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State & Regional Govt & Politics

    On his first day in office, Gov. Brian Kemp kept a campaign promise, ordering state government to reform the way employees’ sexual harassment claims are handled. His executive order creates a centralized system with uniform standards to replace a disjointed, haphazard one that left victims seeking justice. But the reforms won’t happen overnight. They will require time to develop new training programs and more money and staff to ensure complaints are thoroughly investigated. The reforms were prompted by an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation into more than 200 sexual harassment complaints across state government. The newspaper found sexual harassment victims were subjected to wildly different treatment depending on where they worked, with complaints often dismissed as harmless “cutting up” or interpreted as a mutual flirtation gone wrong. As part of the investigation, the AJC asked both major gubernatorial campaigns what they would do to address the problem. Kemp responded with a promise to issue reforms on his first day in office. Kemp’s executive order Monday requires every department and agency under his authority to designate “at least two persons, not of the same gender” to investigate complaints and report their findings to the state Office of Inspector General, which will collect and audit investigations from across state government. Sexual harassment investigators will be required to have “standardized investigative training … to ensure consistency among all sexual harassment investigations across the state.” In addition, Kemp ordered a new sexual harassment prevention training program which every state employee will be required to take when they are first hired and annually after that. The order also bans retaliation against those who file complaints. The order came as good news to Lynne Troha, a Georgia State Patrol employee and one of the victims of alleged harassment who spoke to the AJC for its series. Troha filed a complaint against a state trooper in 2017 whom she said harassed her on several occasions. Investigative documents show it took eight weeks for the Department of Public Safety to open an investigation. The department disciplined the trooper but did not find that he sexually harassed her, even though he admitted telling Troha about his sex dreams and about having an erection. In their report, investigators said the trooper “did not perceive that any of these sexual comments were offensive or unwelcome” and decided the conversations were mutual. Troha said she believes the investigation might have been handled differently if someone from outside the department had audited it. “As a female today, with the #metoo movement you feel like you should be able to go to someone and say, ‘This is what happened,’” she said. “But they are still going to say, ‘Well, you caused it.’” Karla Jacobs, a member of the Georgia Commission on Women, said it is important that sexual harassment complaints be handled “in a way that is transparent and fair to all parties.” “Gov. Kemp’s executive order overhauling how executive branch agencies handle sexual harassment claims is a welcome start,” she said. “The AJC shined a light on the unequal handling of sexual harassment claims across government agencies, and we appreciate Gov. Kemp making it a top priority to ensure Georgia’s state employees can do their jobs in a harassment-free environment.” The state Department of Administrative Services has been assigned the task of developing new training programs in consultation with the governor’s office. The reforms also will tax the small Office of Inspector General. The OIG was created in 2003 to investigate waste, fraud and abuse within state government. The executive order greatly expands its mission and workload. In its investigation, the AJC obtained about five years’ of records from nearly 30 executive agencies, finding employees filed an average of more than three dozen complaints annually. But many other state departments, offices and commissions not included in the newspaper’s investigation may also field complaints. To handle the increased workload, the inspector general likely require additional staff and a larger budget. Kemp is expected to release details about his first budget this week. While the new governor took strides to make government more accountable in handling sexual harassment, Senate leaders were lambasted for adopting rules narrowing the time for lodging complaints against its members. The rules also said alleged victims who talked publicly about being harassed could have their complaints dismissed and could even be fined. The new rules come after a female lobbyist last year accused then-Sen. David Shafer of harassing her in 2011. Shafer’s fellow senators dismissed the complaint in a closed-door session. At the time, Shafer was a candidate for lieutenant governor, but he lost in the Republican primary to eventual winner Geoff Duncan. Sen. Renee Unterman, one of only two women Republicans in the chamber, blasted the rule in a charged speech from the well Tuesday. “It’s a shame,” she said. “In the last couple of weeks, I’ve had sexual harassment against me. I know personally what it feels like. It’s not a good feeling. We need rules and regulations, desperately, to protect people.” Unterman, one of the state’s most powerful female politicians, said she would reveal more about her own harassment later this week. State Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Decatur, also vented her frustration at the rule change. “We need to be in a time of opening up the doors to invite those who have been victimized to have a pathway for justice to be served,” said Orrock. “To put in this two-year time limit sends the wrong message.” Duncan, sworn in as president of the Senate on Monday, said he was not a party to drawing up the rules. But the Republican former health executive said he wouldn’t rule out an attempt to urge the chamber to revisit the decision. “This was always an issue I took seriously as a business owner,” he said. “In the role as lieutenant governor, I can assure you we will look at every opportunity to allow folks who have a grievance to speak up.” Staff writer Maya Prabhu contributed to this report.
  • With an estimated 16,000 federal employees in Georgia missing their last paycheck due to the government shutdown, several Georgia congressmen are deferring their own salaries as the record-breaking standoff stretches into a fourth week. Five of the state’s U.S. House members – Republicans Buddy Carter of Pooler, Rob Woodall of Lawrenceville, Austin Scott of Tifton, Doug Collins of Gainesville and Rick Allen of Evans – and U.S. Sen. David Perdue said they requested their salaries be withheld. They joined more than 70 of their Capitol Hill colleagues who have delayed their paychecks until an agreement to reopen the government is struck, according to a tally from CNN.  'If the hardworking federal employees in the First District of Georgia aren't receiving a paycheck, I won't either,' said Carter, who recently started his third term in Congress.  The gesture is largely a symbolic one.  Five of the state’s 16 members of Congress have net worths of more than $1 million, according to Roll Call.  And the lawmakers will receive their paychecks eventually because the Constitution’s 27th Amendment bars members of Congress from refusing their $174,000 annual salaries outright.  They could ultimately choose to donate the money, which a spokesman for Allen said he’d do at the conclusion of the shutdown. (Four of the Georgia delegation’s 16 lawmakers ultimately gave their pay to charity after the 16-day shutdown of 2013.) Three other Georgia lawmakers, including Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson and Congressmen Jody Hice, R-Monroe, and Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, have continued to collect their paychecks during the shutdown. Spokesmen for several highlighted legislation their bosses supported that would prevent future shutdowns or immediately pay federal employees who were working through the funding lapse.  “All federal employees currently working should be being paid for their work as scheduled,” said Hice.  Every member of the delegation supported a bill last week guaranteeing back pay to federal workers once the government is reopened. Georgia is beginning to feel the pinch of the border wall showdown as the fight reaches its 25th day, from long lines at the Atlanta airport to furloughed immigration judges and closed facilities at the state’s national parks. Roughly one-quarter of federal workers – an estimated 800,000 people – missed their first paychecks on Friday since the funding lapse began on Dec. 22.  Throughout the fight, the state’s members of Congress have dug in, voicing support for their respective parties and pointing fingers at the other side as negotiations between President Donald Trump and Democratic leaders have screeched to a halt.  The offices of U.S. Reps. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany; Drew Ferguson, R-West Point; John Lewis, D-Atlanta; Lucy McBath, D-Marietta; Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville; David Scott, D-Atlanta; and Tom Graves, R-Ranger, either declined to comment or did not respond to emails about their bosses’ paycheck plans.  Read more about the local impact of the shutdown:  Georgia feels impact from partial federal shutdown Long security lines plague Hartsfield-Jackson amid federal shutdown Immigration courts in Atlanta and across the nation slowed by government shutdown  Georgia unemployment claims soar for federal workers during shutdown Search for wall funds could hit Georgia projects ‘There’s all this stress.’ Federal workers navigate longest shutdown Georgia congressmen hold party lines on border fight USDA clears February food stamp disbursement for 1.5 million Georgians Government shutdown: Employers confused by loss of background check Federal courts feel pinch from ongoing government shutdown
  • A new governor. A legion of fresh-faced lawmakers. The opening of another legislative session. And a farewell to Nathan Deal and other political stalwarts. Monday will usher in a new political era in Georgia as Republican Gov.-elect Brian Kemp, other statewide officers and hundreds of lawmakers are sworn into office with a burst of pomp and pageantry. It will also kick off another 40-day legislative session that will test Kemp and other political leaders as they wrangle over a budget that could top $27 billion, plans to hike teacher pay and significant changes to Georgia’s voting system. Here are five factors to watch: Brian Kemp’s first day After a bruising election, Kemp has pledged to unite Georgians behind his plans to give teachers $5,000 pay raises and crack down on violent gang offenders while also staying true to his conservative pledges to expand gun rights and sign a “religious liberty” measure. His inaugural speech, to be delivered at 2 p.m. Monday at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion, will set the tone for his first year in office. Expect a broad focus on working across party lines and building consensus — and none of the partisan attacks that proliferated on the campaign trail. That’s just the start of a hectic week. Kemp is expected to outline some specifics Wednesday at the Georgia Chamber’s annual breakfast, and then sharpen the details and unveil his spending plan Thursday in his State of the State address. He’ll cap the week with his inaugural gala Thursday night. New statewide officers Kemp is but one player in a larger changing of the guard in Georgia politics. Geoff Duncan, a former Republican member of the state House, will become the titular head of the state Senate as lieutenant governor. How he will handle the chamber’s complicated politics could make or break legislation. A slate of other GOP candidates won every other statewide post. Brad Raffensperger, another ex-legislator, will become Georgia’s top elections official as secretary of state. He’ll have to navigate the tangle of voting rights problems that surfaced during last year’s elections. And newly elected Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck joins the group of incumbents who won new terms, including Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, Labor Commissioner Mark Butler, Attorney General Chris Carr and state School Superintendent Richard Woods. Fresh legislative faces The legislative session will open with a range of rookies. A total of 42 freshmen will take office in the 236-seat Georgia Legislature, meaning that nearly one in six seats has changed hands since last year as incumbents lost re-election, ran for another office or retired. Even as Republicans won every statewide office, a Democratic surge across the suburbs reshaped the Legislature. Democrats picked up 13 seats, all in metro Atlanta, to cut into the GOP majority in both chambers. Republicans still control the legislative branch, but Democrats plan to wield newfound clout. That could have a far-ranging influence on the Legislature. Republican leaders pledge to focus more on economic issues than divisive social ones, worried that fights over culture-wars issues could further alienate moderates ahead of the 2020 presidential vote. The Old Guard The vast turnover in the statehouse will yield an entirely different power dynamic that could take months, or years, to shake out. And in the middle of all this change will be two battle-tested lawmakers with years of political experience. House Speaker David Ralston, whose influence over the legislative process rivals the governor’s, forged a tight relationship with Deal over the past decade. Now he must corral his chamber’s raucous caucus to balance Kemp’s agenda with his own priorities. And Butch Miller, the Senate president pro tem, will need his best salesman skills, honed over decades as a car dealer, to negotiate with a fractious chamber that will face pressure from conservatives on the right and emboldened liberal Democrats on the left.  Democrats return some of their most prominent figures, including House Minority Leader Bob Trammell and Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson. State Rep. Calvin Smyre, the longest-serving legislator in Georgia, will also be back. Add to that mix state Sen. Nikema Williams, who may soon become head of the state Democratic Party. An emotional farewell The new beginnings will mean goodbye for some of Georgia’s biggest political names, starting with Deal. After two terms in the Governor’s Mansion, and decades in the state Legislature and U.S. Congress, the Gainesville Republican will leave office to start a consulting firm and teach college courses. Also bidding farewell will be Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who was elected to the post in an upset victory in 2006 and lost to Kemp in July’s bitter GOP runoff for governor. And a sweep of high-profile lawmakers will relinquish their seats, including many who waged unsuccessful runs for other offices. Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at ajc.com/news/georgia-government/.
  • Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson isn’t apologizing for a recent speech that drew parallels between President Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler, and he says the chorus of critics who have assailed him for the comparison are missing the underlying point of his remarks.   “I don’t think Hitler or a discussion about Hitler is off-limits to anybody,” the Lithonia Democrat told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “That’s a fair comparison, and I think it’s a necessary one, because if you do not understand history and how history can repeat itself then you’re bound to repeat history.” The seven-term congressman has been admonished over the last two weeks for a New Year’s Day speech in which he warned the conditions that prompted Hitler’s rise to power in Nazi Germany are not unlike those that delivered Trump to the Oval Office in 2016.  “Americans, particularly black Americans, can’t afford to make that same mistake about the harm that could be done by a man named Hitler or a man named Trump,” Johnson said in the speech, which was delivered from the pulpit at Friendship Baptist Church.   The backlash was swift. Johnson was lambasted by the head of the Republican National Committee, a new House colleague and Jewish groups, who said his words minimized Hitler’s record of genocide. His D.C. and Decatur offices have been barraged by hundreds of angry phone calls, including several death threats and racially-charged messages, since news of the speech broke.  In a recent interview on Capitol Hill, Johnson stood by his remarks. He said the press and right-wing commentators omitted much of the context of his speech, giving people the “wrong impression” about his main point, which was to urge vigilance against tyranny.   Johnson took particular issue with the way the media characterized his comments about Trump supporters being essentially the dregs of society.   In his address, Johnson said Trump voters were “older, less educated, less prosperous” and “many” of whom were 'dying from alcoholism, drug overdoses, liver disease, or simply a broken heart caused by economic despair.”   Johnson said he was describing a “demographic fact” about Trump voters – who were overall older, whiter and more rural than Hillary Clinton’s supporters – and that he was not demeaning them.   “I certainly love all people,” he said. “My heart goes out to all of those people who are suffering economic harm and despair.”  Texas Republican Dan Crenshaw, a former combat veteran and one of Johnson’s new House colleagues, said the comments about Trump voters showcased a “cowardly form of politics.” “I can’t imagine a worse form of leadership,” he said in a response posted to Twitter. “These people are exercising their right and their voice the only way they can, which is through their vote.”   Read more:   In a pulpit critique of Donald Trump, Hank Johnson invokes Adolf Hitler  Republican lawmaker rips Hank Johnson for ‘cowardly’ remarks   Jewish groups call on Johnson to apologize 
  • Money previously approved for Tybee Island and other disaster recovery projects will not be tapped to pay for a wall on the southern border, the White House said Saturday. President Donald Trump does not plan to divert money from a nearly $14 billion account at the Army Corps of Engineers to cover the wall, according to White House spokesman Hogan Gidley.   “The President met with leadership of the Army Corps of Engineers to discuss methods of construction for the barriers along the southern border, but they did not discuss, and there are no plans to take money from disaster relief funding to pay for any potential projects,” Gidley said.   The statement came after a deluge of media reports indicated the administration was seriously eyeing the corps’ disaster recovery account, which includes $13 million to help Tybee Island rebuild its sand dunes after hurricanes Matthew and Irma.   Trump could tap certain corps and military construction funds that haven’t already been parceled out to contractors if he were to declare a national emergency, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution previously reported. Trump has openly mulled the emergency designation in recent days to circumvent Congress on funding for the wall, but on Friday he said he wouldn’t do so “right now.”   The White House did not say on Saturday whether Trump was actively eyeing other corps or military construction accounts, which are the source of funding for more than a half-dozen current projects at Georgia’s Fort Benning, Fort Gordon and Robins Air Force Base, as well as the Savannah harbor’s high-profile deepening work.  Read more: Search for wall funds could hit Georgia projects
  • Brian Kemp’s “thank-you” victory tour events usually started the same way: a flag-draped stage, an early supporter celebrating his underdog bid for governor, a crowd-pleasing stump speech, a reflection on how so many wrote him off, and gratitude to those who did not. At some stops, Kemp allowed that there was a time that he, too, could not envision himself as Georgia’s next governor, recounting his rise from a struggling homebuilder in Athens to the winner of the state’s tightest gubernatorial election in decades. “When I was fighting for my financial life during the recession, no one thought I would be the 83rd governor, including myself,” he told one crowd. “But the good lord has given us an opportunity.” This is Kemp as he prepares for his Monday inauguration to succeed Gov. Nathan Deal: reflective, antsy, thankful — and mindful of the challenges ahead. And there are many, starting with this question: Does Kemp, who so relentlessly pursued Donald Trump’s supporters during the campaign, attempt to govern like him by constantly tacking toward his party’s base? Or does he follow Deal’s example with a blend of pragmatic conservatism? That answer will come soon as Kemp, who has promised to unite Georgians after a poisonous election cycle, immediately tries to fulfill a milieu of campaign promises that stretch from conservative culture-wars vows during the GOP primary to the broader appeals that helped him narrowly defeat Democrat Stacey Abrams in the general election. He must assemble an administration to run Georgia’s constellation of state agencies, boards and commissions work with the senior staffers he hired, a group that’s largely composed of allies and former aides with little experience in the state’s top executive office. He will depend on fellow Republicans who are fresh off another sweep of Georgia’s statewide offices but are more skittish following a wave of Democratic gains across Atlanta’s suburbs that cut into their majority in the Legislature. He must contend with a significant bloc of Georgians that doesn’t accept him as the legitimate winner of a contest clouded by voter suppression allegations and his refusal to step down as the state’s top elections official. And he’ll confront an emboldened group of Democrats who embrace a more liberal, and sometimes confrontational, approach than they did just two years ago — and have amassed enough power under the Gold Dome to scuttle some Republican priorities. That party will be led by Abrams, who never formally conceded the race to Kemp and remains one of his fiercest critics. Unlike defeated candidates in the past, she has not receded from the spotlight as she prepares for what could be a possible rematch in 2022. Kemp said he plans to navigate this high-wire act by staying true to the conservative stances while taking concrete steps to cut taxes, boost rural Georgia and improve teacher recruitment. But already, he’s facing tension within his own party about how vigorously he’ll pursue his more controversial promises. And, if his nine-stop bus tour before the inauguration is any example, he’s more likely to take his case to the voters with rallies and events modeled after his campaign trail strategy. He’s already assigned staffers to new “outreach” positions to directly engage with Georgians, including those who didn’t back him. “We aren’t going to forget about the travels around the state — the issues we learned about, the stories we heard,” Kemp said. “We know we have a lot of challenges in our state, but we also know we have tremendous opportunities. And we’re going to do what we said we’d do.” Pricey promises That’s harder than it sounds. Kemp made an assortment of promises at different stages of the campaign that would test even the most accomplished politician. There are the broad ones, such as a pledge to cut regulations, crack down on gang activity, reduce taxes and boost rural Georgia. There are the specific ones, namely a $5,000 teacher pay raise that could cost more than $800 million, a plan to cap state spending and a $90 million slate of school safety measures. There are the promises aimed directly at conservatives, such as the vows to sign the nation’s toughest abortion restrictions, enact gun rights expansions and ink a “religious liberty” bill. And there are the issues that surfaced during the election, such as the need to address the state’s outdated voting machines, uneven standards for counting absentee ballots and voter cancellations. Kemp has been tight-lipped about what exactly he’ll pursue over his first year, but he’ll sharpen his first-year agenda during a string of events this week that begins with his Monday inauguration and extends to his first State of the State speech on Thursday. He’s likely to parcel out his promise for $5,000 teacher pay raises over several years. A commission he recently drafted will hash out ways to reduce regulations. And he seems certain to push new public safety measures that take aim at gang violence and sex trafficking. “I’ve been very clear for two years,” he said at one stop. “We will work hard to make Georgia No. 1 in state business. Reform state government. Budget conservatively. Lower taxes.” One early example of the tension ahead involves a measure that would allow Georgians to carry concealed firearms without a permit that’s a favorite demand of gun rights organizations in Georgia. Asked recently about its chances of passing this year, House Speaker David Ralston said he’d take a “very, very cautious view” of the proposal and worried aloud that it could alienate moderate voters. If Kemp shares those concerns, he didn’t betray them. But he also didn’t say he would forcefully back the legislation. “My focus right now is going after street gangs, working on teacher pay raises,” Kemp said during a stop in Savannah. “We’ve had a lot on our plate, trying to get the budget ready, get through the transition to get people in the right places.” Don’t expect the gun groups that backed Kemp to let up the pressure. Patrick Parsons, the head of Georgia Gun Owners, soon sent supporters a reminder that Kemp signed a form endorsing the concept. ‘Not a mandate’ Democrats will be peppering the Legislature with their own proposals that stand little chance of passing but provide voters a framework of how the party would govern Georgia. They will include new efforts to restrict assault weapons, expand the Medicaid program and make tech school programs tuition-free. And they’ll push for an overhaul of Georgia’s election laws to address uneven standards for the counting of absentee and provisional ballots, and make it harder to cancel registrations of voters who don’t often cast ballots. “We’re going to be much more active. The women who woke up this election cycle aren’t going away,” said state Sen. Nikema Williams of Atlanta, a leading candidate to head the Democratic Party of Georgia. “If people didn’t realize it before, they do now: This was not a mandate for Republicans in November, and Democrats aren’t waiting for the next election cycle. They’re going to be at the Capitol now — this is a year-round apparatus, ” Williams said. And Democrats will have backup from Abrams, who became a national figure during her race for the seat. She continues to criticize Kemp’s policies, calling him the “architect of voter suppression,” and has sworn she will run for office again — she’s just not sure which one. “I need to make decisions not based on animus or bitterness or sadness, but really based in a pragmatism that says, ‘This is the right thing to do,’ ” she said on WABE. “And I’m going to use that calculus and I intend to make a decision about the job I’m going to run for next by the end of March.” ‘Who knows?’ Kemp’s pre-inauguration tour had all the trappings of a campaign blitz, from the chockablock schedule to stump speech remarks — just with bigger crowds, more reporters, fancier settings and none of the attacks on Democrats. The places he visited also evoked his election strategy. Skirting metro Atlanta — his campaign noted a string of events there next week — he went to a cluster of smaller cities and rural towns: a private club in Augusta, a packed convention hall in Savannah, a donor’s home in the South Georgia hamlet of Chula. Each drew a large crowd of local Republican officials, donors and activists — and a smattering of curious Democrats. That’s what brought state Rep. Patty Bentley, D-Butler, to a lavishly decorated barn in Fort Valley that usually plays host to weddings and family events. On this chilly weekday, it was home to a pork barbecue for Kemp — an event that left Bentley feeling open-minded about the next four years. “Republicans know our numbers creeped up, and we’re going to need each other,” she said. “We may have to remind our Republican colleagues that we need a seat at the table, but I don’t expect any hard fights. I don’t expect all-out war.” And then, slightly undermining her optimism: “But who knows? Anything can happen.” Kemp’s allies point to his record as a state senator representing parts of deeply Democratic Athens and signs that he’ll focus on economic issues rather than divisive social ones. Steve Sanders, an Augusta attorney and chairman of the local GOP Party, predicted that Kemp’s critics will be pleasantly surprised by his style of leadership. “He’s going to have challenges like any new governor, but I think he’s already showing he’s going to have a very reasonable approach to those challenges,” Sanders said. “You’ve already seen him reach out and talk about unity, and he’s embracing a lot of the things that Governor Deal has done.” And then there’s Deal, who entered office eight years ago with his own stew of questions after a hard-fought campaign that surfaced stinging questions about his financial decisions and his experience. He’ll leave office this week feted by elders from both parties. In an interview, Deal offered his own advice to Kemp that starts with these five words: “Be patient, but be prepared.” “You better know what you’re talking about. You better know what all the detailed answers are. And you’re going to have to educate not only the public, but also the legislators,” he said. “Failure breeds failure, success breeds success.” Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at ajc.com/news/georgia-government/.
  • The federal funding lapse, now the second-longest on the books, is beginning to be acutely felt on the ground in Georgia as the impasse approaches its third week. Nearly 16,000 Georgians, or roughly 22 percent of the state’s federal civilian workforce, are furloughed or working without pay, according to Governing Magazine, and several agencies that have subsisted on leftover money in recent weeks are not expected to make payroll Friday. That’s left many Georgians, as well as dozens of universities, state agencies and localities that rely on Washington dollars for paychecks, grants and other activities, in a state of limbo — or panic. Some federal employees have scrambled for second jobs or no-interest loans to help them cover rent or grocery bills. A local pre-k teacher worried about the funding that covers meals for her low-income students. And farmers who need to settle their outstanding bills with lenders have had to maneuver without the guidance of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s farm service centers ahead of the planting season. There’s no guarantee federal workers will receive back pay once leaders come to an agreement on border security funding, although Congress has passed legislation to pay furloughed workers in the past. The Trump administration this week averted two of the biggest looming uncertainties brought about by the shutdown: tax refunds and February food stamp payments. But the lack of political clarity from Washington has slowed other facets of life in Georgia, from fledgling brewers and Delta Air Lines looking for federal sign-offs to proceed with new business ventures and employers seeking to check the immigration status of prospective workers. The consequences of the border impasse have even filtered down to the banks of the Chattahoochee River, where volunteers have congregated to collect trash as most park rangers have been put on furlough. Here’s a look at what the shutdown has meant for Georgia: Farmers: The funding lapse has stalled the Trump administration’s payments to farmers hit by recent Chinese tariffs. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, a former Georgia governor, announced this week that his department would extend the deadline for farmers to apply for the second round of payments. An early casualty of the shutdown was the government’s local farm service centers, which are sprinkled in towns throughout the state and help farmers apply for federal assistance programs. The centers also function as a lender of last resort for farmers who can’t secure private credit. The agency was also forced to delay a major crop report originally slated for release Friday that farmers rely on to evaluate market conditions. Food inspectors are still on the job, albeit working without pay. Investigations: The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta, which is helping investigate Atlanta City Hall corruption charges and the Equifax cyberbreach, has been operating at about 60 percent capacity since the shutdown started. Prosecutors and staff on the criminal side of the office have remained on the job, but civil cases have been halted amid the lapse in funding, U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak said. “When it comes to public safety, nothing is going to stop,” Pak said. “That’s our priority No. 1.” So far, the shutdown hasn’t affected any cases. To help ensure furloughed staffers will at least receive some pay when the government reopens, Pak said the criminal and civil staff will rotate between being on duty and furloughed. Courts: Federal courts in the Northern District of Georgia and the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have cobbled together funds to last through Jan. 18. The courts will continue to operate after that point if funds aren’t appropriated, but staff will go without pay. Jurors called into service also won’t be paid after that date if federal funding isn’t restored. Even if courts remain open, the shutdown will result in delays for cases involving federal agencies that are affected. For example, the Federal Trade Commission has suspended most operations, and work on ongoing investigations ceased and the agency may seek stays for ongoing litigation. This means that important consumer protection investigations and cases will be put on hold. Universities: Georgia colleges and universities are nervously watching the shutdown, worried that an extended funding lapse could stall pending research grant applications. While some major research agencies such as the National Institutes of Health previously received funding from Congress, others have been largely shuttered, including the National Science Foundation. Emory University said it has about 50 pending NSF grants. A Morehouse School of Medicine spokeswoman said the school is watching carefully and noted that roughly 70 percent of its annual research funding of $26.6 million comes from federal grants, although its biggest sources of funding at the Department of Health and Human Services remain operational. Parks: With most park rangers and maintenance workers furloughed, conditions on Georgia’s federal parkland have varied greatly. There haven’t been widespread reports of refuse piling up locally like there have been at bigger parks such as Yosemite, but visitors to Georgia’s still-open historic sites have been greeted by locked bathrooms and sealed-off trash cans. At the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta, visitors have been able to wander around the grounds but have been barred from touring exhibits or the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. The Jimmy Carter National Historic Site in Plains has been closed “for resource protection and safety,” and its social media feeds have been left dormant. State government: Federal money makes up about one-third of Georgia’s annual budget, and there are some state officials whose salaries are paid by the feds and could be furloughed if the state doesn’t front the money to keep them at work. A recent memo from Teresa MacCartney, Gov. Nathan Deal’s budget chief, reminded state agency heads not to “incur expenses for which there are no federal appropriations during this time” and directed them to outline the impact an extended federal shutdown would have on their operations. The bulk of the money that passes to and through states is not affected by the shutdown, said John Hicks, the executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers. That includes Medicaid, highway dollars, k-12 funding from the Department of Education and Labor Department workforce training programs. But the funding lapse comes at an inopportune time for many Georgia agencies that are transitioning their leadership as incoming Gov. Brian Kemp takes over from Deal. Aviation & airports: Transportation Security Agency officers, air traffic controllers and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents are still on the job at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, although they aren’t getting paid. It’s a different story for many Federal Aviation Administration safety inspectors and engineers who have been furloughed. Some airports have been affected by an increase in TSA workers calling in sick, but lines at the Atlanta airport have so far not appeared to be much longer than normal. Still, the airport is offering free parking for TSA screeners during the shutdown and increased the number of customer service staffers stationed throughout the airport. Washington’s border standoff could also have an impact on Delta, which is waiting for the FAA to certify a new class of Airbus A220 jets the airline is hoping to begin flying later this month. Other impacts: The partial government shutdown is affecting the state in other ways. A National Transportation Safety Board report into a fatal Dec. 20 plane crash in Atlanta may be delayed. Local employers seeking to check the immigration status of potential employees have been cut off from the government’s E-Verify system. Brewers in Georgia have been barred from releasing new beers while their federal regulator, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, remains shuttered. Some real estate agents have reported prospective home buyers reversing course due to economic uncertainty. Many local government contractors fear they won’t receive back pay for their work. But still, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Labor said the state has not seen a jump in unemployment claims compared with this time last year. What’s not affected: Congress has already approved funding for about 75 percent of the government, including for Georgia’s largest federal employers: the military, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Social Security checks are being paid and the U.S. Postal Service, which is largely self-funded, is still delivering mail. The Atlanta Federal Reserve is operational, too, since it’s considered an independent entity within the government. Several programs of major importance to parents, including Head Start and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the federal parent to PeachCare, are also fully funded. What’s still unclear: Several components of the social safety net. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously known as food stamps, feeds more than 1.5 million low-income Georgians and has enough money to cover benefits through February. But there are significant fears that an extended shutdown could lead to rationing or even the cessation of benefits. Ditto for several child nutrition programs run by the Department of Agriculture, as well as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, which provides food, infant formula and other support for the mothers of roughly half of all babies born in the U.S., according to Politico. Read more about what a federal shutdown means for Georgia. Staff writers Ben Brasch, Jennifer Brett, Arlinda Smith Broady, Matt Kempner, Lois Norder, Bill Rankin, James Salzer, Eric Stirgus, J. Scott Trubey and Kelly Yamanouchi contributed to this article.
  • Shortly after President Donald Trump doubled down on his pitch for Congress to greenlight $5.7 billion for a border wall in a prime-time address Tuesday, several Georgia GOP officials indicated they were standing firm behind the commander-in-chief.  “The president is right,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, shortly after the speech. “We need to build the border wall. Democrats have supported a border wall in the past, what happened?”  Georgia U.S. Sen. David Perdue, one of Trump’s top D.C. allies, said Trump showed “leadership by speaking directly to the American people” in his first Oval Office speech. And he echoed the president’s comments that the situation on the Southern border is a “national security crisis.”  The same went for Pooler Congressman Buddy Carter. The three-term Republican said he will “continue to call on my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to come forward with a realistic compromise plan to secure the border for the safety of all Americans.' Read more: Trump mentions Georgia killing in border wall speech The same sentiment wasn’t being expressed on the other side of the aisle.  U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, joined party leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer in blaming Trump for the shutdown, which has left roughly 800,000 federal workers – including nearly 16,000 Georgians -- furloughed or working without pay.  'The President is rejecting bipartisan bills that would re-open government over his obsession with forcing American taxpayers to waste billions of dollars on an expensive and ineffective wall – a wall he always promised Mexico would pay for!” Johnson tweeted.  The social media comments show many Georgia officials aren’t wavering on Trump’s demands for wall funding even as the partial government shutdown enters its 19th day. It is now the second-longest federal funding lapse on record and is expected to extend longer as the president plans a visit to the Texas border on Thursday.  Local lawmakers have largely been relegated to the sidelines as the standoff has remained at the most senior level on Capitol Hill. All have voted with their party leaders on spending legislation in recent weeks.  Read more: Trump border wall speech: Read the full transcript
  • Gov.-elect Brian Kemp takes office next week after making some expensive campaign promises and facing an economy that may slow by the time his first budget takes effect. After eight years of strong growth under Gov. Nathan Deal, one of Kemp’s top priorities will be to help keep Georgia’s economy humming and state spending — $26.5 billion worth this year — under control while remaining vigilant for signs of the inevitable cyclical downturn. Those will be the same 2019 General Assembly session priorities of budget-writers, such as state House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn. “I think we thought by this time we would have seen a recession or at least a little of the start of a downturn, and we really haven’t,” England said. “Everything remains fairly strong.” But his state Senate counterpart, Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, said warning signs are flashing — concerns about auto sales declines, higher interest rates, stock market gyrations — so Kemp and legislators should take a conservative approach to budgeting for fiscal 2020, which starts July 1. “Even though our unemployment numbers are real low and our economy continues to be very strong in Georgia, you still can’t ignore these signals,” said Hill, who has headed the Senate Appropriations Committee since 2003. “What I think it means for us is we should be very careful about expansive spending plans.” That kind of thinking isn’t new to state budget-writers — they form the state’s spending plan during a January-through-March session based on what the economy might look like the following year. But any new governor wants to quickly make his mark on state priorities, and nowhere is that spelled out more plainly than the budget Kemp will recommend to lawmakers this month. Among the challenges for state leaders:About $650 million worth of typical growth in state programs, mostly to pay for increased costs of running Georgia’s k-12 schools, universities and public health care system. A promise by Kemp to back a $5,000 pay raise for teachers, a proposition that would cost the state about $750 million-$800 million a year in extra salaries and benefits. A state workforce of tens of thousands of state agency and University System of Georgia employees who haven’t seen regular raises since before the Great Recession. Promises by Kemp to eliminate state income taxes on retirement pay for military veterans, expand a network of career training centers to 22 tech college campuses across the state, put big money into safety grants and counselors for schools, and expand the tax credit for Georgians who donate to struggling rural hospitals. Combined, those promises could cost more than $200 million a year. Likely continuing bills to help clean up and rebuild southwest Georgia after it was devastated by Hurricane Michael, a focus of a special legislative session in November. Kemp faces those issues at a time when, in a good year, the state sees about $900 million to $1 billion more in tax collections from economic growth. The new governor also wants to amend the state constitution to cap how much spending can increase each year in Georgia. And he wants to continue following on the work of last year’s General Assembly  and cut the top state income tax rate. Uncertainty produces caution How much of his agenda will be doable in 2019 is as unclear as the economic climate the state faces over the next few years. The state’s economy looked strong about this time in 2008 before the bottom dropped out and the Great Recession sent joblessness soaring and government revenue plunging. Georgia had a sizable “rainy day” fund, but it quickly disappeared as tax collections dropped and the state wound up laying off or furloughing tens of thousands of teachers and employees and cutting deeply into school and University System funding. None of the state’s budget-watchers are predicting a similar collapse, but a slowdown after years of sustained growth is possible. It didn’t help confidence levels that the nation just went through the worst December stock market since the Great Depression and the second down year for U.S. markets since the financial meltdown of 2008. Besides a local economy that appears to still be growing, Kemp takes office with other advantages Deal didn’t have when he became governor in 2011. Deal has rebuilt the state’s reserves to about $2.5 billion, making it likely the state can weather a downturn. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year ensured the state can require online retailers to collect sales taxes on their products, a move that could mean $200 million to $300 million more in revenue. House Ways and Means Chairman Jay Powell, R-Camilla, said there also may be an effort to raise cigarette taxes — Georgia has among the lowest in the country — and tax e-cigarettes. Other states have used increases in smoking-related taxes to help pay for public health care programs. The hardest promise for Kemp to keep may be the teacher pay raise, since it could eat up a large share of all expected new revenue in the coming year and because it would be an ongoing cost — something lawmakers would have to take into account as they view the future fiscal landscape. John Palmer, a Cobb County educator and spokesman for the teacher group TRAGIC, said the raises are needed “to keep the best and brightest” teachers in Georgia’s classrooms. “We trust the governor will hold true to his promise to invest in our teachers and take the lead in convincing the state legislators to include his $5,000 teacher pay raise in the state budget,” Palmer said. “We recognize this proposed raise would mean greater costs to the state,” he said. “However, legislators have recently shown a willingness to invest in vital components to our state, such as transportation, infrastructure, and corporate incentives. We believe investing in education and in our teachers is vital to ensuring a strong and vibrant future for Georgia.” England said teacher pay raises are supported by lawmakers but the cost — $750 million to $800 million — may be difficult to squeeze into the budget this year. Especially when thousands of state and university employees have gone without raises and will be hoping for an increase as well. “I think there is a way we can get there,” England said. “We may not get there in one year. It may be a four-year plan of getting there.” Gov. Zell Miller did something similar in the 1990s, when he pushed Georgia’s teacher pay to tops in the Southeast over four years. State Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said there are many other areas where the state needs to spend more, such as the Medicaid program that provides health care to 2 million Georgians and mental health services that are almost nonexistent in some parts of Georgia. “We have significant challenges that need attention,” Orrock said. Cap meets resistance Like some other lawmakers from both parties, Orrock opposes Kemp’s idea of pushing a constitutional amendment to set limits on state spending. England said governors can already limit spending in Georgia because they set the estimate of state revenue. Legislators can’t spend above that estimate, so it essentially serves as a limit. Orrock called the proposed spending cap amendment “a poor idea” in a growing state such as Georgia. “Nobody knows where the market is going right now, nobody knows what this president is going to do, what the tariff wars are going to mean,” Orrock said. “It is very complex, and making throw-away campaign promises around constitutionally capping the budget is just ill-conceived. “No one can predict when the next downturn will occur. We are having a good ride right now, but the smart people don’t bet on that being the eternal reality for the state.” Having been part of the General Assembly when the Great Recession hit will almost certainly make veteran lawmakers careful about budgeting this year. “I think it’s a time to be very aware of what is out there in the future,” Hill said. “I just think this is a year when we should be cautious.”
  • Georgia ethics law prohibits outgoing Rep. Earl Ehrhart from lobbying state government for at least a year after he leaves office this month. But that prohibition didn’t stop the Powder Springs Republican from ginning up business linked to MARTA, an entity he could influence in his duties as a state lawmaker and in his new role on the the Atlanta-Region Transit Link (ATL) Authority. In fact, documents obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reveal Ehrhart’s lobbying firm has played a critical role in pressuring MARTA to do business with his client, Gresham Transportation Services, for a minority subcontract worth millions of dollars. He and his colleagues at the firm Taylor English Decisions lobbied members of Georgia’s congressional delegation, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and others, arguing that MARTA had failed to comply with federal minority contracting requirements. All of this was perfectly legal and done last year while Ehrhart served in the legislature. Later, the FTA launched an investigation of MARTA’s compliance with federal contracting rules. And while MARTA says it complies with the rules, it moved to rebid the paratransit contract after the lobbying firm ratcheted up pressure in Washington. Ethics watchdogs say there’s nothing in Georgia law that prohibits state lawmakers from using their influence at the federal level. But they’re troubled by what they see as a blurring of the lines between Ehrhart’s public service and private lobbying. As a lawmaker, Ehrhart has had plenty of sway over legislation affecting MARTA, including a new law that made sweeping changes to transit funding and planning in metro Atlanta. Among other things, the law created the new ATL authority, which must approve MARTA’s future expansion plans. Ehrhart will join the authority board later this month. And while Ehrhart did not seek re-election and will leave the General Assembly this month, he’ll have daily contact with at least one lawmaker: His wife, Ginny Ehrhart, will be sworn in as his replacement. William Perry, executive director of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, said Ehrhart’s influence over MARTA as a lawmaker and an ATL Board member makes him a lobbyist with unusual leverage. “It gives them a huge advantage, when a person you’re trying to convince to do something knows you’re going to be in a position of power over them,” Perry said. The fact that it’s all legal, Perry said, is further evidence that Georgia has weak ethics laws. MARTA declined to comment on Ehrhart’s lobbying. Ehrhart declined an interview request from the AJC, but issued a written statement saying questions about his lobbying are “just an attempt to divert attention away (from) the very important issue of upholding the contractual obligations to a minority business.” The contracting dispute stems from MARTA’s 2015 decision to outsource its paratransit shuttle service for the elderly and disabled to a private firm, MV Transportation. The company’s three-year, $116.9 million contract includes a goal that 20 percent of the work should be subcontracted to minority- and women-owned companies, dubbed “disadvantaged business enterprises.” Initially, Atlanta-based Gresham Transportation was supposed to get most of that business. But that never happened. In public documents about the dispute, MV Transportation said Gresham failed to maintain the insurance needed to do the work. Gresham said that’s because MV Transportation failed to provide the work – and the revenue – needed to pay for the insurance. In 2017, an arbitrator sided with Gresham, and MV Transportation later paid the company nearly $560,000 to cover lost profits and costs it incurred in anticipation of providing paratransit service. A federal judge upheld the arbitrator’s ruling. But the judge found Gresham – having been made whole by the settlement – had no legal grounds to pursue additional work through its contract with MV Transportation. That hasn’t stopped Gresham from trying. The company and its owner, Stefan Gresham, have pressed MARTA to force MV Transportation to honor its original contract with the company. MARTA so far has declined, saying MV Transportation found another minority-owned firm to try to meet its 20 percent goal. But Gresham hasn’t given up. Federal records show it paid $25,000 to Taylor English Decisions last year to lobby federal officials on the issue. Ehrhart joined the Atlanta-based firm in April as its CEO. A month later, he and his new colleagues met with U.S. Reps. Drew Ferguson, R-West Point, Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville, and Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, as well as members of a House subcommittee that deals with transportation and infrastructure. They also met with the staffs of Republican Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue, and with representatives of the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Transit Administration. Those meetings apparently were productive. Based on a complaint by Gresham, the FTA launched an investigation of MARTA’s compliance with federal rules designed to ensure that minority- and women-owned businesses get a share of government contracts. MARTA has said it “is in full compliance with current Federal Transit Administration regulations” and welcomes the agency’s review. Nonetheless, the MARTA Board of Directors recently voted to rebid the paratransit service, though MV Transportation has two possible one-year renewals left on its contract. The company may yet keep the contract, but MARTA CEO Jeffrey Parker has said he decided to reopen it because MV Transportation is not meeting its minority contracting goal. MV Transportation has said it’s trying to meet the goal, but it declined further comment this week. Jonathan Crumly, a principal at Ehrhart’s firm, said it took the involvement of Isakson and Johnson to force MARTA to take Gresham’s complaint seriously. “We’re happy to see they’re trying to address the issue,” Crumly said. The merits of the contracting dispute aside, ethics advocates questioned whether Ehrhart should be allowed to lobby on the issue, given his elected office and appointment to the ATL Authority. House Speaker David Ralston appointed Ehrhart to the board effective Jan. 14, when his legislative term expires. Rick Thompson, former executive secretary of the State Ethics Commission, said Georgia’s ethics laws are among the weakest in the country. One problem, he said, is that it leaves it to lawmakers themselves to determine whether they have any conflicts that would require them to recuse themselves. Thompson said it’s easy for lawmakers to rationalize their behavior. As for Ehrhart, Thompson said: “He knows the rules, and he knows how far to push them. He’s been around a long time.” Ehrhart is retiring after 30 years in the General Assembly. Though he’s accusing MARTA of violating federal minority contracting requirements, he’s long opposed affirmative action policies as a lawmaker. Ehrhart sees no ethical problem with his lobbying federal authorities on the issue. He noted the lobbying came after his final regular legislative session as a state representative. “It is neither illegal nor unethical for me to advocate for the federal civil rights of a Georgia small businessman,” he said in his statement. “This federal civil rights issue has nothing to do with my role as a retiring state legislator or my position on the ATL Board.”