s Education and Youth Committee, and Rep. Brooks Coleman, the Duluth Republican who is Millar’s counterpart in the House, both said they don’t want to offer knee-jerk reaction to the Newtown shootings. “We’re not going to overreact,” Coleman said. In addition to school safety, issues such as school funding and flexibility will take up time and attention this session. Public school districts in Georgia received about $7 billion in state funding during each of the past two fiscal years, and Coleman said he expects that level to be maintained. Per-pupil state spending in 2012 was down 11.5 percent from 2008 levels, and educators said they are still feeling that pinch. “While things are slowly improving, schools are still challenged to do more with less,” Callahan said. The state’s tight budget — there are concerns that earlier revenue estimates could be off and state agencies would have to make bigger cuts than anticipated — could boost efforts to oppose the expansion of a state tax credit program crafted to help those who donate to student scholarship organizations, or SSOs, which direct assistance to private schools. Georgia has set aside $50 million in tax credits for those who donate to SSOs. Opponents of the tax credit program have complained that it is a backdoor way for private schools to benefit from public funds. Some private schools, opponents have pointed out, are encouraging people to direct their donations to specific students and claiming a tax credit, a practice that is prohibited. Opponents expect some effort to be made to double the size of the program from $50 million to $100 million, but no legislation to accomplish that goal has been filed. One bill that is all but certain to be filed is Rep. Edward Lindsey’s charter school legislation. Lindsey’s bill would give parents the ability to demand that their local school board consider a petition to turn their traditional public school into a charter school. If a majority of a school’s households sign a petition requesting that their traditional public school become a charter school, the local school board would be required to consider that request, said Lindsey, the House majority whip. Such “parent trigger” laws have been enacted in other states. Here, it could stoke embers from last year’s fiery political battle over the constitutional ballot initiative on charter schools. Georgia voters passed the initiative, despite complaints from opponents who saw it as a costly usurpation of local authority over schools. State Sen. Vincent Fort, an Atlanta Democrat who fought the charter initiative, said Lindsey’s legislation would be another step in the wrong direction, opening the door wider to for-profit charter school operators. “It’s not really a parent trigger,” Fort said. “They’re pulling the trigger on public education.”
  • A slew of insults. Anatomical descriptions that would launch an auditorium of middle school boys into howls of laughter. A cornucopia of illegal drugs. Invitations of a highly personal nature. The state has rejected thousands of vanity license plates with such themes to protect the public from offensive language. Most are too vulgar to print. Some are just silly: BIGBRA, ER0TIKA, F0XIE1. But buried amid that list of licentiousness are religious, philosophical and political expressions the state also has deemed unsuitable to appear on motor vehicles. G0DROKS, G0DWH0, ILUVGUNS, GAYPWR and FEMM have been nixed by State Department of Revenue employees, who have wide latitude and only vague statutory guidance in deciding what speech gets squashed. Yet G0D4EVR, GUNLUV, GAYGAY and FEMFTAL got their nod. The state’s inconsistent decisions raise questions about whether personal agendas are tainting the process. And restricting speech in such an arbitrary fashion may put Georgia at risk of the kind of constitutional challenge other states have already fought and lost. To pass legal muster, government restrictions on free speech must be precise, said Cynthia Counts, an Atlanta lawyer who specializes in freedom of speech issues. Allowing S0SEXY1 while banning MSSEXI shows Georgia is not precise. “That’s going to be what hurts them the most,” Counts said. “To limit speech the government has to show a compelling interest. How in the world are they achieving any purpose if they’re deciding it arbitrarily?” The difference between 10,214 banned tags and the 91,151 accepted tags is sometimes laughably unclear, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found in reviewing the lists. The department doesn’t like HVYGUNS, but 1BIGGUN is fine. G0TBEER? Not in Georgia. L0VWINE? Go for it. BELLY? Yay. UTERUS? Nay. 44JESUS? Sure. 5JESUS? Absolutely not. ENGLAND, GERMAN, SAUDIA and SYRIA? Not offensive. IRAQ and IRAN2? Offensive. Georgia Department of Revenue officials know consistency is a problem. Employees try to be fair, but maintaining viewpoint neutrality – one of the free-speech concepts federal judges would consider in a lawsuit – is not possible when the department has to make dozens of tricky judgment calls each week, said Vicki Lambert, the department’s director of local government services and the motor vehicle division. For guidance, employees rely on the statute regulating what the state calls prestige plates. That law says the department will not allow profanity, language the community considers obscene or language that ridicules a person, group, or religious belief or being, race or ethnicity. But the law otherwise offers little guidance, and since the state first started selling prestige plates in 1968, community standards have changed. Further complicating matters, during the last 45 years dozens of different department employees have reviewed prestige tag applications — all with a different opinion about obscenity, race, religion and what it means to ridicule. This is why Georgian’s can REBEL4, but they can’t MUTINY. “Whether it’s a good answer or not, at different times we’ve had different people in the reviewing process,” Lambert said. Texting trouble Lambert understands Georgia residents have a right to free speech. Her job, she noted, is to balance that against not subjecting other people to a disgusting license plate while sitting in traffic on Interstate 75. “And that’s where we struggle,” Lambert said. One problem is that what’s offensive to one person may not be offensive to another. A complaint Lambert recently received regarding a standard license plate, not a vanity plate, illustrates that difficulty. The sequence of letters and numbers on standard license plate is determined by an automated process. This year, Georgians started receiving license plates beginning with PAA and then PAB and then PBB and so forth. Lambert received a call from a woman who was angry when she got PMS. Lambert sympathized. So the department sent the woman a new plate. Even so, Lambert said she personally disagreed. She wouldn’t mind having PMS. “To me PMS is not offensive because maybe people would stay away from me on the road,” she said. Another problem is that it’s difficult to catch the meaning behind many of the 200 to 250 prestige plate applications the Department of Revenue receives each week. There’s an art to it, Lambert said. Employees sound out the proposed plate. They think about how people use numbers and letters to create expressions. The number eight often means hate. It can also mean ate. In W8NGOD, eight helps spell out “wait on God.” “You’ve really have to put your mind in a different place,” Lambert said. The texting lexicon makes her job even more difficult. “The texting world brought up things you can sound out all day and it’s not going to tell you anything,” Lambert said. “It’s scary because I’m not sure what some of these people are saying.” These tag applicants may LOL. But, FWIW, @TEOD, it leaves some department of revenue employees RMETTH. (By the way, that’s Laugh Out Loud, For What it’s Worth, At the End of the Day and Rolling My Eyes to the Heavens.) To decode these applications, department employees run the text through Urban Dictionary or Wikipedia, Lambert said. Even with these tools though, they don’t catch everything. Sometimes an offensive plate squeaks through and onto the road. The department pulls these tags when they learn of them, usually through a complaint from an offended motorist. Constitutional issues The sale of these vanity plates does provide a financial benefit to the state. The $35 special tag fee brought in nearly $2.3 million in fiscal year 2011-12. But Bruce Brown, an Atlanta lawyer who specializes in free speech issues, says the plates may prove more trouble than they’re worth. “The headache is making constitutional decisions about what can be displayed and what can’t be. It’s too hard to do. They don’t appear like they’re doing it right now,” he said. The state’s haphazard system has not yet undergone court scrutiny. But other states with similar issues have been sued and lost. Taxpayers are stuck with the legal tab, and those states have been forced to make changes. In December, a U.S. District Court judge ruled a North Carolina plan to offer license plates with a pro-life background unconstitutional. Because the state did not plan to offer a pro-choice license plate, the court ruled the state’s plan would favor one political viewpoint over another. In 2010, a federal appeals court ruled Vermont’s practice of banning all religious speech on license plates unconstitutional. The court held that allowing secular expressions, like Carpe Diem, but not religious expressions favored secular speech. It would be difficult to argue Georgia provides preferential treatment to one political, religious or philosophical view point. The state approves and bans tags without the hint of a coherent preference policy. Georgia banned ATHEIST and BIBLE but then allowed both CDARWIN and JESUSNI. But the arbitrary approval process presents its own problems. A federal appellate court ruled unconstitutional Missouri’s statute banning license plates with language “contrary to public policy.” The court held the statute gave the Missouri Department of Revenue far too much leeway to ban speech. Counts, the free speech lawyer, said Georgia’s law also leaves too much to employees. “They’re clearly deciding who can say what with broad discretion,” she said. So, ultimately, are the prestige tags more trouble than they’re worth? “The politically correct answer is no,” Lambert said. “But the answer to us here is it does take time. It takes time to review them. It’s not a perfect system.”
  • AJC writer Tim Tucker contributed to this report. The Atlanta Falcons are under political pressure to ask for less taxpayer help for a new $1 billion retractable roof stadium amid public resistance to using tax funds for the project. Gov. Nathan Deal’s office has asked Falcons owner Arthur Blank to cut his request for public funding from $300 million to $200 million or agree to other changes in the deal, according to three people with direct knowledge of the negotiations. Blank has so far balked at the idea, they said. The three said the reduction is one of several options on the table to build political support for the stadium, which faces skepticism from lawmakers and the public over the amount of state-issued bonds involved. Other options could include tax breaks or incentives for the project or an attempt to route the bonds through Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm, rather than through the state. The three stressed negotiations are fluid. They requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks. Blank and his allies have been seeking to seal the deal as the Falcons make a playoff push that has energized fans. Sunday’s NFC championship at the Georgia Dome is the team’s biggest game in nearly a decade, and a win would lead to the Super Bowl. Even as the team prepared, Falcons president Rich McKay was seen at the governor’s office on Friday. The Falcons and the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, a state agency whose members are appointed by the governor, recently agreed to a plan to build the new stadium near the Dome, which would be torn down. The GWCCA would issue $300 million in construction bonds backed by the city’s hotel-motel tax, which the Legislature has already agreed to extend for that purpose. But the plan hinges on a legislative vote that would raise the agency’s borrowing limit, currently at $200 million. Even if Blank agrees to reduce the team’s request, lawmakers would likely still have to vote on the bond deal. But it could be more politically palatable among legislators eager to avoid a long debate over raising a borrowing limit to benefit a private sports franchise. Deal’s office declined to comment on the matter, and the governor made no mention of the stadium proposal during his annual State of the State address on Thursday. A Falcons executive and officials from the Georgia World Congress Center also declined to comment. Blank, the GWCCA and supporters say a new state-of-the-art stadium would benefit both the team and the region’s economy by drawing bigger crowds and marquee events such as a Super Bowl or the World Cup. They also note Blank is putting up around $700 million for the project, a substantial investment in a down economy. But a statewide poll conducted for the AJC last month showed 72 percent of respondents either opposed or strongly opposed using hotel/motel tax collections in Atlanta and unincorporated Fulton County to help finance construction. The resistance has led both Deal and House Speaker David Ralston to urge the team to pitch their plan to the public rather than directly to lawmakers to build broader support. McKay, the Falcons president, has said the team plans “to take a more direct and aggressive stance with Georgia residents and their legislators in the coming weeks,” though he hasn’t disclosed specifics. Blank is on the board of directors of Atlanta-based Cox Enterprises, whose media holdings include The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Without the $300 million public funding portion, project supporters said the deal could unravel and Blank could build a less expensive open-air stadium on his own elsewhere in metro Atlanta. That scenario - whose feasibility some question - would leave the state-run Dome with no NFL tenant and a daunting new suburban competitor. A draft of the most recent stadium plans obtained by the AJC doesn’t rule out either of the two downtown sites that were under consideration since last spring, but it indicates a tract of land immediately south of the Georgia Dome is the preferred option. It pegs the cost of a stadium at about $950 million, though infrastructure costs could bump it well above $1 billion. Deal said this week that a Falcons appearance in the Super Bowl, on Feb. 3 in New Orleans, could only help the team’s push for a new stadium. “I certainly think winning the game will be positive,” he said.
  • Issuing vanity license plates now may officially be more trouble than it’s worth. Hours after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a story last week about the state’s arbitrary approval process of vanity license plates for motor vehicles, two free-speech lawyers filed a lawsuit against Robert G. Mickell, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Driver Services. The suit contends that the state violated the constitutional rights of James Cyrus Gilbert when it rejected his application for the tags 4GAYLIB, GAYPWR and GAYGUY. All three vanity plates are on the list of vanity plates banned by the state, although the state has approved plates expressing some political or religious expressions. “It’s not like I was asking for something that was vulgar or over the top,” Gilbert, an Atlanta resident, said. “Denying someone the right to put gay on their tag, that’s political. If I want I could get a tag that said straight man, but because it had gay on it, it’s not available.” The suit seeks to compel the state to approve the requested vanity plate and a court order declaring unconstitutional the state regulation that governs vanity plates. It also asks for nominal damages and attorney fees. Most of the tags the state has banned are vulgar or hateful. But also on the list are some religious, philosophical and political expressions the state has deemed unsuitable to appear on motor vehicles. In addition, an AJC analysis of banned and approved vanity plates found the difference between 10,214 banned tags and the 91,151 accepted tags is sometimes ridiculously ambiguous. The state Attorney General’s office, Georgia Department of Driver Services and the Department of Revenue, the agency that administers vanity plates, declined to comment on the lawsuit. But Department of Revenue officials have acknowledged in the past that the process of approving vanity plates is inconsistent. State officials approved HATERS, but denied HATERS1. They approved BLKBERI, BLKCHRY and BLCBUTI, but denied BLKACE. The inconsistency is the result of many different people with differing views making decisions on what is offensive, a Department of Revenue spokesman told the AJC. Department of Revenue officials also told the AJC that employees try to be fair, but maintaining viewpoint neutrality – one of the free-speech concepts federal judges would consider in a lawsuit – is not possible when the department has to make dozens of tricky judgment calls each week. Proving the state denies tags in an arbitrary fashion or that the state denies plates based on the message will help Gilbert win his suit. “I think it’s pretty clear the statute has been applied arbitrary without regard to any state interest,” said Cynthia Counts, a free speech lawyer representing Gilbert. “And the restrictions have reflected viewpoint discrimination and that alone should be fatal.” By denying speech that supports gay rights, while allowing conservative, religious speech like JESUS4U, Counts argues the state is favoring one political belief or philosophy over another. In 2010, a federal appeals court ruled Vermont’s practice of banning all religious speech on license plates unconstitutional. The court held that allowing secular expressions, like Carpe Diem, but not religious expressions favored secular speech. The text on a vanity plate may seem like a silly issue, but Gerry Weber, the other lawyer working on the suit and former legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, argues this a serious problem. “Really these license plates are one of the primary ways Georgians use free speech,” Weber said. “Not many Georgians go to rallies, but thousands of Georgians express themselves through these license plates. “Think about how many people over the course of a year see your license plate. That’s a huge audience.” The constitutionality of the statute governing vanity plates is not the only question arising from the lawsuit. Bruce Brown, an Atlanta lawyer who specializes in free speech issues but is not involved in the case, argues it’s not clear the state enforced its own statute properly when it denied GAYPWR. That law says the department will not allow profanity, language the community considers obscene or language that ridicules a person, group, or religious belief or being, race or ethnicity. Brown said state lawyers would have to argue that GAYPWR is somehow obscene for the denial to stand. He’s not even sure they would be willing to do that today. “I don’t know what they will do,” he said. “I would say the lawsuit appears strong and illustrates the difficulties that the state is having in determining which personalized license plates are proper and which are not proper,” he said
  • Gov. Nathan Deal says he’s asked the Falcons to look at other ways of funding a new stadium in Atlanta without requiring more state money.With public sentiment against a new stadium mounting, lawmakers have been hesitant to raise the amount the Georgia World Congress Center Authority can borrow from $200 million to $300 million.The Falcons have asked for a third of the $1 billion price tag to come from public money that would be repaid through the hotel/motel tax paid in the city of Atlanta and Fulton County.“Well that seemed like a little bit high… but we are still talking and hopefully before too very long we’ll have a proposal that will save the taxpayers a  lot of money,” he says.But Deal admits a new stadium could, in the long run,  save the state money with the aging Dome requiring expensive upgrades in coming years.“The argument is do you spend millions of more dollars on repairs and perhaps even, at some point, having to replace the current Dome roof which is a major expenditure, or do you go ahead and make an investment now that will be good for 20 years and will have a commitment that the Falcons will remain in Atlanta,” he says.One option would be for the city of Atlanta to invest more through its economic development arm known as Invest Atlanta.Deal says they are currently working through the details and isn’t ready to unveil any proposals.
  • House speaker David Ralston says tweaks to the ethics legislation he's proposing this session will be unveiled this week after concerns arose that ordinary citizens could have to register as lobbyists.Ralston says it was never his intent to prevent constituents from expressing their opinions about a bill to their local representative or senator.  But a provision in his bill could require anyone who lobbies for legislation to register as a lobbyist, pay a $320 fee, and file reports if they speak to more than just their personal legislators.“Constituents of ours who come down to visit with us on issues shouldn’t have to register... nurses, teachers, others who come down here to advocate on their issues,” he says.  The bill also bans all gifts from lobbyists to any state or locally elected official and restores power to the state ethics commission.

News

  • Pickens County deputies are searching for an armed fugitive.  Authorities are looking for Nicholas Bishop in the area of Priest Circle in Talking Rock.  Bishop is believed to be armed with a handgun and on foot after he abandoned a stolen vehicle around 2 p.m.  If you see him, call 911 immediately. Officials say do not attempt to approach him. - Please return for updates.
  • One more time, Doris Payne, the 86-year-old infamous international jewel thief, has pleaded guilty to the usual crime. She admitted Wednesday to stealing a necklace from Von Maur at Perimeter Mall last year, the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office said. Payne, who recently said she’s been dealing with a possibly cancerous tumor, was sentenced to 120 days of house arrest and three years of probation.  She was also banned from all Von Maur locations and every mall in DeKalb County. Payne, who’d been free on bond, was arrested last month for missing a court date. Shortly after the would-be appearance, she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution she wasn’t medically able to attend. “I ain’t runnin’,” she said in a phone interview. “I’ve never in my life been late for court. Last month, Payne was deemed too ill to stand trial by the judge presiding over a Fulton County case stemming from a missing set of earrings at Phipps Plaza. Payne has been open about her habits of theft, which she detailed in a documentary called, “The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne.” RELATED: Huge DeKalb center with (at least) 8 popular chains is opening soon RELATED: Cop helps elderly woman who got kicked out of dentist office in DeKalb RELATED: A DeKalb family’s tale of two dead bodies and a crying baby girl Like DeKalb County News Now on Facebook | Follow on Twitter and Instagram
  • A drunken driver destroyed a row of headstones at a historic Carrollton cemetery, causing tens of thousands of dollars' worth of damage, police said. According to police, the driver was coming down Martin Luther King Street on March 19, ran a stop sign, jumped a curb and crashed into the city-owned cemetery. The broken headstones range in date from the late 1800s to 1950. 'And what we discussed is, if one is damaged beyond repair, we'll put something back that's respectful. It's hard to replace it with the exact same item. The families aren't around anymore, so the city will take on the responsibility,' city manager Tim Grizzard said. TRENDING STORIES: Thousands of Georgians could lose food stamps next week 16-year-old in custody after hoax call about school gunman Food prices at SunTrust Park vs. Mercedes-Benz Stadium: What's the difference? The 35-year-old driver, Ray Antonio Baker, was arrested and charged with DUI. City officials said they will ask his insurance carrier to pay for the damage. 'Our plan is to go after the individual's insurance to pay for repairs. If that doesn't pay for everything, the city will certainly pick up the tab,' Grizzard said. Officials said this isn't the first time a driver has damaged headstones, but it's not a big enough problem to put up a wall. 'It's not something that has happened often enough that we need to put up a barrier. If it was a recurrent spot, we would do something,' Grizzard said. City officials said it could take weeks to repair the damage.
  • President Donald Trump faces one last hurdle to ending nearly seven years of lawsuits over his now-defunct Trump University when a judge decides Thursday whether to approve a $25 million settlement with former customers. When attorneys reached a deal 10 days after Trump's election, U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel said he hoped it would be part of 'a healing process that this country very sorely needs.' A month later, he granted preliminary approval of the deal. Last week, attorneys for former customers said their clients will get at least 80 percent of their money back, based on the roughly 3,730 claims submitted. Trump has paid $25 million into escrow to settle two federal class-action lawsuits before Curiel and a civil lawsuit by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. He admitted no wrongdoing. The lawsuits allege that Trump University gave nationwide seminars that were like infomercials, constantly pressuring people to spend more and, in the end, failing to deliver on its promises. Two customers have objected to the settlement. Sherri Simpson, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, attorney, says she wasn't given enough opportunity to opt out of the lawsuit and should have the right to sue the president. Simpson and a partner paid $35,000 in 2010 to enroll in Trump University's 'Gold Elite' program to be paired with a mentor who would teach them Trump's secret real estate investment strategies. Simpson, who appeared in two anti-Trump campaign ads, said they got little for their money — the videos were 5 years old, the materials covered information that could be found free on the internet and her mentor didn't return calls or emails. 'I would like an admission that he was wrong, an admission that, 'Oops, maybe I didn't handle it as well as I should have, I didn't set it up as well as I should have, that I didn't maintain it or oversee it as well as I should have,'' Simpson told The Associated Press on Wednesday. Attorneys for Trump and those suing him say the deadline to opt out was in November 2015 and Simpson missed her chance. Thirteen people opted out before that date, none of whom have shown any desire to sue the president. Another customer, Harold Doe, objected to the settlement because he wants more money, according to court filings by attorneys for Trump and the plaintiffs. Trump University dogged the Republican businessman throughout the campaign as rivals used Trump's depositions and extensive documents filed in the lawsuits to portray him as dishonest and deceitful. Trump brought more attention by repeatedly assailing Curiel, insinuating that the Indiana-born judge's Mexican heritage exposed a bias. The settlement was reached 10 days before a trial was set to begin, sparing Trump what would have been a major distraction. The trial would have been pinned on whether a jury believed Trump misled customers by calling the business a university when it wasn't an accredited school and by falsely advertising that he hand-picked instructors. Trump vowed never to settle but said after the election that he didn't have time for a trial, even though he believed he would have prevailed. ___ Associated Press writer Terry Spencer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, contributed to this report.