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State & Regional Govt & Politics

    U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler has provided no proof that financial advisers making stock transactions on her behalf have total control over decision-making. The Georgia senator has been accused of using insider information procured from Senate briefings on the coronavirus to inform her recent stock trades. In response to the criticism, Loeffler says that financial consultants acting independently conduct all transactions on her behalf. To this day, however, Loeffler has not provided details about how her portfolio is managed and who does that work. She won’t name her advisers or say what company they work for or disclose what kind of agreement she has with them.  Loeffler also has not said whether she or her husband, Jeff Sprecher, provided these consultants with general directions about how they want their money invested or if the advisers created an investment strategy policy for the couple. Sprecher is chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, as well as founder and chief executive of its parent company, the Intercontinental Exchange. Loeffler stepped down as chief executive of Bakkt, an ICE subsidiary, after she was appointed to the U.S. Senate late last year. Together, the couple is estimated to be worth more than $500 million. In the absence of information that could quell accusations that Loeffler participated in insider trading, the controversy continues to dog her. Democrats, political watchdog groups and even some Republicans have said she should resign. Her defenders say the criticism is misguided and based upon misunderstanding about how a woman of immense wealth handles her finances. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was the first to review her most recent financial disclosures, which showed that the couple sold shares in retail stores such as Lululemon and T.J. Maxx and invested in a company that makes COVID-19 protective garments. During that same time period covering mid-February through mid-March, Loeffler and Sprecher also made $18.7 million in sales of ICE stock. The couple also purchased about $50,000 in stock for the travel website Booking, only to turn around just a few days later and sell it back. Those transactions occurred at the same time that President Donald Trump restricted international travel to limit the spread of COVID-19. In a document provided to the AJC that provided information about these transactions, Loeffler’s team said that the couple bought Booking stock on March 10 and sold it on March 12 and 13. The dates were different on the financial disclosure report filed with the U.S. Senate; the Booking purchase is dated March 6 and the sales on March 10 and 11. Loeffler spent the day of March 6 touring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta with Trump. Trump announced the travel ban the evening of March 11. Loeffler’s team said the documents provided to the AJC were a draft versions and the dates provided later to the Senate are accurate.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not said if he he is bothered by Loeffler’s trading or transactions made by other senators whose portfolio has also faced scrutiny over the past two weeks. He also wouldn’t say whether he thinks the Senate Ethics Committee should investigate her or any of the others. A spokesman said Saturday that McConnell is still supportive of Loeffler, adding that previous comments he made praising her appointment stand. Audience specialist Isaac Sabetai contributed to this report. Read more: Loeffler reports more stock sales, denies wrongdoing Also: Loeffler among senators whose stock trading during coronavirus raises questions
  • Atlanta entrepreneur Sara Blakely announced plans on Friday to donate $5 million to female entrepreneurs struggling to stay afloat in the turbulent coronavirus economy.  The billionaire founder of Spanx said the help would come in the form of $5,000 grants to 1,000 female-owned small businesses.  'My hope is that this gift will help alleviate some of the pressures caused by this horrible pandemic,” Blakely said in an Instagram post. “As a woman it can be lonely and scary, especially during a time like this.” The grant size is symbolic for Blakely, who started her shapewear company 20 years ago with $5,000 in seed money. In March 2012, Forbes Magazine named Blakely the world's youngest, self-made female billionaire. Global Giving will begin accepting grant applications on April 6. 
  • Georgia’s 10.6 million residents are under a new statewide shelter-in-place order to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Here’s what you should know:  Q: When did it start and how long does it last? A: The order went into effect at 6 p.m. Friday, April 3, and continues through April 13. The governor could extend it beyond that date if he renews a state public health emergency declaration that’s set to expire in mid-April. Q: Can I still leave the house? A: Yes. It allows Georgians to leave the home to buy groceries, purchase medical equipment, go outside to exercise, respond to emergencies, head to doctor’s appointments, or travel for work at businesses or nonprofits that comply with other restrictions.  You also do not need a letter to prove you need to keep working, Gov. Brian Kemp’s administration said. There are other exceptions in the rules, which you can find here. Q: What is closed?  A: The order mandates the closure of gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, theaters, live performance venues, amusement parks, hair designers, beauty shops, cosmetology schools, barbershops and massage therapists. Earlier, the governor shut down bars and nightclubs. Q: What about restaurants? A: Dine-in service at restaurants and social clubs is no longer permitted, except for eateries at hospitals, nursing homes and long-term care facilities. Takeout, curbside pickup and delivery are still allowed. >>MORE: A map of coronavirus cases in Georgia >>MORE: Real-time stats and the latest news on the coronavirus outbreak Q: What stays open? A: The policy allows two different types of businesses and nonprofits to stay open: “minimum basic operations” and “critical infrastructure.” It sets out a list of criteria that both types of businesses must meet to remain open, though the latter category has fewer requirements. Q: What’s the difference between the two? A: The “critical” firms include banks, hardware stores, utilities, key manufacturers, suppliers of essential goods, legal firms, news outlets, health providers, and nonprofits that specialize in food delivery and health services.  All others that want to stay open must conduct “minimum necessary activities.” >>More: Read the order here. Q: What are some of the requirements to stay open?  A: Employers must screen workers for symptoms of coronavirus, such as a fever over 100.4 degrees, a cough or shortness of breath. They must hold virtual meetings and implement teleworking and staggered shifts when possible. They must ban group gatherings and enforce social distancing. The companies that aren’t considered “critical” must also meet a few additional guidelines, including increasing space between employees and customers, providing  more disinfectant and sanitation services and setting up alternate points of sale outside. Q: Can I still go outside to exercise? A: Yes. There are no limits on exercise, so long as social distancing is employed. You can still visit state parks and play sports outside, including golf, though gatherings of more than 10 people are banned unless there’s at least six feet between each person. Q: Do my local government’s restrictions still apply? A: The new statewide rules override the patchwork of restrictions that local governments adopted over the past few weeks. That means more stringent or lenient rules adopted by some cities and counties are no longer in place. Cities and counties may take limited extra steps, such as closing parks, according to a statement by the Georgia attorney general’s office. However, local governments may not take action that “in any way conflicts, varies or differs” from the governor’s order, the statement said. Q: Can I still go to church or my house of worship?  A: The order permits residents to visit places of worship, so long as social-distancing guidelines and other restrictions are followed, though Kemp has publicly wrestled over whether to impose stiffer limits on congregations. Q: What about childcare?  A: The governor signed a separate executive order that specifies that babysitters, nannies and others who provide “regular care” of children are considered essential services, though it urged them to practice social distancing. Q: Does this order limit the sale of guns or ammunition?  A: No. The mandate specifies that the sale, distribution or transportation of firearms and ammunition is not affected.  Q: What happens if people or businesses don’t comply?  A: Those who violate the terms of the order could face misdemeanor charges.  Q: Who will enforce the rules? A: At a press conference Wednesday, Kemp said the Georgia State Patrol and state law enforcement officers will take “appropriate action to ensure full compliance — no exceptions.”  The governor on Friday deputized sheriff’s deputies to enforce closures of businesses that violate the rules, though he hasn’t yet granted the same powers to local police officers. 
  • Georgia election officials began mailing absentee ballot request forms Monday to the state’s 6.9 million active voters, making it easier for them to vote without having to show up in person. Voters who fill out and return the request forms will then be mailed a ballot for the May 19 primary, which includes candidates for president, Congress, the Georgia General Assembly and county offices. The mass mailing of absentee ballot request forms is an effort by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to encourage remote voting during the coronavirus pandemic. Georgia voters will also have the option of voting in person on election day and during three weeks of early voting starting April 27. MORE: A map of coronavirus cases in Georgia MORE: Real-time stats and the latest news on the coronavirus outbreak Absentee ballot request forms will continue to be mailed through this week. Once voters return the forms to county election offices, ballots will be sent within three days. Here are a few things to know: Q: Is absentee-by-mail a new way of voting in Georgia? A: Georgia has allowed anyone to request an absentee ballot without providing an excuse since 2005. What’s different in this year’s primary election is that voters will be mailed absentee ballot request forms so that voters don’t have to print them out. By encouraging absentee voting, many more people are likely to mail in their ballots than in previous elections. About 7% of Georgia voters cast absentee ballots in the 2018 general election. Q: What will the absentee ballot request form and absentee ballot look like? A: Absentee ballot request forms will be pre-filled with each voter’s name, address and voter registration number. Voters need to check off whether they want a Democratic, Republican or nonpartisan ballot. Georgia is an open primary state, meaning voters can choose to participate in either party’s election without having to register with a party. Voters also need to sign their absentee ballot request forms. Then election officials will mail ballots that match voters’ districts and chosen party. Q: What races will be on the ballot? A: All voters will be able to choose candidates for the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House, the Georgia General Assembly and local races. The presidential primary will also be listed for voters who didn’t already cast ballots during early voting before the election was postponed March 14. There are 12 presidential candidates on Democratic Party ballots and one candidate, President Donald Trump, on Republican Party ballots. Nonpartisan ballots don’t include presidential candidates in primary elections. Ballots that were cast before the presidential primary was postponed will be counted May 19 along with other ballots. Q: What are the steps in the absentee voting process? A: Absentee ballot request forms are being mailed statewide this week by R.R. Donnelley, a Chicago-based communications and printing company hired by the Georgia secretary of state’s office. After voters select their political party and sign their name, they can mail the form to the county election office’s address printed on the form. Then county election workers will process the requests, and the secretary of state’s office will send them to another company, Arizona-based Runbeck Election Services, which will be responsible for mailing absentee ballots to voters. Once received, voters can fill out their ballots and mail them to their county election offices. Ballots will be stored until election day on May 19, when counties will open and count them. Q: Do voters have to pay for postage? A: Absentee ballot request forms can be returned by mail with a 55-cent stamp, or they can be emailed to county election offices. Voters are allowed to take a cellphone photo or scan their completed absentee ballot request forms. Email addresses of county election offices will be listed on absentee ballot request forms. Pictures of absentee request forms need to be clear enough for election officials to read. Otherwise, they won’t be accepted. Once voters complete their absentee ballots, those must be mailed or returned in person to county election offices. Emailed ballots aren’t valid. Q: How much will this absentee ballot process cost taxpayer?? A: The secretary of state’s office will use federal funds to pay R.R. Donnelley $480,000 to print absentee ballot request forms for Georgia’s 6.9 million active voters. The cost of mailing the request forms to voters is $2.6 million. It will cost between $1.88 and $2.38 per absentee ballot mailed by Runbeck Election Services, a subcontractor for Georgia’s voting company, Dominion Voting Services. The cost varies based on the size of different ballots across the state. Q: Can absentee ballot request forms and absentee ballots be rejected? A: Voters’ signatures must match the signatures on file. County election officials will compare voters’ signatures with the signatures they used when they registered. County election officials must contact voters whose ballots were rejected within three business days. Voters have three days after election day to correct issues with an absentee ballot, according to a state law passed last year. There were 8,157 rejected absentee ballots in the November 2018 election, about 3% of all absentee ballots returned by mail. Q: What if I never receive an absentee ballot request form? A: All active voters in Georgia should receive their absentee ballot request forms by April 10. Absentee ballot request forms can still be downloaded from the secretary of state’s website. Absentee ballots will be counted if they’re received by county election officials by the end of voting on election day May 19. Q: Can I still register to vote? A: The voter registration deadline for the May 19 election is April 20.
  • Affordable health insurance may be available for some who were laid off in the coronavirus economy. People who make low or middling incomes are often eligible for subsidized health care plans on the Affordable Care Act exchange market, but the only time they can enroll is usually in the fall. However, when people experience a big life event, such as losing health insurance because they were laid off, they can get a special chance to enroll. It’s a new window of time for them, called a special enrollment period, or SEP, that extends 60 days after they lost their health insurance. As the economy has ground to a halt with the coronavirus shutdown, unemployment claims have soared and many Georgians feel in danger of layoffs. If people lose their insurance along with their jobs, they can contact the ACA exchange or people who give assistance enrolling in ACA plans to see whats available. “Though our agents may be at home in their bunny slippers, we will have a full team of people available to assist,” said Fred Ammons, the CEO of Insure Georgia, a health care nonprofit that assists people in signing up. MORE: A map of coronavirus cases in Georgia MORE: Real-time stats and the latest news on the coronavirus outbreak State Insurance Commissioner John King also pointed out in a news release that employees who are laid off are allowed to buy continued insurance, under the federal COBRA health insurance law and a similar state law. That applies only to some employees of larger employers, who were let go for reasons other than gross misconduct. The benefit of ACA coverage is lower-priced policies for those who qualify. The ACA coverage comes with subsidies, based on the policyholder’s annual income, that mean lower premium prices. The biggest subsidies go to those making at or just over the federal poverty level, or $12,490 for a one-person household. Those people can get policies that are so heavily subsidized they are free or almost free. The subsidies wane as incomes climb, up to 400% of the federal poverty level, or a total of $49,960 for a one-person household. At incomes higher than that, the consumer pays full price for the policy. Related: Study: Georgia COVID-19 pandemic to peak week of April 22 More: Complete coronavirus coverage For those with the lowest incomes, below the federal poverty level, options are fewer. Medicaid, which covers the poor population in most states, does not cover all the poor in Georgia. Georgia children are generally eligible, though, as are people who have a government designation of being disabled. Special enrollment periods apply to people who lost insurance. They don’t apply to people who lost healthshare coverage, as that isn’t insurance. One thing to note: People who get a free plan because they just got laid off and predict very low income for 2020 need to keep track of what they end up making throughout the year and adjust their policy accordingly. If they get rehired and end up with a very large income that didn’t qualify for the federal subsidies, then come tax time they will owe all those subsidies back to the Internal Revenue Service. WHERE TO FIND PRICESHealthcare.gov This is the federal website and phone bank for enrolling in Affordable Care Act exchange plans. 1-800-318-2596 TTY: 1-855-889-4325 Healthcare.govInsure Georgia A nonprofit health insurance agency that started out as an ACA navigator organization. Also has information on whether people are a good fit for Medicaid or Medicare. 1-866-988-8246 InsureGA.orgHealthSherpa A privately run website that presents ACA plans in a way some agents find easier to navigate than the federal site. healthsherpa.comInsurance agents Some insurance agents are willing to enroll clients in ACA plans. Lists of them can be found on the healthcare.gov website.
  • The state will begin enforcing social distancing requirements in areas where large groups congregate at state parks and lakes, officials said Sunday. Rangers with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources will patrol lakes and campgrounds, monitoring coves and other areas where people tend to gather, according to a statement from Gov. Brian Kemp and DNR Commissioner Mark Williams. The announcement followed reports that large groups had gathered in boats on Georgia’s lakes over the weekend. Due to growing concerns over the coronavirus, the governor issued an executive order last week banning gatherings of more than 10 people unless there is at least six feet between each person. » COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia “If necessary,” officials said Sunday, rangers will use bullhorns to tell people to comply with the order. “Officials will approach people in violation of the order and demand compliance for the well-being of our citizens and state,” the statement said. Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills said his deputies broke up a large group on an island in Lake Sinclair and have told several boats that had too many people in them to head back to shore. They have also received reports of large groups gathering on the Greene County side of Lake Oconee. Map: Coronavirus cases in Georgia Dashboard: COVID-19 stats in Georgia “We've had a massive influx, I guess, from people ... (who) think the coronavirus can't touch ‘em down here,” Sills said in an interview Sunday. “And we fortunately have not had a reported case yet, but we would would also like to keep it that way.” So far, his office hasn’t made any arrests related to the coronavirus restrictions put in place by Putnam County and the state. MORE: Despite pleas from officials, Atlanta’s parks and paths remain popular “These orders, these ordinances have been enacted to save lives. Don't think you can just come down here and violate them,” the sheriff said. “There's not some immunity out there in a gathering of 50, 100 people on an island or sandbar in the lake.” The state leaders pointed out that amid the coronavirus pandemic, many Georgians have been “traveling to nearby counties, heading outdoors for fresh air, and maximizing family time.” Residents are urged to avoid large crowds and remain mindful of social distancing requirements. Kemp’s executive order stopped short of closing the state’s parks and lakes. The governor also did not order most Georgians to stay in their homes, but he did place restrictions on those considered most at risk of infection. Local officials across the state have imposed their own restrictions on businesses and outdoor activities. Kemp said Sunday that the local leaders “are also working hard to ensure compliance with local directives, which vary by city and county across our state.”
  • President Donald Trump on Sunday officially approved Georgia’s disaster declaration, clearing the way for direct federal assistance as the state grapples with the coronavirus pandemic. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp previously asked Trump for emergency federal aid, and rounded up signatures from GOP governors for a recent letter to Congress requesting federal block grants. In a statement Sunday, the White House said federal funds are available to the state as well as “eligible local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations for emergency protective measures.” » COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia It is unclear how much aid the state could end up receiving from Washington. 'Georgia is grateful for this designation, as it will enable the state to continue partnering with federal agencies in a coordinated fight against this pandemic,” Kemp said in a statement. “The presidential declaration is a critical step in providing additional assistance to our state and local governments as they continue to respond to COVID-19.” The funds, Kemp said, will cover actions taken by the state that “eliminate or lessen immediate threats to lives, public health, or safety.”  Gracia Szczech, the regional administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the Southeast, was named federal coordinating officer for recovery operations in Georgia. Map: Coronavirus cases in Georgia Dashboard: COVID-19 stats in Georgia Georgia has at least confirmed 2,651 cases of the coronavirus and 80 deaths associated with COVID-19, the diseased caused by the novel virus, according to figures released by the state Sunday afternoon. Kemp declared a public health emergency in the state on March 14. READ MORE: Kemp declares public health emergency; 66 coronavirus cases in Ga. Since then, officials have predicted the pandemic will leave a deep hole in Georgia’s budget. The governor asked Trump to set aside significant funding to shore up the state’s spending plans. “Unlike the Recession, when things went down slowly, when states had time to prepare at the end of the year, we’re all facing drastic revenue drops,” Kemp previously told Trump at a teleconference. “The idea of a block grant to the states to help fill revenue shortfalls would be something I’d like for you to consider.” Trump has approved emergency declarations and federal aid for several other states. Staff reporter Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.
  • As the death toll from coronavirus mounted, Gov. Brian Kemp pleaded with Georgians during a Thursday statewide televised event to stay home and practice social distancing even as he stressed more drastic measures weren’t yet needed to stem the disease’s spread. Using a prime-time town hall broadcast across the state, the governor urged residents, particularly the “elderly and medically fragile,” to heed state directives and isolate to limit the spread of the virus so he wouldn’t have to impose stiffer restrictions that could further devastate the state’s economy. “I’m having to govern the whole state,” he said, saying that even as more hot spots arise, broad sections of the state have hardly been touched by the virus. “We still have over 50 counties that don’t have a confirmed case yet. We’re trying to balance that.” He added: “If we can get our citizens to follow these directions, it will absolutely turn this curve and we will get on the other side of this virus.” MORE: A map of coronavirus cases in Georgia MORE: Real-time stats and the latest news on the coronavirus outbreak The town hall also featured Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who said she respected the governor’s stance but warned that not embracing steeper restrictions could further strain Georgia’s health care system. “If it were my call, I would have a stay-at-home order for the entire country,” Bottoms said. “But obviously, that is not my call.” Kemp under fire The televised event came on the heels of another grim benchmark, as Georgia’s confirmed coronavirus cases soared past 1,600 on Thursday, roughly doubling the numbers reported by state health officials just three days ago. Over the past two weeks, the disease has claimed the lives of at least 56 Georgians. In another sign of of the widespread reach of the virus, Kemp on Thursday ordered k-12 public schools shut down through April 24 though he stopped short of canceling schools through the end of the year. He said during the town hall that his administration’s health experts said keeping students home another month affords the state more flexibility. “It gives us enough time to really see where this virus is going to go,” he said. “The data we’re seeing today is two weeks old, and the data we’ll be seeing two weeks from now is from today.” >>How is your school handling this extended closure? Are classes online or on paper? Are teachers using video conferences? Let us know at CoronavirusEducation@ajc.com The governor also endorsed the idea of paid sick leave for Georgians knocked out of the workforce by the disease, saying that’s “exactly” what a $2 trillion federal coronavirus package pending in the U.S. House was designed to do. “That’s something we have pushed for,” he said. “I have myself, and the nation’s governors have, because we know that our people are hurting now and we’ve got to continue to fight for them. I’m very hopeful that help will be there shortly.” Kemp has come under intense criticism from epidemiologists and other critics who say the restrictions he’s imposed, which include a ban on many public gatherings and a shutdown of bars and nightclubs, don’t go far enough to contain the highly contagious illness. They were stoked by state Democrats who peppered him with questions using the hashtag #AskGovKemp on Twitter, which was trending throughout the state on Thursday and prompted more than 3,300 replies. Some wanted to press him about his opposition to expanding the Medicaid program, a question he sidestepped Thursday, while others demanded more details about an ongoing shortage of test kits that’s complicating the state’s response. And many wanted to know why he has refused to impose more stringent restrictions that a growing number of local leaders have embraced, a topic that emerged repeatedly during the hourlong town hall. ‘Tremendous concern’ This week, a new wave of cities, including Atlanta and Savannah, adopted shelter-at-home requirements that have contributed to a patchwork of measures. Some local governments are under voluntary curfews, others have far more scaled-back restrictions in place. The governor has said he’s not worried about the uneven response, saying his orders protect vulnerable Georgians while letting local governments take stricter steps if necessary. And he and his aides have voiced concern that stricter rules could erase years of economic growth in a matter of weeks. “What’s good for Atlanta … may not be the correct thing for these other areas where they have limited spread,” said Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s public health commissioner. Bottoms had a contrasting view. During her segment, she expressed worries that Grady Memorial Hospital was already nearing full capacity and that the state’s hospitals could be overwhelmed by early May. “It’s of tremendous concern to me,” she said, adding that she prays the new medical facilities that state authorities are racing to build won’t be necessary. The mayor, a member of Kemp’s coronavirus task force, also said an angel donor has provided a downtown Atlanta hotel for homeless and displaced people who need to be quarantined or isolated due to the coronavirus. Toomey said other areas of the state need aggressive intervention, too. She singled out Albany, the southwest Georgia city where an outbreak linked to two funerals has sickened at least 164 people, straining and has strained the local hospital system. A first shipment of ventilators is headed to Albany imminently, she said, and officials are trying to identify non-traditional sources for life-saving equipement, including technical colleges and universities, to “amass the needed amounts before it comes to that crisis point.” The town hall itself reflected the extraordinary crisis facing Georgia. Metro Atlanta broadcast stations, normally intense competitors, united to televise the event from separate studios miles apart from each other. Kemp held court from the headquarters of Channel 2 Action News, while other officials were scattered among different studios. The event was also broadcast on more than 140 radio stations across the state. Staff writer Tamar Hallerman contributed to this article.
  • Even with investment gains Tuesday, Georgia’s giant teacher pension system, which sends checks to 133,000 retired educators each month, has lost $15 billion this year in the wake of the stock market crash caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The losses since the beginning of the year — about 21% before Tuesday’s gains — could mean state lawmakers will be asked to come up with several hundred million dollars to stabilize the Georgia Teachers Retirement System unless there is a fairly quick bounce back. And it will likely spur a renewed push in the General Assembly to change the system to improve its long-term viability, something teacher and retiree groups have so far been able to beat back. The losses come only a few years after the state hiked taxpayer payments into the system by about $600 million, eating up much of the new tax revenue that came in during 2017 and 2018. And they come after a few good years in the stock market had left the system, which pays an average benefit of about $40,000 a year, in better shape than many big teacher pension systems across the country. The market plummet has hammered the accounts of millions of individual investors, businesses and pension funds. MORE: A map of coronavirus cases in Georgia MORE: Real-time stats and the latest news on the coronavirus outbreak In Georgia, besides the 133,000 members receiving benefits, the TRS promises retirement benefits to more than 200,000 teachers and University System of Georgia staffers in the future. The pensions are funded through a combination of employee contributions, money from taxpayers and investments. At the end of 2019, the TRS had about $83 billion in pension assets. Buster Evans, the executive director of TRS, said that was down to $65 billion by the end of last week. With Tuesday’s market gains, it was up to $68 billion. “It has not been usual to see days when our fund has gone down by $4 billion, then up by $4 billion the next day,” Evans told the TRS board Wednesday. The system’s position in a few months will determine how much employers — the state and school districts — will have to pay into it next year. “By then we will have a better idea,” Evans said. “Will we recover (by then)? I have no expectations we will. Hope we do.” Evans said it will take time for the state and country to recover. “The impact of this is not going to be miraculously gone by Easter time,” he said. Evans said most TRS staff are working remotely and that there will be no interruption in retirees receiving their benefit checks. This isn’t the first stock shock for the TRS. The Great Recession greatly set back the system. Besides the stock market decline, the number of teachers and employees contributing to the fund dropped because jobs were cut or positions went unfilled, and pay raises, which boost employee payments to the system, were scarce for several years. Retirees are living longer, which means more is being paid out. An audit in 2019 said that without any changes, the state and local school district contributions into the system would rise to $2.4 billion by 2025 and $4.4 billion by 2045. That would make contributions into the plan one of the state’s biggest expenses. However, teachers see the chance for educators to retire after 30 years or so and get a good pension as one of the state’s best recruiting tools to attract young people into the profession and keep them in schools. They have been reluctant to support any changes to the TRS, such as proposals to offer 401(k) savings plans, rather than pensions, to new teachers. For several years lawmakers have proposed changes, but they’ve backed down or seen their measures defeated under pressure from teachers and retirees. This year, House Retirement Chairman Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, offered a fairly modest measure that, among other things, would have changed the system so retirees would receive their annual cost-living increase once a year, rather than in separate, twice-a-year increments. It also would have prevented future teachers from being able to count sick leave toward their pension, something that can add $1,000 or more a year to their pension when they retire. Members of the House Retirement Committee were flooded with emails, and the bill went nowhere. Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, a member of the House Retirement Committee who has called the current system unsustainable without changes, was surprised by the size of the TRS’ losses this year. Since actuaries determine how much the state and local school districts should put into the system each year, taxpayers could be hit with a major bill to re-fund the TRS. “What this does for me is show a pointed example of why defined-benefit plans are difficult to maintain in the new economy,” Martin said. Martin said the market is volatile — it has mostly gone up in recent years — and new workers should be given the opportunity to make their own investment decisions in things such as 401(k)s where employers match — up to a point — what employees put into the fund. Many new teachers leave the profession before they vest into the pension, he has noted. With a 401(k) plan, they could take their money with them when they leave. John Palmer, a Cobb County educator who has been among those leading the opposition to teacher pension changes, said he expects another fight from lawmakers. “I think some legislators will use any reason to go after TRS, and I imagine some will use this tragedy to call for changes,” Palmer said. “I would hope, however, that after this crisis passes, more legislators will see the importance of public education to our children and our state,” he added. “If anything, I believe this crisis should show our legislators that public schools, our educators, and every person who works for our children are invaluable to Georgia, and deserve to be fully supported in every way imaginable — including a strong Teachers Retirement System.”
  • All of Georgia’s 6.9 million active voters will be mailed absentee ballot request forms for the May 19 primary, a major push to encourage voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced Tuesday. The absentee voting effort will allow Georgians to decide on their choices for president and other elected offices from home, without having to visit in-person voting locations where the coronavirus could more easily spread. Early voting and Election Day precincts will remain open. A large number of people voting by mail would be a significant change in the way elections are run in Georgia. While the state has allowed any voter to cast a ballot by mail since 2005, just 7% of voters did so in the 2018 election for governor. The state’s absentee ballot initiative follows an agreement by Raffensperger, a Republican, and the Democratic Party of Georgia to delay the previously scheduled March 24 presidential primary because of the coronavirus. The presidential primary will now be held May 19, along with races for the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House, the Georgia General Assembly and local offices. “Times of turbulence and upheaval like the one we Georgians face require decisive action if the liberties we hold so dear are to be preserved,” Raffensperger said. “I am acting today because the people of Georgia, from the earliest settlers to heroes like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Congressman John Lewis, have fought too long and too hard for their right to vote to have it curtailed.” Voters will still be required to return their absentee ballot request forms before they receive an actual ballot. MORE: A map of coronavirus cases in Georgia MORE: Real-time stats and the latest news on the coronavirus outbreak Absentee ballot request forms will be mailed to voters next week. Then voters will choose whether they want to vote in the Democratic Party or Republican Party primary, sign their names, add a 55-cent stamp, and put the forms in the mail. County election offices will also accept absentee ballot requests by email. Then election officials will mail the appropriate ballot, which will be counted if it’s received by election offices by the time polls close at 7 p.m. May 19. State Sen. Nikema Williams, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, praised Raffensperger’s decision. The secretary of state’s office had previously considered only sending absentee request forms to older voters. “This global health emergency showcases exactly why we must embrace solutions that ensure every voter can cast their ballot and have their vote counted without risking their health or that of their loved ones,” Williams said. “I want to thank the secretary of state for putting the people before partisanship.” Williams said more changes are needed to protect voting rights. Election officials should count absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day, and absentee ballots and applications should include prepaid postage, she said. It will cost the state government and taxpayers about $13 million to mail the absentee ballot request forms and issue ballots. Mailing actual ballots to every voter instead of ballot request forms would have been more expensive. Election officials would have had to send three ballots — Democratic, Republican and nonpartisan — risking voter confusion and ballot rejections if voters returned more than one ballot. Georgia is an open primary state, meaning any voter can vote in any party’s primary election. The sharp ramp-up of absentee voting in Georgia could pose a challenge for election officials more accustomed to in-person voting, said Amber McReynolds, the CEO of Vote at Home, an organization that supports voting by mail. “When they’re going to send out applications, if they expect to get even 30% of them back, that’s a couple of million pieces of paper that’s going to have to be processed,” said McReynolds, a former Denver elections director. Before the presidential primary was postponed, about 275,000 voters cast ballots during early voting. Those ballots will still be counted. Voters who already participated in the presidential primary will receive ballots with other races during the May 19 election. Voters who haven’t yet participated in the presidential primary will receive ballots that include both presidential candidates and other candidates. “These steps are critical in this temporary environment to protect our poll workers and give our counties time to successfully plan for the Georgia general primary in May,” said state Senate President Pro Tempore Butch Miller, a Republican from Gainesville. Raffensperger said it’s also important to maintain in-person voting options for people who are homeless, need language assistance and have disabilities. In addition, eliminating in-person voting would disproportionately disenfranchise black, Latino and young voters, according to the secretary of state’s office, citing research from the Brennan Center for Justice, a policy institute at New York University that focuses on democracy and criminal justice. To protect in-person voters and poll workers, voting locations will be stocked with cleaning supplies for election equipment, Raffensperger said. Voters will be instructed to maintain a safe distance to limit the threat of spreading the coronavirus. Because many elderly poll workers have quit, Raffensperger said he will work to help county election offices hire younger poll workers who are less likely to be at risk from the coronavirus.