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State & Regional Govt & Politics

    A long-sought Democratic effort to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour could prove to be a major campaign issue in Georgia in the lead-up to next year’s elections.  Georgia’s 14 U.S. House members voted along strict party lines Thursday on the Raise the Wage Act, which would gradually raise the federal minimum wage over six years from its current $7.25 hourly rate.  The state’s five Democrats supported the proposal, which took months to finalize as party leaders looked to maintain the support of progressives and more centrist lawmakers who flipped districts previously won by President Donald Trump. Democrats said the bill would raise wages for more than 30 million workers and lift 1 million people out of poverty.  U.S. Rep. David Scott estimated the legislation would boost pay for nearly 21,000 workers in his Southwest Atlanta district alone. U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop said it would impact roughly 43% of workers in his sprawling district, which includes Albany, Columbus and the state’s Southwest corner.  “For 10 years, the federal minimum wage has not been increased to keep up with inflation—which means Americans are working just as hard but are earning less than their parents,” said Bishop, D-Albany.  All nine Georgia Republicans voted against the bill, which they warned would reverse the economic gains from their party’s 2017 tax overhaul and be particularly harmful to young people and rural Americans. They cited a report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that estimated a $15 minimum wage could cause between 1.3 million and 3.7 million job losses.  'If you want to raise the minimum wage, that's a legitimate local decision.... but it's just nonsense to suggest that the starting wage in rural Georgia should be the same thing as the starting wage in Manhattan,” said U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville.  U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson of West Point described the bill as a “socialist one-size-fit-all approach.” Georgia is one of only two states with a minimum wage that’s lower than the federal floor of $7.25 an hour. The state’s $5.15 per hour rate, however, applies to relatively few employers that are not involved in interstate commerce.  The legislation is poised to go nowhere in the GOP-controlled Senate, but Democratic leaders wanted to fulfill a key campaign promise for the party’s base. Its passage ahead of Congress’ annual August recess gives lawmakers a major issue on which to campaign in the weeks ahead.  Polling conducted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in August 2016 - before the suburban realignment prompted by Trump’s election - found that 55 percent of registered Georgia voters supported raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.  In metro Atlanta and Southeast Georgia, more than two-thirds of voters supported the proposal. But the idea faced resistance in exurban Atlanta, where 55 percent of registered voters opposed it.  That will present a key challenge for U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Marietta, who is defending a congressional seat she flipped last fall in the 6th District, which includes suburban stretches of Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton counties.  McBath is a member of the New Democrat Coalition, a group of more centrist lawmakers that warned about the impact of a $15 wage on small businesses and areas with a lower cost of living. The group eventually won two major concessions from party leaders: a longer phase-in window and assurances that pay hikes could be paused if a federal study shows adverse economic impacts. and worried about the impact on  McBath ultimately backed the bill. At a recent town hall meeting, she said she was “very, very mindful about any implications any pay raise might have on our small businesses.” “Today, we took a big step towards an America where everyone can make a livable wage,” McBath tweeted Thursday. “The #FightFor15 started in 2012, and today's vote was another step towards that goal.” The issue could also be a factor in Georgia’s U.S. Senate race.  Former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson has advocated for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour with automatic cost-of-living adjustments. Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry, who is also vying for the Democratic nomination, led his DeKalb County city to become the first in Georgia to mandate a $15-per-hour wage back in 2016. He said Thursday that he supports the House-passed bill.  Increasing the minimum wage, he said in an interview, is “the best way to lift people out of poverty, to address the gap in housing access and (help people) afford health care premiums and higher deductibles.” 
  • As lies go, it wasn’t a very ambitious one.  But Avery Niles’ false claim, under oath, that he received an associate’s degree in criminal justice cost him his job on Wednesday.  Niles, who was the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice commissioner, offered to resign effective Sept. 1. He submitted his resignation to the DJJ board, which was meeting to deal with the brewing controversy stemming from Niles’ testimony in a 2017 lawsuit filed by a former department administrator.  In a letter to Gov. Brian Kemp announcing his resignation, Niles wrote, in part: “I am very proud of the work that was accomplished during my tenure and will forever be grateful for this tremendous opportunity.”  He continued, “I want to thank you for allowing me to serve in the capacity of Commissioner, and if there is any other opportunity for me to continue my service with your administration, please let me know.” But the DJJ board chose not to accept Niles’ resignation, voting instead to fire him immediately. Kemp approved the decision, the DJJ said in a statement.  Niles, one of the many Gainesville-based appointees of former Gov. Nathan Deal, had led the DJJ since 2012. He had previously served 25 years with the Hall County Sheriff’s Office.  RELATED: » Kemp promises to reform how GA treats sexual harassment victims » Tight job market leaves Georgia’s youth jails chronically understaffed Niles’ tenure at the DJJ was marked by problems often unrelated to the commissioner. Staff shortages at juvenile justice facilities nationwide are not uncommon, and that problem only grew worse in 2018, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found. The department’s own weekly staffing reports, obtained by the AJC, found that six of the state’s seven long-term youth detention centers, or YDCs, were dealing with greater shortages in juvenile corrections officers than experienced in 2017.  A spokesman for the DJJ has said Georgia would like to stop placing 17-year-olds in adult prisons for certain less serious crimes, but it lacks the staff to care for them. Georgia is among only a handful of states that still incarcerate juveniles in adult penitentiaries.  The DJJ has also dealt with accusations that it mishandled claims of sexual harassment by staff from other employees, a widespread problem in Georgia government agencies, according to a separate AJC investigation.  The DJJ wasted no time in erasing Niles from its website, removing his photo and a link to his bio within an hour of his dismissal. 
  • A half-dozen Democratic lawmakers signed an open letter Wednesday urging Gov. Brian Kemp to hire more diverse senior staffers, arguing that people of color should “have a seat at the decision-making table in the highest office in the state.” The legislators praise the “remarkable accomplishments” of the Republican’s recent appointments to state boards and other key posts. But they raised alarms over a Jan. 7 press release that lists 14 white senior aides hired to fill top positions in his office.  “The diversity of individuals with whom you surround yourself makes a difference in the lives of Georgians, particularly when it comes to issues like voter suppression, criminal justice reform, health care, immigration, and more,” read the letter. “Without a staff representing the diversity of Georgians and their experiences, you deprive yourself of the opportunity enact policies that will improve the lives of all Georgians.” It was signed by a diverse group that includes Asian, black, LGBTQ and white lawmakers: State Sens. Ed Harbison and Sally Harrell, and state Reps. Erick Allen, Park Cannon, David Dreyer and Sam Park.  <<<More: Georgia governor’s key appointments have surprised even his critics <<<More: Kemp taps 2 new members to powerful Regents board after shakeup  Kemp officials did not immediately respond to the letter, but previously said the January release doesn’t include other hires, including a Latino deputy counsel, an African-American policy adviser and field representative and an Indian operations manager. The governor surprised even his critics with a round of relatively diverse appointments to some of the state’s most coveted positions. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis found that Kemp selected women for about half of the roughly 80 appointments he has made to state boards and criminal justice posts the first five months of the year. About a quarter of those appointees are minorities, mostly African American officials. At least three are LGBTQ. Democrats want him to bring more diversity to his executive office, too, which includes influential policy, legal and operational positions. In a series of recent tweets blasting Kemp, Lauren Groh-Wargo, the top aide to Stacey Abrams, called the collection of aides he’s assembled “probably the least diverse Gov staff in contemporary GA history.”  Here’s the full letter:    Governor Kemp:   We write to recognize the steps you have taken to increase diversity in your administration and to applaud the remarkable accomplishments of the individuals you recently appointed. Diversity is Georgia's strength, and the people of Georgia are better served when the individuals who work for them reflect our population as a whole.   Any progress in increasing diversity within your administration is positive, but we encourage you to do more. Georgia's population is almost half people of color, and your appointments, while cause for celebration individually, fall well short of collectively representing Georgia's population. Further, non-Hispanic white Georgians comprise 100 percent of your senior staff (14 of 14), according to a January 7 press release from your office.   Most certainly, there are qualified applicants among the approximately 5 million people of color in Georgia to have a seat at the decision-making table in the highest office in the state. It is our hope that any sincere efforts to increase diversity in your administration would also extend to your immediate staff.   The diversity of individuals with whom you surround yourself makes a difference in the lives of Georgians, particularly when it comes to issues like voter suppression, criminal justice reform, health care, immigration, and more. Without a staff representing the diversity of Georgians and their experiences, you deprive yourself of the opportunity enact policies that will improve the lives of all Georgians.   We welcome further discussion with you on this critically important issue.   Sincerely,   Senator Ed Harbison  Senator Sally Harrell Representative Erick Allen Representative Park Cannon Representative David Dreyer Representative Sam Park  
  • Several Georgia Republican lawmakers bristled late Monday at a series of tweets from President Donald Trump that urged four Democratic congresswomen of color to “go back” to where they came from, even as they defended his border policies and declined to call for an apology.  Others sought to steer clear of Trump’s controversial remarks, which were directed at U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib, progressive freshmen who have been highly critical of the president and his policies.  No Georgia Republicans publicly joined their African-American colleague Will Hurd, R-Texas, who called Trump’s tweets “racist and xenophobic.”  Instead, many were critical of Trump’s words but agreed with the sentiment that Democrats’ shift to the left was hurting the country.  “I’m not as concerned about where people are from as I am about the radical agenda of the socialist wing of the Democratic party in Congress,” said U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler. “The very public infighting among Democrats continues to escalate and it’s happening at the detriment of the American people.”  >> Related: In suburban Atlanta, Donald Trump’s ‘go back’ rant could be costly for GOP in 2020 U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, said Trump is “frustrated that Congress has not acted to solve the crisis at our border, and he expressed his frustrations in a way that didn’t promote reconciliation across the aisle and across our country.”  Without a unified directive from the party, the president’s Capitol Hill allies were left scrambling to formulate a response to the remarks, which began on social media Sunday. Trump is broadly popular among GOP base voters, and in general the party’s elected officials have avoided criticizing the president directly. However, the sentiment behind Trump's 'go home' comments is one that has deep, painful roots in American history. It’s been hurled at most immigrant groups at one point or another.  U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, emphasized the point during an appearance on MSNBC.  “We heard this during the ’60s when little children were trying to desegregate schools, when we were trying to desegregate lunch counters and restaurants, when were trying to get the right to vote, to go back,” Lewis said. “We’re not going back. we’re here to stay.  “What he said and what he continues to say is racist. It is racism. You cannot hide it, you cannot sweep it under the American rug.” Of the four congresswomen targeted by Trump, three were born in the U.S., and the Somalia-born Omar is a naturalized U.S. citizen.  The president doubled down on his remarks on Monday and Tuesday, saying that the four Democratic lawmakers hate America, and “if you’re not happy here, then you can leave.”  House Democratic leaders teed up a vote on a resolution condemning the president’s comments for Tuesday, and local Democratic candidates were quick to pounce on social media.  Trump’s “xenophobic comments further fan the flames of his hateful rhetoric towards our black and brown communities and places them in harm’s way,” said Nabilah Islam, a Democrat running in Georgia’ 7th Congressional District.  Carolyn Bourdeaux, one of Islam’s primary opponents, said Trump was trying to distract from “human rights abuses at the border and the corruption of his administration.”   Congressman Jody Hice, R-Monroe, who has been an ardent supporter of the president through his leadership role in the House Freedom Caucus, said “I don’t believe the president is a racist.”  “Although I wish he had been more diplomatic, I share his frustrations in regard to Members of Congress making repeated derogatory statements about the Nation we love, serve, and defend,” he said.  Two Georgia Republicans, U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, more directly condemned Trump’s remarks, with the former saying “there is not a debate about whether or not it’s acceptable.” Isakson said Trump’s comments were “totally inappropriate.” 'I wasn't elected to make excuses or explain the statements of somebody else, and so I'm just not going to do that,” said Isakson, a three-term Republican who sharply criticized the president for dishonoring the late John McCain earlier this year.  Isakson’s Senate colleague, David Perdue, said it was “outrageous” to consider Trump’s comments racist.  The Republican golfed with his White House ally in Virginia on Saturday and said he was focused on funding the federal government and recent hostilities with Iran rather than Trump’s tweets.   
  • The potential for tampering in Georgia’s elections last fall prompted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to warn election officials to be on guard against foreign interference. A recently released DHS memo, titled “A Georgia Perspective on Threats to the 2018 U.S. Elections,” listed concerns about hacking, misinformation spread through social media and disruptions to election infrastructure. The federal advice came as attorneys for state election officials argued in court documents that fears of hacking and vote miscounting were little more than “a theoretical possibility.” Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office said Monday that cybersecurity has been an ongoing priority since well before the 2018 elections. “This memo is standard information sharing and shows what all levels of government are doing to protect our elections,” said spokeswoman Tess Hammock. “DHS prepared a similar memo for every state. There is no evidence of any successful attempts to interfere in Georgia's elections.” The unclassified DHS document became public Wednesday when it was included as an exhibit in an ongoing lawsuit seeking to prevent the continued use of electronic voting machines. “Foreign governments may engage in cyber operations targeting the election infrastructure and political organization in Georgia and engage in influence operations that aim to interfere with the 2018 U.S. elections,” according to the Oct. 2, 2018, document prepared by the DHS Office of Intelligence & Analysis Field Operations Division for the Southeast Region. The two-page memo didn't specify who might have attempted to tamper with Georgia's elections, but it said their goals could have been “to disrupt political processes, sway public opinion, or to undermine certain political organizations.” In July 2016, a Russian agent visited election websites in Cobb and Fulton counties but didn't gain access to election systems, according to the Secretary of State's Office. The DHS said in a statement Monday that it’s not aware of any specific targeting of Georgia’s election infrastructure in 2018 by a foreign government. The department shared information with state officials across the country before last year’s election. “These potential tactics are not specific to Georgia systems and could be applicable to elections across the United States,” said spokesman Scott McConnell. “Election security is national security, and we are continuing to engage our election partners as part of a collaborative effort to protect the 2020 election.” Jeanne Dufort, a voter worried about election security, said Georgia election officials should do more to ensure safe elections. “Our election officials said, ‘There’s nothing to see here, there’s nothing to worry about,’ ” said Dufort, a real estate agent in Madison. “I wish they would treat election safety the way most of us treat our personal home safety. We take reasonable precautions, we listen to experts and we try to protect ourselves rather than saying there’s no problem unless someone can prove there’s a problem.” Potential threats identified by DHS included: Unauthorized entry into polling places or voting facilities used to store election equipment. Emails sent to government agencies, including the state's department of motor vehicles, that include malicious links that could be used to hack voter registration systems. Attempts to hack or disrupt the processing of absentee ballots sent through the U.S. Postal Service. Social media messages or robocalls falsely reporting changed or closed polling locations. Disruptions to polling places such as power failures or internet, cellphone and traffic control outages.
  • The email warned that the legislator was in the crosshairs of Republicans for opposing the anti-abortion bill that has rocked Georgia politics, and it invited donors to a fundraiser to give $481 contributions “in honor of our fight against” House Bill 481. Several of Democratic state Rep. Mike Wilensky’s supporters came to a Sandy Springs mansion with donations in hand, and a message to send, as they listened to actor Ric Reitz outline his fears that the new abortion restrictions will gut Georgia’s film industry. That kind of fundraising has spilled over into conservative coffers, too, though some Republicans are deliberately not raising money on the issue. Joshua Edmonds of the Georgia Life Alliance said that anti-abortion causes are enjoying unprecedented interest from donors and volunteers that will pay dividends in 2020, when every legislative seat will be up for election. “It speaks volumes that the pro-life community overwhelmingly supports this bill and the lawmakers who voted for it,” he said, “and they’re mobilized to defend it.” It’s impossible to pinpoint how the new law, which seeks to ban most abortions as early as six weeks, will influence next year’s election. But an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of the most recent fundraising figures offers a glimpse of the issue’s political potency. Some donors dipped deeper into their wallets in support or defiance of lawmakers who embraced the bill. Anti-abortion groups report an uptick in contributions and volunteers. Abortion rights supporters touted donations from megawatt stars. Candidates in competitive districts reported big hauls. “It’s going to be absolutely helpful to fundraising,” said state Sen. Elena Parent, an Atlanta Democrat and outspoken opponent of the measure. “People see how important it is to have a strong voice represent their values in the state Legislature. And they see how extreme the legislation is.” The amount of energy and enthusiasm surrounding the law, which is now tied up in what could be a lengthy court battle, has also sparked a backlash. Some candidates are taking pains to avoid appearing like they’re cashing in on the issue. Democratic state Sen. Zahra Karinshak, who raised $75,000 over the past three months in her Gwinnett County-based district, said her vote against the abortion law “certainly didn’t hurt” her fundraising, but that she also earned contributions for her positions on health care and veterans’ rights. And state Sen. Renee Unterman, the Republican sponsor of the measure in the state’s upper chamber, is not highlighting her stewardship of the anti-abortion law as she runs for one of the most competitive U.S. House seats in the nation. “I’ve watched Democrats be very crass about raising money off the bill, and Republicans haven’t been as aggressive,” said Unterman, one of several contenders competing for the 7th District GOP nomination. “I’m a multidimensional candidate, and the heartbeat bill is one part of my record. My donors aren’t giving to me based off one issue.” ‘Speaks volumes’ Whatever the reason, they are giving. The AJC review of thousands of financial records found that the amount of donations to state politicians and political action committees shot up by $200,000 the week after the bill was signed into law compared with the previous seven days. Some of the most prominent figures in the clash over the bill had the strongest fundraising quarters. State Sen. Jen Jordan, whose speech opposing the measure went viral on social media, took in about $74,000 since the legislative session ended — including about $4,500 the day HB 481 was signed. Other Democrats used their campaign accounts in symbolic fashion: Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson didn’t collect a single dime — he recently announced he would not seek another term — but gave thousands of dollars of his campaign funds to abortion rights organizations. Those groups are also netting bigger fish. Planned Parenthood, the reproductive health organization, received a $250,000 contribution from Ariana Grande after a June concert in Atlanta. Hollywood producers J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele both wrote hefty checks to the Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is leading the legal fight against the law. And the Fair Fight Action voting rights group founded by Stacey Abrams, the runner-up in last year’s gubernatorial race, sent a flurry of fundraising emails that quickly amassed $110,000. That money was divvied up in $10,000 increments to 11 abortion rights organizations. Anti-abortion causes say they welcome the celebrity attention, hopeful that it will backfire by energizing more Georgia Republicans. Gov. Brian Kemp raised more than $200,000 the week before he signed the law. Much of the money came from corporate lobbyists and business boosters, but some came from small-dollar donors. “I’ve got no problem with him on abortion, and our views are very close on social issues,” said Russell Wilder, the owner of a tobacco store in Martinez who stroked Kemp a $100 check. “He’s a regular guy even though he’s the governor — he gets us. We’re from Georgia, not Atlanta.” There’s more where that came from, said Cole Muzio, an anti-abortion activist. He said the “radical, pro-abortion forces from California and New York” will spur more donations through November 2020 — and he scattered a few hundred dollars to several Republicans over the past few weeks to emphasize his point. ‘Sickened’ One of the contributions went to state Rep. Ed Setzler, the Acworth Republican who authored the measure and made it a point not to seek donations over the past three months. It’s not that he doesn’t need them: After running unopposed for three consecutive races, Setzler narrowly won another term last year and is preparing for a tough race next year. But Setzler wore the $265 he received since April as a badge of honor, writing in a campaign filing that he was “sickened” to see efforts to raise campaign cash on the issue. “This is such a serious issue, and the other side was so engaged in national fundraising that I am willing to spot them 90 days in fundraising,” Setzler said in an interview. “I want folks to understand the substance of this issue and the dignity of the children we’re seeking to protect. It’s not only what we do, but the way we do it, that matters.” The people gathered at Wilensky’s fundraiser would have a different take. They mingled in a two-story living room ringed by delicate antiques and family portraits before Reitz, the veteran actor, stood before a marble fireplace to urge the crowd to pull out their checkbooks. The room around him nodded in agreement. “Nothing is more fundamental to our individual right to freedom than the right to bodily autonomy,” said Valerie Habif, a retired psychologist and Democratic donor. “Now is the time for women to exercise our very hard-won right to vote.”
  • No place stands to benefit more than Georgia if the Trump administration succeeds in its effort to transform kidney health in the United States. Millions in the state live with conditions that can lead to kidney disease and death. Advocates were thrilled when President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday that would, among other things, promote organ donations and reshape kidney care. They said the disease has gone ignored too long. The question remains how much concrete change the administration’s actions this week represent, and how much they will move the needle going forward on public kidney health. “I’m excited about it,” said Dr. Stephen Pastan, the medical director of kidney and pancreas transplant at the Emory Transplant Center. “I think it’s going to give a lot of publicity and shine a lot of light on the problems kidney patients are having” as well as on the struggle to treat them, Pastan said. “I think if they follow through on them they will have a major impact. There were not a lot of specifics about how they were going to carry out the goals.” The goals are ambitious. They include reducing the number of Americans developing end-stage renal disease by 25% by 2030, and by 2025 to have 80% of all newly diagnosed patients either receiving a transplanted kidney or getting dialysis at home. That has huge implications for Georgia and other Southern states, which are the nation’s worst-ranked in important kidney health factors. More than 1 million Georgians live with diabetes, one of the two top conditions that lead to kidney disease. The other is hypertension, or high blood pressure, which afflicts more than one-third of Georgians, according to the American Kidney Fund. As a result, the state has a thriving dialysis business, with more than 21,000 people in end-stage kidney disease receiving the treatment. “It’s a big deal,” Trump said at the ceremony where he signed the order. ‘Paying for sickness’ The proposal contains a raft of ideas. Some can be implemented immediately, some not. One would use federal money to incentivize organ donation by live donors. One would promote invention of an implantable artificial kidney; others would revamp the system to take better care of the organs that are already donated or shake up the regions that do a poor job of encouraging donation. Of the 5,000 Georgians waiting for an organ transplant, more than 90% need a kidney. Reforming the organ procurement regions that aren’t up to snuff could help Georgia, which is in danger of losing more organs to areas where donation rates are lower. The proposal that drew the most attention in news accounts would seek to shift dialysis from clinics to homes, and take aim at the archaic system that has given rise to the hundreds of dialysis clinics across Georgia. That proposal may have the most concrete impact, testing out new incentive plans for half of the nation’s dialysis patients. If it works, those patients at home will have a more comfortable dialysis experience and are likely to spend hours longer on the procedure, which is more natural for the body. If they can do dialysis while they sleep, they also have a better chance of keeping a job. In the 1970s, Congress simply agreed that Medicare would pay for dialysis for anyone who needs it. The problem is, that created an incentive for health care providers to invest in treatment of the worst stage of the disease — but it created nothing comparable for the earlier stages, much less for preventing it altogether. Alex Azar, Trump’s health secretary, in announcing the changes, said: “For decades, across all of American healthcare, and kidney care in particular, the focus has been on paying for procedures, rather than paying for good outcomes. We need to flip that around.” Praise has been virtually universal for the goals, for the intention to take a new look at kidney disease, and for the proposals outlined so far. Where critics find fault is in the modest plans for the first goal: to prevent, detect and slow the progression of kidney disease in the first place. The administration plans an education campaign, as well as some pilot programs testing incentive programs for better care. The key to significant impact on that goal doesn’t require reinventing the wheel, critics counter, but simply ensuring access to basic health care, especially among the poor. “Are all admirable goals, and the federal government should be working toward that,” said Laura Colbert, the director of Georigans for a Healthy Future, which has advocated for coverage of poor Georgians through Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. “When you contrast those goals with the other actions the federal government is taking around health care they don’t necessarily line up,” she said, specifically citing the administration’s legal arguments that same week against the Affordable Care Act. Georgia’s GOP leaders declined to expand Medicaid to all of Georgia’s poor, citing the cost to the state and to the federal government. Gov. Brian Kemp is currently developing a more limited plan for Medicaid coverage. ‘The Diabetes Belt’ Dr. Karen Kinsell is often sought out as an expert on rural Georgia health care because she is the only medical provider in Clay County. She said she’s watched about three dialysis clinics spring up in her area, one of them smack across from the local fast-food restaurants whose popularity contributes to kidney disease. Part of the problem is patients’ own choices in whether to take care of their health, she said. But not all. “Yesterday I had a patient come in with blood sugar of 589,” she said. Normal is in the low 100s. “He realized he hadn’t taken his (diabetes medications) for six months because he couldn’t afford them. He is going to end up in the emergency room.” That patient can’t get funding for pills or for insulin — whose price is soaring — or help with his diet, and he’s afraid of being evicted to boot, she said, which complicates everything including keeping up with health care. But if he got end-stage renal disease, he’d receive dialysis paid for by Medicare. “If he had Medicaid, he wouldn’t be in quite this fix,” Kinsell said. “We know all these poor sick people are out there with diabetes and blood pressure out of control,” she said. “That is a crisis; why are we not addressing that now? … We know how to do this. Get the medicines and work with them to make sure they’re doing it correctly. Then addressing the complications as they come up.” Mike Spigler, the American Kidney Fund’s vice president of patient services and kidney disease education, finds himself seeing both sides. “To us in the kidney community, this was huge,” he said. He was in the room as Trump signed the order. He’s also been in Georgia, doing kidney screening events at Stonecrest Mall and other sites. “We frequently find people with uncontrolled diabetes and high blood pressure — blood glucose in the 300, 400, 500, 600 range, blood pressure 200 — not taking their meds,” he said. “Not only Georgia but the whole South, what they call ‘The Diabetes Belt,’ is disproportionately affected by kidney disease. Having this focus and attention from the federal government is a good thing,” he said. And noting the transplant and dialysis initiatives, he said: “All those things are very, very good things. All extremely good things.” However, he added “Without question that is the most important to us: preventing kidney disease in the first place.”
  • Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry, who has pushed his city to embrace pioneering liberal policies, launched a campaign Wednesday against Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue with a promise to “bring courage back to Washington.”  The 36-year-old Democrat, known to supporters as the “millennial mayor,” said he would use his leadership of Clarkston as a template for his Senate platform: He supports higher minimum wages, stricter clean energy standards, decriminalizing marijuana and more welcoming immigration policies.  “Campaigns are ways we can move the needle on policies,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And I’m going to set the marker on what being a progressive in Georgia stands for. I won’t be surprised if the others follow suit.”  He enters the race at an unsettled moment. Only one other Democratic candidate, former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, has announced so far. But several others are exploring a run, including Sarah Riggs Amico, who lost last year’s lieutenant governor’s race, and former 6th District candidate Jon Ossoff.  The nominee will face Perdue, a former Fortune 500 chief executive who is closely tied to President Donald Trump and Gov. Brian Kemp. Democrats see Georgia as crucial to flipping the U.S. Senate, and the contest is likely to be the most expensive Senate race in state history.  Terry is likely to push the field to the left on issues ranging from environmental policy to criminal justice – using polices he’s staked as leader of Clarkston, a DeKalb County town of about 13,000 people that’s so diverse it’s been described as the “Ellis Island of the South.”  Republicans quickly tried to brand him as part of a “socialist sprint.” Nathan Brand of the National Republican Senatorial Committee said Terry was a polarizing figure who will pull Democrats “further away from mainstream Georgia values.” Outside of Georgia political circles, he may be better known for recent role on Netflix’s “Queer Eye” show, including a memorable segment when stylists made him shave his unruly “Resistance Beard” – which he started growing after Trump’s victory.  'Running on my record’ A Florida native, Terry moved to Atlanta after college to follow a girlfriend attending law school and soon plunged into local politics, getting his start going door-to-door for the Sierra Club in 2005 to canvass for the budding Beltline project.  After working for a string of Democratic campaigns, he was elected mayor of Clarkston in 2013 and promptly steered the city to adopt headline-grabbing initiatives that put it squarely in the political spotlight.  His signature policy might be an ordinance he signed in 2016 that decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, making Clarkston the first city in Georgia to adopt the drug policy.  It faced stiff opposition from conservatives and Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration. Since then, however, Atlanta and other cities have passed similar measures.  Terry also led an initiative to limit Clarkston’s cooperation with federal deportation officers to protest the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration.  He pushed his city to commit to operating solely on renewable energy by 2050. And under his watch, Clarkston became the first city in Georgia to mandate a $15 an hour minimum wage.   “I’m running on my record. We were on the cutting edge in Clarkston,” he said. “My record as mayor has always been to challenge the establishment and disrupt the system, and being elected to the U.S. Senate would be the biggest threat to the established order.”  To impeach or not? Still, Terry’s campaign promises don’t track exactly with the liberal policies of some of the 2020 presidential contenders.  Terry wants to boost the hourly wage, but said it should be pegged to inflation not necessarily set at $15. He backs a “public option” to let people buy coverage in a government-run healthcare plan with the goal of increasing competition and, potentially, driving down costs.  He “unequivocally” supports free community college and tech college training, but hasn’t yet embraced the push by some Democrats to make all college free and eliminate student debt. And Terry, the Sierra Club’s state director, backs new environmental regulations but does not endorse all tenets of the Green New Deal, the sweeping congressional plan to tackle climate change, because it doesn’t properly support farmers who “are on the leading edge of reducing carbon emissions.”  He was critical of both Trump and Perdue in the interview. But unlike Tomlinson, who has said the president should face impeachment proceedings, Terry said the party’s focus should be trained on the ballot box.  “The American people have all the evidence they need,” he said. “What we’ve seen from the president and Sen. Perdue is enough to defeat them in 2020. I’m more interested in defeating them in the election than trying to impeach.”  Here’s Terry’s answers to key questions about the race:  On why he’s running: “Desperate times require desperate measures. I want to bring new vision, energy and courage back to Washington. It’s political malpractice from David Perdue because he hasn’t held a town hall in five years. I’ll have the courage to face my constituents whether they agree or disagree.” On his strategy: “It’s all about the message. We were the first in Georgia to lead on minimum wage, on housing affordability, on making Election Day a holiday, on criminal justice, and on being compassionate to immigrants. They’re important to Democratic voters but they’re also important to the mainstream. I expect that message to resonate with a lot of people.” On the Green New Deal: “Farmers in Georgia and around the nation are on the leading edge of reducing carbon emission. We need to recognize and support them during the transition to clean energy. That means communities where coal-fired plants are closing need to be the first where we invest in solar energy.” On whether he’d describe himself as a socialist: “I would describe myself as a Democrat who gives a damn – I give a damn about people who are in poverty, about people suffering, about our planet, about the rent being too damn high. I’m a Democrat who gives a damn.” On immigration policy:  “Sen. Perdue’s RAISE Act is a complete disaster and wreck whole portions of Georgia’s economy. Clarkston is multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious - and it’s been good for our economy, for our culture and for what the future of America will look like.” On whether he’s angling to be the Bernie Sanders of the Senate race: “I have the desire to support policies and plans like Elizabeth Warren. I want to change fundamental aspects of the system like Bernie Sanders. I want to bring a youthful vision like Mayor Pete and I want to embody the passionate approach of people like Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.” On his appearance in ‘Queer Eye’:  “With being on a reality show, you put yourself in a vulnerable position. If people want to know who I am, watch that 55-minute episode of Queer Eye.”  
  • Federal officials seized $80,000 from the campaign account of suspended Georgia Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck, who is accused of stealing from his employer in part to fund his race for office in 2018. That seizure was contained in a campaign finance report Beck filed Monday with the state ethics commission, paperwork that also showed he was raising big money from insurance interests days before he was indicted. The seizure is being contested by Beck’s lawyers, and the feds did not close out his campaign account. According to his disclosure, Beck still had $171,000 left in his account as of June 30. The federal government in mid-May unveiled a 38-count indictment accusing Beck of developing an elaborate scheme to steal $2 million from his former employer. At least some of the money, federal prosecutors say, went to fund his campaign for insurance commissioner. Beck denied the accusations but asked Gov. Brian Kemp to suspend him from office so he could devote his time to fighting the charges. While suspended, he continues to be paid his $120,000-a-year state salary. John King, a former longtime Doraville police chief, took over for Beck as acting commissioner last week. Beck put about $1 million into the race, largely self-funding his Republican primary victory. Once he won the primary, checks from insurers came rolling in, including from people such as former Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, who paid for a fundraiser. At least nine board members of the company he is accused of defrauding, the Georgia Underwriting Association, also donated, mostly after the primary. Among those board members were then-Gwinnett County state Sen. David Shafer — now chairman of the state Republican Party — and then-state Rep. Rick Golick, a lawyer for Allstate Insurance and a longtime Smyrna legislator. Federal prosecutors say the scheme continued into last summer, at least two months after Beck won the primary but before the general election, when he beat insurance agent Janice Laws, a Democrat, by 3 percentage points. Beck spent about $27 for every $1 Laws did running for insurance commissioner. Beck was legally prohibited from raising money during the 2019 General Assembly session, but he picked up where he left off collecting checks in April and early May, until a few days before his indictment. His reports shows he raised $93,250 in a little over a month, much of it from those in the insurance business. Among his biggest donors was Oxendine, who used $14,000 in campaign money he had left over from his 2010 race for governor to give to Beck. That donation came May 10. Beck was indicted on May 14, and the U.S. Marshals Service seized some of Beck’s campaign money that day. Oxendine’s contributions were the maximum donation he could give Beck for the 2022 primary and general elections, races the suspended commissioner may never run. Oxendine, who has been fighting state ethics commission complaints for a decade, had previously contributed about $15,000 to Beck. Among other charges, one of the complaints filed against Oxendine is that he’s used leftover campaign money illegally for personal gain. Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at www.ajc.com/politics.
  • The number of Georgia families receiving welfare benefits has dropped by more than two-thirds in the past 14 years as the state has applied constant pressure to drive down the the rolls. Georgia granted benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, commonly known as welfare, to an average of 10,159 households a month this fiscal year, as of May, according to Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services statistics. That number is down from an average monthly 33,302 TANF cases in fiscal 2006. Welfare payments cost the government $35.3 million in 2018, down from more than $55 million a decade earlier, when families, on average, received less. The number of households receiving TANF benefits has consistently dropped, even through the Great Recession. The agency was not able to provide welfare numbers before 2006. Officials with DFCS said the decreasing rolls are a sign that the program is working. “Many at our smallest level of income get $155 (a month),” said Jon Anderson, the head of DFCS’ Office of Family Independence. “Some people look at that and say, ‘I can make more working full time than TANF would bring into my household,’ and make the decision to go to work.” Georgia trends mirror what’s gone on nationally. >> Related: Ga. cuts food stamps for thousands with new system tracking recipients >> In Depth: Battle over food stamps highlights polarizing rift >> Related: Georgia sees huge drop in people on food stamps Since Congress passed sweeping changes to the welfare program in 1996, the number of households receiving benefits has consistently dropped across the country. Changes implemented in the ’90s gave states more control over how to run welfare, which has long been politically stigmatized. That, in turn, resulted in fewer households across the country receiving benefits. According to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 23% of families in poverty received money through TANF. That number is down from 68% in 1996. Fred Brooks, a professor at Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies who focuses on social work, said the Legislature has consistently focused on getting people to work as opposed to providing cash aid. In June 2018, the average welfare recipient received $260 a month, according to DFCS. The amounts, set by the Legislature, haven’t increased with the rate of inflation in recent years, Anderson said. State Rep. Greg Morris, a Vidalia Republican, said he believes the improving economy means fewer Georgians are in need. Morris has long supported legislation that would drive down the rolls for those receiving public assistance. “And I don’t think in a growing economy we need to be increasing any kind of welfare benefits,” Morris said. In December 2006, Georgia’s unemployment rate was 4.4%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unemployment climbed to 10.6% in 2010, but 755,000 jobs have since been created and the rate had fallen to 3.7% by May. The state requires TANF recipients to work or participate in training for at least 30 hours each week. Anderson said requirements are explained to those seeking TANF benefits when applying, and some choose not to sign up. Those who sign up get access to job-searching assistance, or, if necessary, they receive help finishing high school, completing a GED program or finding another specialized certification program. State legislators for years have supported initiatives to limit the number of people receiving public assistance, including attempts to pass legislation that would have required drug testing for Georgians who receive food stamps. Eden Purdy, the director of programs at North Fulton Community Charities, said about 3,900 families visit her organization each year seeking emergency assistance with things such as money and food. She said people who come to the charity say the restrictions placed on those seeking TANF benefits deter people from going through the process. “It’s very hard to be approved, and they say they don’t feel like it’s worth their time,” Purdy said. “They’re looking for supplemental ways to support their household, and TANF only provides a small amount of money.” Brooks, the Georgia State professor, published a study last year after speaking with 60 Georgians who stopped receiving TANF benefits between 2009 and 2015 to examine what happens to people once they’re no longer on the welfare rolls. “The No. 1 reason that people left TANF is because they found a job — and the system is set up to do exactly that,” Brooks said. “Everyone I interviewed had collected a check for a while, but there was consistent pressure or incentive (through the state requirements) to get off of TANF and get a job.” Brooks said that fewer people receiving welfare benefits does not mean there are fewer people in poverty in Georgia. “Most people who qualify for welfare don’t even think about applying for it,” he said. “Studies show that people don’t think they can apply for it.” DFCS previously conducted so-called “leaver studies,” but now officials don’t track why people no longer receive the benefit. Luther Washington, the founder and executive director of the Mableton-based Family Life Restoration Center, said the nonprofit doesn’t track whether the people who come to it for help are on public assistance. The organization provides food, clothes, weekly hot meals and access to medical screenings to people who go to the facility and say they need help. Many who come say their either receive or have received welfare benefits before, Washington said. “People will come and say, ‘I was receiving TANF but didn’t meet the number of hours I needed to, so they took it,’ ” he said. “We don’t dig. We say, ‘Here. Fill out the paperwork. We’ll help you.’” People visiting the nonprofit’s food pantry on Tuesday declined to share whether they received welfare. Brooks said the average benefit of those in his study, usually a family of one adult and two children, received about $230 a month in welfare benefits. Alex Camardelle, a senior policy analyst with the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said studies have shown that while people may be getting off welfare and going to work, oftentimes the jobs are in low-paying industries such as food services, child care and retail. “We should hope that TANF will promote job-training opportunities that lead to jobs that pay a wage that is family-supporting and a job that has benefits,” he said. Lauren Waits, the director of government affairs with the Atlanta Community Food Bank, said the boundaries of eligibility have become so narrow that it’s difficult for many to qualify for benefits. And welfare has long been the target of reformers and condemned by lawmakers, making it all but impossible for politicians to even think about increasing spending on the program. “Sadly,” she said, “that’s just not something we are able to look at as a broad lever for addressing poverty anymore.”