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State & Regional Govt & Politics

    Six months after Gov. Brian Kemp ordered state agencies to cut spending, House leaders reacted Tuesday by backing a midyear budget that restores funding for everything from public health grants, mental health services and efforts to train doctors to agriculture research and court programs to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison. But after months of hand-wringing over the impact of Kemp’s proposed spending cuts, House budget writers also added $250,000 to refit cars on a short-line tourist excursion train in southwest Georgia. In general, the House pushed back on many of the proposed cuts that would impact small-town Georgia, a key constituency in a chamber largely run by lawmakers from outside metro Atlanta. The House Appropriations Committee voted Tuesday to make major changes to Kemp’s proposal to cut $200 million in this year’s budget. The full chamber will vote Wednesday, and then it will be the Senate’s turn to tweak the spending plan. Next up for both will be Kemp’s $28.1 billion budget for fiscal 2021, which begins July 1. That proposal includes $300 million in spending cuts — but also pay raises for teachers and state employees earning less than $40,000 a year — and could produce a more contentious fight over state spending. The votes Tuesday came after the House and Senate took a week-and-a-half-long break from this year’s session to review Kemp’s proposals. Kemp ordered state agencies in August to prepare plans for 4% budget cuts this fiscal year and 6% next year to both respond to slow tax collections last year and provide enough money for the governor’s priorities, including a $2,000 teacher pay raise and his effort to attack gangs. About three-fourths of the budget — money that goes to k-12 schools, colleges, the health program Medicaid and transportation — was exempted from reductions. Through the state’s budget, taxpayers help educate 2 million children, provide health care to more than 2 million Georgians, build roads and bridges, manage parks, investigate crimes and incarcerate criminals, and regulate insurance firms and utilities, along with dozens of professions. The state issues driver’s licenses and helps pay for nursing home care for the elderly. Under state law, the governor sets the estimate of how much tax money the government is expected to bring in next year. Lawmakers can’t spend more than that, so to make up for things they want to add, they must cut elsewhere. House budget writers balanced their plan by cutting vacant positions in the court system and other areas, reducing Kemp’s proposal for some areas of school funding after saying they were using more accurate numbers and eliminating a Department of Corrections electronic health records program that they say hasn’t been implemented. The governor’s office said the $12 million for the program has been used to pay for inmate health care. A major part of Kemp’s savings would come from eliminating about 1,200 vacant state positions, some of which — including crime lab scientists and guards in the juvenile justice system — lawmakers say need to be filled. House budget writers made preliminary changes last week, deciding to restore money to fund more food safety inspectors in the Department of Agriculture and to ensure staffers at the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, don’t have to take days off without pay. House budget writers rejected Kemp’s proposal to cut funding to accountability courts. The courts, which were greatly expanded by his predecessor, allow defendants to avoid prison time if they stay sober, get treatment, receive an education and find a job. The courts are set up for drug addicts, drunken drivers, the mentally ill and veterans who’ve been charged largely with nonviolent crimes and low-level offenses and have been highly popular with lawmakers. The House reduced cuts the governor proposed for the Agriculture Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, two areas of vital interest to rural lawmakers. The House said no to Kemp’s cuts in funding for Morehouse and Mercer medical schools for preparing doctors, and to his proposed reduction to the Rural Health Systems Innovation Center at Mercer, a project lawmakers started a few years ago to help improve health care in rural Georgia. House leaders also reduced cuts that Kemp proposed for mental health, substance abuse treatment, autism treatment and grants to county public health departments, and they eliminated reductions for local library materials. They also put money into the budget to hire three scientists and two lab technicians at the GBI crime lab, which tests rape kits, DNA and firearms. Lawmakers feared not filling those positions would increase a case backlog. House leaders also rejected cuts to the state’s public defenders, who represent indigent defendants in court. Budget writers also added money for a local project or two, something that was more prevalent in the 1990s and 2000s before the Great Recession, They included $250,000 for the Southwest Georgia Railroad Excursion Authority for the Historic SAM Railroad, where people can ride in vintage train cars that run from Cordele to the area around Plains, home of former President Jimmy Carter.
  • State troopers have issued tens of thousands of tickets since Georgia’s latest distracted driving law took effect in 2018, and traffic fatalities have inched down. But plenty of drivers are still watching their phones instead of the road, endangering themselves and others. Now state lawmakers may try another tactic to pry the phones from motorists’ hands: doubling the fines for distracted driving. House Bill 113 would raise the maximum fine for a first offense from $50 to $100. The top fine for a second offense would double to $200, and a third offense to $300. For those caught in school or highway construction zones, the fines would double again. Safety advocates say stiffer fines are needed to discourage a behavior that experts say contributed to a spike in traffic deaths in Georgia and across the country. “We are trying to change the behavior and change the culture,” said Jennifer Smith, the president of Stopdistractions.org, a group that lobbies for tougher traffic laws. “Hopefully, we’ll get to the point where police aren’t writing tickets because people aren’t doing it anymore.” Others say the fines are already too high and shouldn’t be raised. State Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, said compliance with the law will improve over time without steep fines that can become a burden to low-income people. “The bill we passed a couple of years ago was overkill,” Powell said. “Now we’re coming back with another one that’s overkill.” Distracted driving is nothing new. Motorists have been eating, talking and fiddling with the radio for decades. But experts say the rise of smartphones has made the problem worse. The devices are loaded with apps designed to grab our attention and not let go. And many people can’t — even when they’re traveling at 65 mph. Sometimes the behavior is annoying or contributes to traffic congestion — think about the guy texting in front of you when the traffic light turns green. Other times, the consequences are deadly. From 2014 to 2016, traffic fatalities in Georgia rose by one-third before declining slightly to 1,549 in 2017. Traffic safety experts said distracted driving was a major contributing factor. In response, the General Assembly passed the Hands-Free Georgia Act in 2018. Among other things, the law prohibits motorists from handling their phones or other electronic devices while driving. Motorists can still talk or text if they use hands-free technology. The law also set the existing fines. In addition, a first offense costs a motorist one point on his or her driver’s license. A second offense costs two points, and a third offense costs three points. Drivers who accumulate 15 points in a 24-month period lose their license. Traffic safety experts say the law has made a difference. Traffic fatalities fell 2.2% to 1,515 in 2018. And though 2019 statistics are incomplete, preliminary data indicates fatalities fell again last year. Traffic accidents involving injuries and the frequency of collision insurance claims also have fallen under the law. But you can still see plenty of people handling their phones while driving. Just ask Trooper Emily Beaulieu of the Georgia State Patrol. During a recent rush hour on the Downtown Connector, she spotted a dozen people breaking the law in just half an hour. “I look for people looking down at their lap for an extended period of time or someone having trouble maintaining their lane,” Beaulieu said as she cruised the highway. But she’s seen worse — like the guy watching YouTube videos on his phone, which he held in place on his steering wheel. Or the people chatting on FaceTime during their commutes. Beaulieu said she pulls over 30 to 40 motorists a month for distracted driving. She doesn’t always issue a citation. But she and other troopers write plenty of tickets. From July 2018, when the distracted driving law took effect, through the end of 2019, the Georgia State Patrol issued more than 39,000 citations. That doesn’t count tickets issued by local police. State Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, sponsored the Hands-Free Georgia Act as well as the new bill. He said the citations have helped, but they haven’t been enough to get many drivers to put their phones down. “Law enforcement has said flat-out we have got to have more of a deterrent,” Carson said. “They can’t possibly pull over all of these people who are violating the law.” Powell, the state representative, believes behavior can be changed without higher fines. He cited Georgia’ seat belt law, which requires adults in the front seats to be restrained. Violations cost just $15, but a federal study showed 96% compliance with the law in 2017. Powell believes the proposal to raise distracted driving fines is partly an effort to increase government revenue — a suspicion heightened by a provision in HB 113 that would allow additional fees and penalties to be tacked onto the base fines. Though typically referred to as “court costs,” the money goes to the state, not to local courts. Carson’s bill seeks to designate the additional fees for the Georgia Trauma Trust Fund, which helps pay for emergency medical services. But at a recent hearing, skeptics noted that fees and fines intended for a particular purpose often are spent on other purposes. With the addition of such fees, Powell said a $100 fine could quickly become $150, a $200 fine could become $300 and a $300 fine could become $450. “Most of us can pay a fine,” Powell said. “But we’ve got a tremendous number of folks that can’t afford that.” Supporters say the intent of the bill is not to raise money, it’s to deter dangerous behavior. And they say the costs of the fines and fees pale in comparison to the costs of traffic accidents. Carson cited insurance industry statistics showing the average cost of traffic accidents is close to $5,000 per vehicle. When injuries are involved, medical costs add an average of $19,000. “Now how big is that $100 fine?” Carson said. Smith, the traffic safety advocate, noted that the fine for violating the state’s old anti-texting law — replaced by the Hands-Free Georgia Act — was $150. And she said most states with similar distracted driving laws have higher fines than Georgia currently charges. As for the affordability of the proposed fines, Smith said: “There’s a simple fix to that. Don’t break the law.” HB 113 is pending in the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee. Powell plans to introduce an amendment setting the fines at $25 to $100 for each offense, at a judge’s discretion. The committee is expected to take up the bill and amendments next week.
  • Georgians who want to vote in next month’s presidential primary election must be registered by the state’s Feb. 24 deadline. All registered voters can participate in the Democratic or Republican primaries on March 24. Georgia is an open primary state, meaning voters don’t have to be affiliated with a political party and can choose either party’s ballot. Voters can check their voter registration status at the state’s My Voter Page, found online at www.mvp.sos.ga.gov. The website provides Election Day precinct locations, early voting locations, absentee ballot applications and sample ballots. There are about 7.2 million registered voters in Georgia out of the state’s 10.6 million residents. The Democratic Party presidential primary ballot will list 12 candidates, including several who have dropped out of the race. The Republican Party ballot will list only President Donald Trump. To be eligible to register to vote in Georgia, you must be a citizen, legal resident and more than 17 1/2 years old. In addition, you can’t be serving a sentence for conviction of a felony involving moral turpitude or found mentally incompetent by a judge. Those whose registrations were canceled in December can re-register to vote if they’re eligible. Election officials removed the registrations of 287,000 people in December because they either moved away or stopped participating in elections for several years.
  • President Donald Trump recently hinted he could intervene in the bitter Republican race between Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Rep. Doug Collins. The Gainesville congressman has a different perspective. “He’s not getting in this race,” the four-term lawmaker told The Georgia Recorder of the president, adding that Trump “respects the senator and her position and he knows me intimately.”  Then: “I respect the fact that he’s staying out of it.”  Those are confident words from Collins, who declined to elaborate when reached over the weekend. Both he and Loeffler have engaged in a full-on scramble to lock up Trump’s support, eager to pounce on a retweet or stray remark for any sign of favor.  The president has stayed publicly neutral — although Trump privately lobbied Gov. Brian Kemp to tap Collins, one of his most vocal supporters in Congress, on three occasions before he appointed Loeffler to succeed retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson. Trump’s endorsement would be pivotal in the November vote, a special election that will feature multiple candidates from all parties on the same ballot.  That means there are no primaries to hash out nominees, raising the prospect of a January runoff – and fears from Republicans that the intraparty feud could help Democrat Raphael Warnock flip the seat.  More recently, though, the president floated the idea that one of the two could leave the race during a speech at the White House celebrating the defeat of the Democratic-led attempt to remove him from office.  “I know, Kelly, that you’re going to end up liking him a lot,” Trump said of Collins, whom the president called an “unbelievable friend.” He added: “Something’s going to happen that’s going to be very good. I don’t know; I haven’t figured it out yet.” The president’s remarks triggered immediate talk in Georgia GOP circles that Collins could be in line for a judgeship or another appointment, or that Loeffler could be tapped for a premier position. Both camps dismissed the idea that such a move could be in the works.  At an event with Kemp on Friday, Loeffler was asked about her courtship of Trump, which has involved repeated pledges that she’ll support his agenda and a vote to acquit him at his impeachment trial. “Nothing is going to take my eye of what I went to Washington to do – which is to fight for all Georgians and make sure that we’re serving our families, our veterans, our farmers,” she said. “There’s so much work to do.”   More recent AJC coverage of the Senate race: Loeffler vs. Collins fight sets off dash for GOP support With three major Senate candidates, Georgia political landscape erupts  Trump hints at Republican compromise in messy Georgia Senate race  Huckabee endorses Doug Collins in Georgia Senate race Georgia Senate: Loeffler ally pummels ‘spend again’ Collins in new ad The Jolt: Surrogate groups step up for Kelly Loeffler Georgia donors pour millions into 2020 hopefuls’ campaigns
  • U.S. Rep. Doug Collins landed the support Wednesday of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, giving him his biggest endorsement yet in his campaign to unseat fellow Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler.  Huckabee, who as a presidential candidate won Georgia’s 2008 primary, said he’s impressed by the four-term congressman’s “against all odds” fight against President Donald Trump’s impeachment in the Democratic-led U.S. House.  “He unflinchingly has stood up to the Trump-hating Democrats in the House and the Trump-hating media,” he said in a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  “Doug didn’t become pro-life to be elected. His commitment to the worth and dignity of every human life is not a political calculation, but a deep spiritual conviction. His ability to articulate a heartfelt conservative position with uncanny clarity impressed me from the first time I heard him speak.”  Collins and Loeffler are scrambling to lock up prominent supporters ahead of the November election, a free-for-all with no primary to filter out nominees. Several Democrats are also in the race, including the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who enjoys support from key state and national party figures.  As both race for Trump’s support – he’s so far stayed on the sidelines – they’re also trying to lock up other party figures and outside groups who could bolster their campaigns. Backed by Gov. Brian Kemp, Loeffler has also been endorsed by Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Georgia Life Alliance and Club for Growth, an anti-tax group that has already unleashed two attack ads.  Among Collins’ supporters is House Speaker David Ralston, who engineered an attempt to force a primary vote that could have helped the congressman. Huckabee gives him another ally to promote his message on the campaign trail. “It’s not just that he says the right things. Doug Collins does the right things because he truly believes in the right things,” said Huckabee, who added he has “nothing against” Loeffler but that he saw the congressman as someone who has “led the charge” in Washington for conservative values. “With President Trump proving that fighting back against the D.C. swamp works, we need more senators who aren’t afraid to go where angels fear to tread to stand for us and with us,” he said. “Doug Collins is tested, proven and consistent. And I’m proud to support him.” Other recent AJC coverage of the race:  More: The Jolt: Surrogate groups step up for Kelly Loeffler  More: With three major Senate candidates, Georgia political landscape erupts  More: Georgia Republican Senate candidates build early fundraising leads  More: Warnock will have to take care to separate roles as candidate, pastor  More: Georgia Senate: Warnock’s Democratic rivals are staying in the race  More: With two Georgia Republicans racing for the Senate, eyes turn to Trump   
  • The Georgia Department of Driver Services has agreed to make it easier for Puerto Ricans and applicants from other U.S. territories to get driver’s licenses under the terms of a federal lawsuit settlement announced Monday. The department agreed to allow residents from the territories — who are U.S. citizens — to transfer their driver’s licenses to Georgia without taking driving or written tests. That’s what people who move to Georgia from the 50 U.S. states are already allowed to do. In addition, the DDS will no longer require Puerto Ricans to take a test of island geography, politics and culture to prove they are from that territory. The settlement could make it easier for thousands of people to drive, get jobs and otherwise settle in Georgia. And it ends the long legal ordeal of Kenneth Caban Gonzalez, a Puerto Rico native who sought a driver’s license in 2017 but wound up in jail, wrongly accused of using a fraudulent birth certificate to obtain a license. Though DDS offices are normally closed on Mondays, the agency opened its Conyers office to grant Caban Gonzalez a driver’s license. “It was very emotional,” Caban Gonzalez told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday. He planned to drive home to Hinesville. In a written statement, the DDS confirmed the changes in policy. “The top priority at DDS is to provide efficient customer service while following all Georgia and federal rules and requirements,” Commissioner Spencer R. Moore said. “We welcome instances like this where opportunities for improvement can be made after additional assessment of existing law.” The groups Latino Justice and the Southern Center for Human Rights filed a federal lawsuit last summer on behalf of Caban Gonzalez. After arriving in Georgia from Puerto Rico, he sought a driver’s license at the DDS office in Hinesville in October 2017. Instead of granting him a license, the DDS confiscated his Puerto Rican driver’s license, birth certificate and Social Security card to verify they were legitimate. At the time, the DDS automatically confiscated such documents from Puerto Rican applicants to combat fraud involving island birth certificates, which had become a serious problem. But an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found Georgia went to unusual lengths to combat fraud, compared with other states. Among other things, DDS investigators tested hundreds of Puerto Rican applicants’ knowledge of island geography, politics and culture to determine whether they were from the territory. But the test contained incorrect or outdated answers. At least one applicant was arrested and charged with using a fake birth certificate after performing poorly on the test. But the charges against him were later dropped after investigators determined his Puerto Rican birth certificate was authentic. DDS investigators believed Caban Gonzalez’s birth certificate was fake. He was later arrested on charges of forgery and making false statements, and he spent three days in jail. But the AJC found the department relied on outdated federal guidance on how to spot fake birth certificates in his case. Though the justification for Caban Gonzalez’s arrest quickly fell apart, the DDS didn’t drop the charges — even after federal officials authenticated his documents. That put Caban Gonzalez’s life on hold. Without a driver’s license, he lost a job and had a hard time finding another one. “It was really hard because I couldn’t find work,” Caban Gonzalez said Monday. “Every time I would attain something, I would lose it.” Prosecutors finally dropped the charges in March. And last summer DDS officials asked the GBI to investigate the case. The GBI found serious flaws in the way the DDS handled the Caban Gonzalez investigation. The agency later fired one manager and demoted another involved in his case. Under the terms of the settlement announced Monday, Gonzalez and his attorneys will receive a combined $100,000. The DDS also agreed to implement new procedures for awarding licenses to applicants from U.S. territories. Under those procedures, applicants age 18 and older will no longer be required to pass driving and written tests if they have a current driver’s license form a territory or one that’s been expired less than two years. They’ll have to meet state residency and all other requirements for transferring an out-of-state license to Georgia. The new procedures apply to applicants from Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands/Saipan. The DDS already had disavowed the Puerto Rico knowledge test used by its investigators, saying it was never an authorized document. But in the settlement, it agreed it would no longer use the document to screen applicants. Though they’re already in effect, the new procedures must undergo the department’s regular rule-making process to become permanent. Kira Romero-Craft, an attorney at Latino Justice, said thousands of people could benefit from the new procedures. “There were people that were terrified to even visit the DDS office because of what happened to Kenneth,” she said. “This was definitely something that inspired fear, trepidation.” Romero-Craft said the DDS will still be able to screen Puerto Rican birth certificates for fraud, though it may take additional training to ensure it’s done properly. She praised the agency for its handling of the issue once the lawsuit was filed. Caban Gonzalez said he looks forward to resuming a normal life. “I want to provide for my family,” he said. “I want to do what I came to Georgia to do. I came to Georgia for a better future for me and for my family.”
  • As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last week, Georgia lawmakers are considering a bill that would raise the fine for distracted driving violations. A 2018 law prohibits motorists from handling their cell phones or other wireless devices while driving. Currently, the fine for a first offense is $50. Under House Bill 113, a first offense could cost up to $100, at a judge’s discretion. Fines for a second offense would range from $100 to $200, and third offenses would cost $150 to $300.  The law would also eliminate a provision that requires judges to dismiss citations for first-time offenders if they bring a receipt showing they purchased a hands-free device – thus demonstrating a willingness to comply with the law.  Supporters say higher fines are needed to curb distracted driving, which experts say leads to traffic fatalities and injuries. Opponents worry higher fines could be unaffordable for many residents.  You can read more about the issue here. And we’d like to know: Do you support higher fines for distracted driving in Georgia? Why or why not?  If you’re willing to be quoted in an upcoming article, contact reporter David Wickert at dwickert@ajc.com.
  • Critics decry Gov. Brian Kemp’s proposed state spending cuts as “extreme” and “draconian” measures that would reduce services, with warnings of severe problems including more suicides and fewer food safety inspections. Some of them may impact state services, but his budget plan also includes line after line of mundane cuts that most Georgians won’t notice, the kind of things agencies commonly do when a governor asks them to spend less. Agencies would save millions by not sending as many people to conferences. One department is saving big money eliminating its landline phones for employees with state-funded cellphones. Some are saving on rent and technology charges. About one-third of the savings Kemp is expecting would come from eliminating vacant jobs, including some that agencies might badly need to fill. Others have been unfilled for a long time, and agencies have said they can get by without. Even some of the cuts that have been high-profile, such as the reductions to county public health departments, may not turn out to be as troubling as lawmakers initially thought, agency officials say, because there is another pot of money for basic programs such as immunizations that isn’t being reduced. Former state Rep. Ben Harbin, a Republican who ran the House budget committee during much of the Great Recession, said it’s not surprising that lawmakers are seeing a lot of spending cuts this year for things such as travel and phones. “Since the Great Recession, governments have grown. You start growing some things that are nice to have,” Harbin said. “A lot of that is the first to go when you start cutting a budget. Those things aren’t going to affect peoples’ lives on a daily basis.” Governor’s cuts cause concern Kemp ordered state agencies in August to prepare plans for 4% budget cuts this fiscal year and 6% next year to both prepare in case of an economic slowdown and provide money for his priorities, including the $2,000 pay raise for teachers he recommended in January. About three-fourths of the budget — money that goes to k-12 schools, colleges, the health program Medicaid and transportation — were exempted from reductions. Lawmakers are currently on recess to work on rewriting Kemp’s proposal, and they will spend this week in budget hearings. Privately, legislators accuse some agency directors — most of them appointed by Kemp — of soft-pedaling the impact of the proposed cuts. Lawmakers have expressed concerns about spending reductions in a lot of areas, including mental health and substance abuse programs, rural economic development, and agricultural research and food inspections. They wonder whether there will be room in programs to help Georgians in crisis, whether the criminal justice overhaul they supported and funded will be shorted, whether criminal defendants will have a public defender to handle their cases because of vacancies that won’t be filled. “These are not frivolous things that we’re cutting on. These are really — to me, at least — ought to be priorities for us as a state,” said House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. Many at the Capitol, including Ralston, have been through this before, only on a much larger scale. Kemp’s cuts would save the state about $200 million this year and $300 million next year. During the Great Recession, state revenue dropped almost 20% between 2008 and 2010 — more than $3 billion — and cutbacks led to 200,000 teachers and state employees being furloughed, rounds of layoffs, and the elimination of programs. The state Democratic Party has called the latest cuts “draconian” and “extreme” and plans to use them against Republicans to boost its legislative candidates in the fall election. But Kyle Wingfield, the president of the conservative Georgia Public Policy Foundation, said, “This is not the Great Recession all over again, despite some of the rhetoric you hear; we’re still talking about spending more state tax dollars this year than last year, and more next year than this year.” While he doesn’t agree with all the cuts, Wingfield said, “For the most part, we’re talking about a new administration setting new priorities, and it seems pretty likely that they could find some unnecessary spending to cut to fund those priorities.” Conventions and phone lines Some cuts this time around may impact Georgians. But as lawmakers have been going through the budget in recent weeks, they’ve also seen plenty of tweaks that will likely have less direct effect on services. “The message to state agencies was abundantly clear: Utilize technology to streamline operations, eliminate redundancies and vacancies, and cut waste to best serve the people of this great state,” said Cody Hall, the governor’s spokesman. “Following a months-long process, our budgets certainly accomplish that directive.” At least $18 million would be cut over the next year-and-a-half on travel. That figure may be even higher because it is not always clearly singled out in budget documents. In some cases that may mean only one person from an office goes to a conference, rather than six or seven. Or nobody goes. The agency run by Corrections Commissioner Timothy Ward would cut several million in travel. “We’re still going to conferences,” Ward told budget writers last week. “If you want my people to come to a conference, if you pay for it, we’ll go.” Ward’s agency is also eliminating some high-paid management positions, offering those employees lower-paid jobs in the prison system. The Department of Juvenile Justice would save more than $400,000 by eliminating landline phones for staffers who have state-funded cellphones, an example Kemp’s Office of Planning and Budget has noted. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in December that about 1,200 vacant jobs would be eliminated. Many of those have been highlighted in recent weeks, such as frozen positions in the Georgia Public Defenders Council and GBI crime labs that test things such as rape kits and DNA. Other agencies have had unfilled jobs on the books for more than a year and, in a strong economy, were having trouble filling them anyway. They’ve been doing the agency’s business without them. Lawmakers didn’t like hearing Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black tell them some of the vacant jobs being eliminated were for food safety inspectors. There are more stores to inspect but fewer inspectors to do the job. Still, Black told legislators that, while those jobs are on the books, he is having trouble filing them in part because the pay starts at $31,000 a year. “For some of these, we have simply not been able to find a qualified person to go to work for what we are are willing to pay them,” Black told a House budget subcommittee. One of the cuts that has caused a lot of heartburn is the proposed reduction in grants that go to the county health departments. Public health departments are especially important in rural Georgia counties with few, if any, doctors. Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey told lawmakers that counties receive more than one kind of state health grant. The ones that pay for basic programs, such as immunizations, wouldn’t be reduced, she said. The reductions could mean vacant positions won’t be filled, but Toomey said some health departments can fill shifts by staggering work hours. “The intent was to give maximum flexibility and to not reduce programs like immunizations, breast and cervical cancer (screenings), women’s issues, that you have come to expect,” Toomey said. Harbin said he expects lawmakers this year to react similarly to the way his colleagues did during the Great Recession. “The conversation we had back then was, we told folks, ‘we’re cutting your budget, tell us what you have to have,’ ” he said. “That’s part of why this next week and a half will be important.”
  • In the bruising 2012 presidential race, Donovan Head was a get-out-the-vote specialist for Mitt Romney’s campaign in north Florida, spending his days and nights appealing to Republicans in the sprawling neighborhoods around Jacksonville. Up until this week, the Georgia Republican thought of Romney as the “best president we never had” despite their differences on scattered issues. That was before the Utah Republican senator’s vote to convict and remove President Donald Trump from office.  “I have lost an enormous amount of respect for Mitt Romney. I have never felt more betrayed by a politician - especially after investing countless hours of hard work supporting his 2012 run,” said Head, who was later a deputy campaign director for Gov. Brian Kemp.  In the hours after Romney’s vote, several of his top supporters in Georgia ripped into his decision to break party lines and become the lone Republican to support Trump’s ouster. And he has quickly emerged as a toxic liability in the Republican-on-Republican race between U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a major donor to his 2012 campaign, and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, who is eager to remind voters of that in his latest digital ad.  “That’s right. Kelly Loeffler gave nearly $1 million to Mitt Romney. The same Mitt Romney that voted to impeach our president,” the ad proclaims, as images of the two flash on screen.  ‘Pressures’ The former Massachusetts governor had a deep base in Georgia in 2012. Though he lost the primary to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a longtime Georgia lawmaker, he won the state in the presidential election by eight percentage points over Barack Obama.  Among his most influential supporters in Georgia is Eric Tanenblatt, who was state chair of Romney’s 2008 bid and his national finance co-chair for his 2012 campaign. He’s among the Republicans who praised Romney for the difficult decision, saying that the senator “put to bed this week any question whether he was a man of profound conviction.”  “The tremendous inventory of pressures — from considerations of simple convenience to measuring the high personal and political cost of defecting — that served to discourage Republicans and red-state Democrats from convicting the president is almost too crushing to consider,” said Tanenblatt. “I don't envy him, but I surely respect how gravely he considered the task before him,” he added. “Senator Romney did his duty, as he saw it, before God. He did what he believed was right without regard for the consequences. And in an era where cynicism reigns supreme, what more can we ask of our elected leaders?” His view was in the minority among Republican movers-and-shakers. Brad Carver, a lawyer and grassroots activist, was a key supporter of Romney in the northern Atlanta suburbs after Gingrich dropped out of the race. And on Thursday, he couldn’t come to terms with Romney’s vote. “The president endorsed Romney in the Senate race and gave him another chance to support our party,” said Carver. “Romney let us down. Senator Loeffler had it right with her tweet: It’s 2020, time for all of us to unite against socialism.”  ‘Appease the left’ He’s referring to Loeffler, who earlier lashed out at Romney and accused him of seeking to “appease the left” with his support of a failed effort to allow witnesses to testify at the Senate trial that wrapped up on Wednesday. In a sign of how poisonous Romney has become in Georgia, Collins has issued a “daily reminder” that Loeffler and her husband combined to donate $1.5 million to a pro-Romney super PAC in 2012 – and didn’t give to Trump ahead of his 2016 election.   And his latest digital ad, released Friday, starts with a regal image of Trump sitting in the Oval Office, before showing grainier shots of Loeffler, Romney and a million-dollar check. It ends: ““Kelly Loeffler: Too swampy for Georgia.” The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which supports Loeffler, responded with screen-grabs of Collins’ saying he would “proudly cast my vote” for Romney in October 2012, when he was the Republican presidential nominee.  U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who also faces a re-election fight, is finding Romney to be a convenient target as well. He compared Romney to “Jeff Flake on steroids” – reference to a former Arizona Republican and Trump critic also unpopular among grassroots Republicans. Georgia Democrats, on the other hand, rushed to praise his decision. Matt Lieberman, among several Democrats running for Loeffler’s seat, called Romney a “modern-day profile in courage.”  So, too, did James Carter, the Democratic sleuth who unearthed video of Romney in 2012 criticizing 47% of Americans as being dependent on the federal government for assistance. That clip was pivotal to Obama’s re-election victory.  “I have made the decision to no longer haunt 47% of Mitt Romney's nightmares,” said Carter, a grandson of the former president. “We're good.”   
  • Five Georgia House Democrats have proposed legislation aimed at allowing immigrants with temporary permission to stay in the United States to pay in-state tuition at any of the state’s public colleges and universities. Those students currently pay out-of-state tuition, which is at least three times higher than the in-state cost to study at University System of Georgia schools. House Bill 896, introduced Wednesday, would change the tuition restrictions in Georgia, with some conditions. The student must be enrolled at a Georgia high school for at least three years, have filed paperwork seeking legal immigration status and have a high school diploma or GED. The sponsors argue for the changes as an economic development issue. They worry that some students will get an education outside Georgia and won’t return. Nineteen states have similar policies, the sponsors said. “We want to retain talent in Georgia. We’re already investing in these students,” House Minority Leader Robert Trammell, one of the sponsors, said in a telephone interview Thursday. “It’s just a fairness issue.” The bill, though, does not have any Republican sponsors, which could make it difficult to adopt in the GOP-controlled state Legislature. Trammell said he’s hopeful for Republican support. Efforts to reach Chuck Martin, a Republican from Alpharetta who is the House’s Higher Education Committee chairman, were unsuccessful Thursday. Lindsey Tippins, a Republican from Marietta who is the Senate’s Higher Education Committee chairman, declined comment Thursday, saying he hadn’t seen the bill and wanted to wait until the legislation comes to his chamber before discussing it. The issue has been at the center of several legal battles. In October 2017, Georgia’s Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s decision that said the state must permit residents who have been granted a special reprieve from deportation to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide this year, in one of its most anticipated rulings, the legality of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that started in 2012 allowing those reprieves. There are about 21,000 people in the state participating in the program.