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Political Headlines

    Amazon said Saturday it will open another massive warehouse in metro Atlanta that will create 500 new jobs, part of an ongoing courtship of the e-commerce giant that spun out of Georgia’s attempt to land the company’s second headquarters.  The company said Saturday that the 1-million-square-foot facility — roughly the size of an average mall — will be built at the Cubes of Bridgeport site in Newnan. The facility’s employees will pack and ship customer orders for Amazon, the world’s largest retailer. Gov. Brian Kemp said Amazon’s announcement was a testament to Georgia’s “logistics infrastructure, top-ranked workforce and nationally recognized business climate.” The firm did not say when it expected the construction to be complete.  It’s the second major Amazon project for metro Atlanta in the past year. The company announced in July it would build a warehouse in Gwinnett County that would eventually employ 1,000 people, and construction is well underway.  The warehouse is part of a construction spree by Amazon to expand its shipping footprint. The company now operates more than 75 fulfillment centers in North America that employ more than 125,000 staffers, including 3,500 in Georgia.  State economic officials have grown familiar with the company after years of recruiting. Georgia offered billions in incentives and Atlanta made the short list for Amazon’s massive second headquarters before losing out to New York and Northern Virginia in November 2018. Documents released to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed that the state offered more than $2 billion worth of publicly funded incentives to lure the corporate campus, including an academy to train its employees and an exclusive lounge at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.  Also in 2018, Amazon picked Nashville, Tennessee, for a new operations office where it plans to hire 5,000 workers. The company later scuttled its New York plans, briefly raising speculation that the Big Apple’s loss could be Georgia’s gain. But economic development officials were also focused on enticing the company to bring smaller projects to Georgia. Amazon operates several other fulfillment centers and warehouses in metro Atlanta, including East Point and Lithia Springs, and in other parts of Georgia, including Macon.  The warehouse project will make Amazon one of Coweta County’s largest private employers, joining other major firms such as Yamaha Motors and PetSmart, which also has a distribution center that employs about 500 people.  It’s not immediately clear what incentives were offered to Amazon to lure the project. An AJC review showed that nearly $20 million in tax breaks and infrastructure improvements were required to secure the Gwinnett project.  The company also did not immediately say how much it will spend on the site. Trae Westmoreland, head of the Coweta County Development Authority, said the “significant capital investment” will strengthen the local economy and help other firms bring in new business.   
  • Along nearly party lines, the Georgia House voted to praise President Donald Trump and the military for killing Iran's top military leader earlier this month. House Defense and Veterans Affairs Chairman Heath Clark, R-Warner Robins, said Thursday he introduced the resolution as a way to laud the death of Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' elite Quds Force. “It was a way to show our support for the men and women of the intelligence community, the men and women of our armed forces that carried out the mission and the commander-in-chief of the military for giving the order for the mission to be executed,” Clark said. House Resolution 882 says the members of the chamber “urge the American people to support” Trump and the military for the successful killing of Soleimani. Trump’s order to kill Soleimani has become controversial, with Democrats in Congress, as well as some Republicans, questioning the reasoning behind the attack. State House Democrats — who emphasized their support of the military — called the move a political stunt. “This resolution brings national politics into the Georgia General Assembly when the people of Georgia would be better served by us focusing on the pressing issues facing our state,” said state Rep. Mike Glanton, a Jonesboro Democrat and U.S. Army veteran. Only one Republican — Tiger Republican state Rep. Matt Gurtler — crossed party lines to vote against the resolution, which passed 93-68. Gurtler, who votes “no” more than any other legislator, is known for voting against nearly every proposal that passes through the chamber.
  • A Georgia Democratic lawmaker has proposed legislation that would make it easier for those seeking abortions to undergo the procedure. The proposal from state Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick, D-Lithonia, takes aim at the “Women’s Right to Know Act” that requires those seeking an abortion to take a series of steps — including undergoing an ultrasound and receiving state-approved information, then waiting 24 hours after the counseling is given to undergo the procedure — before terminating a pregnancy. Kendrick’s bill would allow women to choose to bypass the requirements, which she says are designed to delay abortions. She said she filed House Bill 746 in response to the General Assembly last year passing a law that prohibits abortions once a doctor can detect fetal cardiac activity — typically around six weeks of pregnancy and before many women know they are pregnant. The law is being challenged in court. A judge last year temporarily blocked it from taking effect while the case makes its way through the legal system. “If the argument is that women should know they are pregnant by six weeks, I don’t know why they should have any impediments to abortion,” Kendrick said. Chances of Kendrick’s proposal passing this year are unlikely. Legislative leadership has said it doesn’t intend to consider abortion legislation while last year’s law is being debated in court. 
  • Gov. Brian Kemp moved Thursday to keep one of his most-talked-about campaign promises by proposing a $2,000 pay raise for teachers next year. Kemp called for the teacher raises despite months of pushing state agencies to cut their budgets, in part because of slow tax collections. If approved by the General Assembly, Kemp will have, in less than two years, fulfilled one of his top 2018 campaign pledges — to give the state’s more than 100,000 public school teachers a $5,000 raise. Lawmakers approved a $3,000 raise last year. The $2,000 raise in the upcoming fiscal year — which begins July 1 — would cost the state about $350 million. If approved by the General Assembly, how much teachers receive will depend on whether school districts pass along the raise. Most did last year. Kemp made the announcement at the annual State of the State address before a joint meeting of the Georgia House and Senate. “This raise will enhance retention rates, boost recruitment numbers and improve educational outcomes in schools throughout Georgia,” he told lawmakers. “By investing in our educators,” he said, “we can build a strong house … a place where everyone learns … and all Georgians have the opportunity to thrive.” The governor’s $28 billion budget plan for fiscal 2021 does not account for the huge hit state finances would take if lawmakers vote to cut the top state income tax rate from 5.75% to 5.5%. Lawmakers reduced the rate in 2018 and set up a possible vote on another cut this year. Reducing the rate again would cost the state — and save taxpayers — about $550 million. If lawmakers vote to cut the rate again, they will have to cut the budget or find another way to raise money. Lawmakers have been looking for ways to raise more money since Kemp announced the budget cuts in August. They moved quickly Thursday to raise more money through a measure that would force companies that sell products or services online or through apps that are provided by others — known as online “marketplace facilitators” — to collect sales taxes. The state could reap hundreds of millions of dollars from the change, according to estimates. Kemp’s budget also includes about $45 million to fund a $1,000 pay hike for full-time state employees earning less than $40,000 a year. Teacher pay raises are always popular at the Capitol, but Senate Democrats tweeted: “While we support the governor’s inclusion of the $2,000 pay raise for our K-12 educators, we should not forget that Georgia is 36th in the nation on per pupil spending. We must set a goal to reach at least the national average on student spending.” Charlotte Booker, the president of the Georgia Association of Educators teacher organization, praised Kemp’s raise proposal. “This shows that the governor understands not only are our teachers deserving, but it is critical that Georgia stay competitive in attracting and retaining quality, trained teachers,” Booker said. About half the money for the raise comes from a reduction in what the state will need to put into the teacher pension system next year. Kemp told lawmakers his budget proposal would fully fund the formula the state uses to decide how much money k-12 schools receive. It will be the third consecutive year the formula is fully funded after being shortchanged for more than a decade. Tax collections have been slow since shortly after the General Assembly voted to cut the top state income tax rate in 2018. The state reported Monday that collections are up 0.3% for the first six months of fiscal 2020, which ends June 30. Income tax collections alone are tracking about $300 million less than expected, analysts say. Kemp ordered state agencies in August to cut their budgets 4% this year and 6% next year. 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. The budget is a statement of the state’s priorities — for instance, in issuing his spending cuts edict, Kemp exempted k-12 schools, most college programs, the public health care program Medicaid, and the agency that builds and maintains roads and bridges. Those areas make up more than 75% of state spending. Kemp’s spending plan includes nearly $2 million for seven new positions in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Gang Task Force and resources to set up the statewide gang database. It also includes $346 million in borrowing for k-12 school projects and $167 million for college construction. In total, the state would borrow about $900 million for construction and purchasing equipment, such as state patrol cars. The governor recommended nearly $55 million to replace the Georgia State Patrol’s headquarters in Atlanta, $70 million to expand the convention center in Savannah and $6 million to construct a conference center at Lake Lanier Island. Much of the money Kemp hopes to save from budget cuts will come by eliminating vacant jobs. Last month, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the administration planned to wipe off the books about 1,200 positions. Under Kemp’s spending proposal, those positions would include Department of Agriculture food safety inspectors and marketing staff, child welfare and program eligibility workers, agricultural extension employees, GBI lab scientists and technicians, juvenile justice security staff, and workers to help veterans make sure they receive the benefits they earn. The plan also includes cutting county health department grants by $6 million this year and $9 million in fiscal 2021 and reductions in spending for several public health programs. The Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovation, a favorite program of House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and other leaders in that chamber, would take a cut. So would accountability courts, which Kemp’s predecessor Nathan Deal greatly expanded to 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. “The governor’s plan would cut funding from every state agency, harm Georgia’s progress on criminal justice reform and undermines successful programs,” said Sen. Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain. Kemp’s budget adds money in several areas as well, including funding to establish a Sexual Harassment Division in the state Inspector General’s Office. Kemp pledged to overhaul how the state handled sexual harassment complaints after an AJC investigation found the state’s decentralized, haphazard method of handling such grievances resulted in a wide disparity of outcomes. State lawmakers will begin hearings on Kemp’s proposal next week.
  • Gov. Brian Kemp will unveil an overhaul of Georgia’s adoption and foster care system on Thursday that will triple a tax incentive for some adoptive parents and reduce the minimum age for unmarried people to adopt children. The Republican is set to unveil the legislation at his State of the State address, where he will cast the proposal as part of “incredible progress” in recent years to make it easier for families to adopt children. “Our goal is simple: to keep our kids safe, to encourage adoption and to ensure that every young Georgian — no matter where they live — has the opportunity to live in a safe, happy, loving home,” Kemp said in prepared remarks. The legislation would increase the tax credit for adoptions out of the state foster care system from $2,000 to $6,000 for the first five years. The incentive would then drop back down to $2,000 a year until the child turns 18. The state estimates 1,145 foster children were eligible for adoption through the state Division of Family and Children Services in late 2019. The measure would also reduce the age for an unmarried individual to adopt in Georgia from 25 to 21. Current state law only allows Georgians between the ages of 21 and 25 to adopt if they’re a relative of the child. And it proposes a new commission that will be tasked with considering a “systematic reform” of the administration of the foster care system. State lawmakers in 2018 made an initial round of far-reaching changes to the state’s adoption process, prompted by advocates who said the laws were so burdensome that many parents were forced to travel to neighboring states to find children. That legislation reduced adoption waiting times, legalized the reimbursement of birth mothers for their expenses in private adoptions, banned middlemen who profit from arranging adoptions and simplified out-of-state adoptions. It passed after a major fight at the Georgia Capitol last year over a provision that would have allowed religious adoption agencies to reject gay couples seeking to adopt foster children. The legislation was approved only after Republican state senators agreed to remove the controversial language. Although it’s not a part of Kemp’s proposal, conservatives could try again to tack on a measure that would let some adoption agencies turn away same-sex parents. Kemp has said he’ll deal with that possibility “when the time comes.” The governor has an important ally in his push for an overhaul. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who presides over the state Senate, told an audience of thousands at Wednesday’s annual Eggs & Issues breakfast that he also considers foster care changes a leading priority. “It’s absolutely the right thing to do,” Duncan said. “Every one of us in Georgia is proud that Georgia is the No. 1 place in the nation to do business in. I want foster kids to say it’s the No. 1 place for foster kids, too.”
  • A House Republican lawmaker has filed legislation targeting any future laws that would require those who are found to be a threat to themselves or others to surrender their weapons. State Rep. Ken Pullin, a Zebulon Republican, said he believes “red flag” laws, which would that takes guns away from a citizen that a judge deems to be a threat, violates due process rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Pullin’s legislation would challenge any future measure since federal law supersedes state law. So-called “red flag” proposals received attention last summer after President Donald Trump suggested passing the gun law in response to high-profile mass shootings in Texas and Ohio — putting focus on a similar Georgia proposal. Trump has since cooled on pushing for the ban. Since then, “anti-red flag” bills have gained popularity as gun rights supporters have sought to create “Second Amendment sanctuaries.” “Under my bill, if U.S. Congress passes ‘red flag’ legislation or if an executive order is issued by president where the sole intent was to confiscate guns, then Georgia would be exempt from enforcing that legislation,” Pullin said. According to the legislation, House Bill 751, anyone — including a law enforcement officer — who tried to enforce a “red flag” law from another state or the federal government could be charged with a felony and serve up to three years in jail and face a fine of up to $5,000. Georgia does not have a “red flag” law, but state Rep. Matthew Wilson, a Brookhaven Democrat, filed House Bill 435 to allow state residents and law enforcement officers to ask a superior court judge to determine whether someone is a threat. Similar laws have been enacted in 15 states, including Florida, and Washington, D.C. Wilson said Pullin’s bill would set up a “constitutional showdown in federal court.” “We should be giving law enforcement officers more tools for them to be able to protect people rather than making it a felony for them to do their jobs,” he said. Pullin said he’s unsure if his bill will make it through the Legislature this year, but he wanted to start a conversation. “This is really about pushing back against federal government and stat government to say if they attempt to pass laws like this, Georgia’s not going to adhere to it,” he said.
  • Rain, protests and power outages punctuated the first day of this year’s Georgia legislative session as lawmakers returned to Atlanta for tough choices on budget cuts, taxes and gambling. The Capitol was buzzing as legislators and lobbyists filled the halls to tackle some of the many issues left on their plates when session adjourned last year — and to find a way to answer Gov. Brian Kemp’s call to cut state spending. Legislative leaders in the Senate rolled out their list of priorities, which includes improving access to the internet in rural parts of the state, curbing the state’s high rate of maternal mortality and bringing in more money through internet sales taxes. On the House side, representatives emphasized the possibility of asking voters to expand gambling beyond the Georgia Lottery. More legislature headlines >> Ga. lawmakers move quickly to hike tax collections on internet sales >> PHOTOS: Georgia’s 2020 legislative session kicks off >> How the AJC covers the Georgia Legislature   The different messages from the Senate and House showed an early divide on gambling. Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan said gambling isn’t a priority, a contrast to House Speaker David Ralston’s willingness to put a gambling question on the ballot for voters to decide. “What we’re focused on are the things that will have the greatest impact over the greatest number of Georgians in the shortest amount of time,” said Dugan, a Republican from Carrollton. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan also said he didn’t see a strong desire from senators to pass legislation that would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment that could allow casinos, horse racing or sports betting in Georgia — or all three. Duncan said instead he hoped the session would address issues such as ensuring price transparency in medical billing and improving the foster care system. “We can do a better job of supporting foster kids and the families that support them,” he said. Lawmakers took time to honor the loss of colleagues in each chamber. House Rules Chairman Jay Powell died during a legislative retreat in November, and state Sen. Greg Kirk died last month, about six months after announcing he had bile duct cancer. During a floor speech in memory of Powell, Ralston called out legislators who label themselves as being “principled.” Ralston said they should behave more like Powell, a close ally and a Republican from Camilla. “There are some coming into the political process and they self-advertise themselves as being principled. And sometimes it helps that they do that because otherwise you might not know,” said Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge. “Jay listened to and followed that inner voice of conscience, and the political consequences could be damned.” In the upper chamber, the secretary of the Senate called out each lawmaker’s name, pausing when he reached Kirk, an Americus Republican who was the chairman of the State and Local Governmental Operations Committee. In addition, state Sen. Bill Heath, a Bremen Republican, announced that he would not seek re-election this year. He was first elected to the House in 2002 and the Senate in 2004. “There is more to life than politics. I’m convinced of that,” Heath said. The day wasn’t without drama. Six protesters were escorted from the Senate gallery after chanting “declare a climate emergency” and charged with unlawful assembly, police said. Senate rules prohibit outbursts while the chamber is in session. Environmentalists for months have held protests on and near the Capitol grounds, urging state government to address climate change. Then shortly after 11 a.m., just as the chambers were wrapping up the day’s business, the Capitol and a few surrounding buildings went dark — causing many in the halls and chambers to joke about whether the outage was a good or bad omen. “It doesn’t really matter. Half the time we walk around here in the dark anyways,” said state Rep. Terry Rogers, a Clarkesville Republican. The outage lasted only a few minutes. Legislation to close holes in the state budget already started moving forward Monday. Kemp has called on lawmakers to reduce spending by 4% this year and 6% next year because tax collections have lagged since the state cut the top income tax rate from 6% to 5.75% in 2018. Lawmakers are nearing an agreement on a proposal to close a loophole that allows many online retailers to avoid paying sales taxes, said Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Hufstetler, a Republican from Rome. That kind of measure could add hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue to the state. “Georgia doesn’t have a revenue problem as much as a collection problem,” Hufstetler said. Throughout the Capitol, advocacy groups cornered lawmakers to urge them to support causes such as gun control and civil rights. As legislators walked into the House and Senate chambers, they received copies of the U.S. Constitution from volunteers and staff for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. The organization urged lawmakers to preserve the rights of women, racial minorities and the LGBTQ community. “It’s a reminder to stay faithful to the people who put you in office because they want you to be faithful to the Constitution,” said Chris Bruce, a lobbyist for the ACLU. Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.
  • GOVERNOR Brian Kemp: Like all governors, Kemp will set the agenda for the session, especially this year. His decision to call for spending cuts of 4% this year and 6% next year, combined with slow tax collections during the first half of the fiscal year, means money will dominate the 2020 session. Like all governors, he also has the power to veto legislation and spending, and dole out jobs to employment-seeking lawmakers. And he sets the revenue estimate, which determines how much money lawmakers can vote to spend. More legislative coverage >> Election year fuels potential for fireworks in Georgia Legislature >> Top issues for Georgia’s General Assembly in 2020 >> How to follow bills, contact lawmakers and get involved CHIEF OF STAFF Tim Fleming: Kemp didn’t look far when he tapped his top aide. Fleming first worked for Kemp in 2002 during his successful bid for a state Senate seat, and he later managed Kemp’s unsuccessful campaign for agriculture commissioner in 2006 and his run for governor in 2018. Fleming inherited one of the most challenging — and powerful — jobs in state government from Chris Riley, the most influential gubernatorial chief of staff of his generation. LT. GOVERNOR Geoff Duncan: The president of the Senate, Duncan, a former House member, got on-the-job training in his first year in office last year, proving a steady hand by the time the session ended. Duncan played a key role in getting fellow Republicans in the chamber to amend a controversial sexual harassment policy after Democrats said it would discourage victims from filing complaints. Duncan’s top aide — a veteran political consultant who played a big role in getting him elected — quit recently after the lieutenant governor decided to stand beside Kemp when he announced Kelly Loeffler as his choice to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson. SENATE Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, Senate president pro tem: A floor leader for then-Gov. Nathan Deal, Miller is a car dealer used to wheeling and dealing at the Statehouse as well. Miller was considered a possible candidate for lieutenant governor before last year’s race and is seen as a likely future candidate for Congress or some other post. Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, Senate majority leader: A U.S. Army Ranger who retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2008, Dugan, like Miller, is personable and has the ability to clearly explain the Senate Republican stance on issues. Like Miller, he was also a floor leader for Deal. To become majority leader, he won over the Republican caucus that had been led by Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, the governor’s brother-in-law. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, Appropriations chairman: A retired grocer who has long run the Senate’s budget committee, he’s a former Democrat whose party switch helped the Senate turn Republican in 2002. Hill follows economic indicators closely and knows everything about how state tax money is spent, and he plays a key role in deciding where it goes. He writes a weekly column that is full of budget and tax information. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, Finance chairman: An anesthetist, Hufstetler rose quickly after being elected in 2012 and runs the committee that considers tax legislation and is one of the most active late-session panels at the Capitol. He’s been involved in a wide range of issues, including health care and ethics, and he hasn’t been afraid to stand against his Republican colleagues on issues. Others:Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga; Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker; Sen. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta; Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta. HOUSE David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, speaker: The level-headed, plain-spoken mountain lawyer has earned high marks for leading a chamber that can be raucous and fractious at times. He faces increasing pressure from the right within his own caucus, but he has managed to maintain control when it matters. He took heat last year, including from some Republican colleagues, after a joint investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News revealed numerous occasions where he had made claims of legislative business to delay legal cases. Ralston guards the House’s authority in making key decisions and reacted to Kemp’s call for spending cuts by forming a study committee to consider the benefits of allowing casinos, horse racing and sports betting to raise more tax money. Jan Jones, R-Milton, speaker pro tem: She’s seen as a smart, stable leader from a politically important part of metro Atlanta. A former journalist and marketing executive, Jones is the highest-ranking woman in General Assembly history. In 2018 she headed a committee to review how the House and Senate handle sexual harassment issues. Jones was seen as a possible pick to replace Iskason before Kemp chose Loeffler. Terry England, R-Auburn, Appropriations chairman: England was Ralston’s choice to take over the House budget committee after he became speaker. Like his Senate counterpart Hill, England is an extremely hardworking lawmaker who follows the state’s finances closely and knows where pretty much every cent of the state’s $27.5 billion budget is spent. Bob Trammell, D-Luthersville, minority leader: An attorney, Trammell was picked to replace Stacey Abrams, the party’s nominee for governor in 2018. Trammell narrowly won re-election against an opponent who might have — or might not have — lived in the district and followed it up by winning a caucus vote to continue leading the Democrats in the House. Brett Harrell, R-Snellville, Ways and Means chairman: A former Snellville mayor, Harrell is a no-nonsense, business conservative who heads the committee that decides which tax bills will move forward. A big booster of the Atlanta United, Harrell has picked up where his predecessor, the late Rep. Jay Powell, left off in pushing key tax bills, including measures to force more companies to remit taxes for online sales, taxes that state officials say are already due. He earlier championed the “Better Brunch Bill,” which aimed to move up the time restaurants could serve alcohol on Sundays. Richard Smith, R-Columbus, Rules chairman: Ralston last month picked Smith to replace Powell, who died in November during a retreat of Republican legislative leaders. Smith, who retired after working many years for the University of Georgia, had previously served as chairman of the Insurance Committee for about a decade. His new committee decides which bills move to the House floor for a vote. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, dean: Smyre, a banker, is the longest-serving member of the General Assembly, having been first elected to the House in 1974. He has deep connections in national Democratic Party circles, from former presidents to congressmen to party activists. Smyre is a publicly cautious deal-broker known for being a go-to lawmaker for both political and legislative advice. If Democrats are making a deal with the Republican majority on key legislation, Smyre is usually either involved or in the know. Others:Majority Leader Jon Burns, R-Newington; Health and Human Services Chairwoman Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta.
  • Contact legislators Find yours Use the secretary of state’s poll locator service to identify your House and Senate districts and who represents you: www.mvp.sos.ga.gov. Online The General Assembly’s home page (www.legis.ga.gov) links to House and Senate members by name and district. The directory lists each legislator’s office phone and email. Some legislators also list home addresses and district phone numbers. In person Look for lawmakers in the House or Senate chamber or in their offices. You can find your legislators’ phone numbers and office locations on the General Assembly’s website: www.legis.ga.gov. When the Legislature is in session, volunteer pages (usually schoolchildren) will carry messages to legislators in the chambers. The public is not allowed on the House or Senate floor while in session. More legislative coverage >> Election year fuels potential for fireworks in Georgia Legislature >> Top issues for Georgia’s General Assembly in 2020 > Key players in 2020 legislative session Legislators often will leave the chamber to meet with voters, especially their constituents. Page desks are directly in front of the main doors leading to both chambers on the third floor of the Capitol. Top lawmakers’ offices are in the Capitol. The rest are across Mitchell Street (officially known as Capitol Square) in the Coverdell Legislative Office Building. Be prepared to pass through metal detectors in both buildings. Track bills Online Follow the progress of bills on The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s exclusive Legislative Navigator and see our prediction of a bill’s chance of passage. You can also explore a wealth of background on lawmakers, including their success at passing bills, top contributors and recent votes. It’s only at legislativenavigator.ajc.com. Go to www.legis.ga.gov and look for the box in the top-left corner of the website where you can search for legislation. Then enter the bill number (if you know it) and select “HB” if it’s a House bill or “SB” if it’s a Senate bill. This allows you to view the bill in its entirety, track it through committees and see roll call votes. Listings of committee meetings can also be found on the websites of both the House and Senate. In person Find copies of bills in the House clerk’s office (Room 309) and the secretary of the Senate’s office (Room 353). Each has a desk where you can request a bill. Committee hearing notices are posted daily on a bulletin board outside both offices, and meeting calendars appear on monitors in the Legislative Office Building. You can also contact by phone. House clerk’s office: 404-656-5015; secretary of the Senate’s office: 404-656-5040. Heading to the Statehouse If you plan to visit: Take MARTA. The Georgia State University station on the east/west line is a short walk from the Capitol. Most people drive, nonetheless, even though parking is limited. Lots generally charge a minimum $5 daily for parking. Some options: Pete Hackney Parking Deck (162 Jesse Hill Jr. Drive); Steve Polk Parking Plaza (65 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive); 90 Central Parking Lot (accessible from Central Avenue and Courtland Street). While you’re there Wheelchair-accessible restrooms are available on the first, third and fourth floors of the Capitol, and other facilities are also on the second floor. There are vending machines on the first floor, where coffee, sodas and snacks are available; Cafe 244 (244 Washington St. SW) serves breakfast daily until 10 a.m. and lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. A food court on the bottom floor of the Sloppy Floyd Building keeps similar hours and features more options. Dozens of monuments dot the Capitol grounds and the building’s interior. Descriptions of many works of art and monuments can be found here: georgiainfo.galileo.usg.edu/monument.htm. Liberty Plaza, the public gathering space across Capitol Avenue from the Gold Dome, is a great place to eat lunch on nice days or watch protests and rallies that occur regularly during a session. The plaza features an outdoor amphitheater and several statues, including replicas of the Liberty Bell and Statue of Liberty. Follow the money Go to ethics.ga.gov, the website for the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission (formerly the State Ethics Commission), to see campaign finance disclosures, lobbyist disclosure reports and lawmakers’ personal finance disclosures. Lobbyists are required to file disclosures twice a month during the session. You can also request hard copies at the commission’s offices in the Sloppy Floyd Building. Call 404-463-1980 for information. Speak at the hearings The real work on bills is done in committees and subcommittees, and that’s the place to weigh in. Contact committee members by phone, mail or email to make your voice heard. Speaking in person before a committee, though, is one of the most effective ways to reach legislators. The experience can be a little daunting, but legislators often appreciate hearing from taxpayers. Most committees have a sign-up sheet for speakers. Try to keep your remarks short and to the point. Watch the action Online Live video feeds are available online. Go to www.legis.ga.gov and look for the links under “Live Broadcasts” on the left. Many committee meetings of both chambers are streamed online. Look for the links at www.house.ga.gov/mediaServices/en-US/VideoBroadcasts.aspx and www.senate.ga.gov/spo/en-US/videobroadcasts.aspx. Only meetings of full committees — not subcommittees — stream live online. In person Business begins at 10 a.m. most days in the House and Senate chambers, but legislators often arrive before that. If you want to catch a legislator before the day’s session, try waiting at the velvet ropes outside the chamber. Each chamber also has a gallery on the fourth floor of the Capitol. The hallways on the third floor have monitors that carry live feeds from the House and Senate. You will have to jockey with the lobbyists crowding the hallways for a good spot. Complete coverage The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will again have Georgia’s largest team covering the Legislature. No one will have more expertise on issues that matter to taxpayers when legislators return. Go online to AJC Georgia Politics to find in-depth reporting on the Georgia General Assembly, elections, state government, health care, immigration and more, along with opinion columns from all sides. You can also sign up to receive The Morning Jolt, the AJC’s daily email newsletter on politics. Get complete daily coverage during the legislative session at www.ajc.com/news/georgia-government/. Follow us on Twitter via @AJCGaPolitics and on Facebook at AJC Georgia Politics.
  • Budget State lawmakers will spend much of the 2020 session reviewing and deciding on Gov. Brian Kemp’s plans to cut 4% in spending this year and 6% in fiscal 2021, and on figuring out whether they want to cut the state’s income tax rate for the second time in three years. Cutting the income tax rate again — from 5.75% to 5.5% — would likely mean further spending cuts for state agencies. In addition, lawmakers will debate several other tax proposals, such as ones to tax vaping products and force companies that facilitate online sales to remit taxes. Key players: Kemp; Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville; House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn; House Ways and Means Chairman Brett Harrell, R-Snellville; and Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome. Prospects: Passing the state budget is the only thing lawmakers are mandated to do every year, according to the Georgia Constitution. The tax bills — which typically involve lots of lobbyists — are iffy, but some tax breaks generally pass and lawmakers may be looking for ways to raise revenue. — James Salzer Social issues Election years open up the possibility for incumbent lawmakers worried about primary opponents to file polarizing legislation on topics including abortion and guns that fire up their base of voters. It’s hard to know what the dominating issue will be this year after the 2019 clash over anti-abortion legislation. More legislative coverage >> Election year fuels potential for fireworks in Georgia Legislature >> How to follow bills, contact lawmakers and get involved >> Key players in 2020 legislative session Bills have been filed addressing transgender children, gun control, stiffer penalties for crimes committed based on hate and a ban on so-called “conversion therapy.” And while anti-abortion activists say they don’t expect to pursue legislation putting further regulations on the procedure while the law approved last year makes its way through the courts, anything can happen. At this time last year, those same activists said they didn’t see the law, which would outlaw abortion once a doctor can detect fetal cardiac activity, on the horizon. Key players: Kemp; Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan; House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge;House Majority Leader Jon Burns, R-Newington;Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton;House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, D-Luthersville; and Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Stone Mountain. Prospects: There really is no way of knowing what issue will come to the forefront of debate — or whether that debate will end in passage of legislation. — Maya T. Prabhu Traffic safety Two years ago the General Assembly cracked down on distracted driving, prohibiting motorists from handling their cellphones while driving. This year, they may tackle another traffic safety issue: seat belts. The state currently requires people in the front seats of passenger vehicles to buckle up. And it requires anyone 17 and under in the back seats to be restrained. But adults in the back seats are free to ignore the safety restraints. Traffic safety advocates say requiring everyone to buckle up would save lives. A Senate study committee recently recommended such a law. Key player: Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, the chairman of the committee that recommended a new law. Prospects: Seat belt laws have a history of dying in the General Assembly. But many were skeptical about whether the distracted driving law would pass two years ago. — David Wickert Senior care oversight Gov. Brian Kemp has called for changes to the state’s oversight of assisted living communities and personal care homes in response to an investigative series by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The AJC series exposed hundreds of cases of neglect and abuse of vulnerable seniors at large private-pay facilities across the state. The series also found that other states, including many in the South, have more strict regulations and more aggressive oversight of this rapidly growing industry. The state employs only a tiny platoon of inspectors to respond to complaints and conduct routine checks. Georgia requires only one caregiver for every 25 residents at night; its requirements for memory care units are relatively weak; and facility directors aren’t required to have the kind of training and licensing that other states demand. Key players: Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, Ralston, House Health and Human Services Chairwoman Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta,House Human Relations and Aging Chairman Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah. Prospects: The governor’s support could help pass changes in oversight. Requirements that would significantly increase costs for the industry may face opposition. Support is strong from advocates and the industry to increase the number of state inspectors. — Carrie Teegardin Health care Lawmakers last year gave the governor the ability to seek a waiver from the federal government to help get more Georgians health care, but it’s unsure whether the proposal will be funded during the 2020 session. Under the governor’s proposals, $100 million or so of state funding would have to start flowing starting in January 2021. But the Legislature is also facing the question of big budget cuts. Moreover, the federal government hasn’t approved the waivers yet. So people involved in the process said they will likely postpone decisions about waiver funding. While Medicaid funding is safe from budget cuts — for now — there are other potential cuts that could affect the program for poor and disabled Georgians. A House study committee on maternal mortality recommended extending Medicaid coverage for poor mothers to a full year after birth, but that is also up in the air given the budget situation. Key players: Hill; England; Senate Health and Human Services Chairman Ben Watson, R-Savannah; Cooper. Prospects: Action on the waiver funding is unlikely until 2021 — Ariel Hart Education In recent years, failing schools, teacher pay and school security loomed large, but so far this year no education issue has risen to the top of the legislative agenda. Gov. Brian Kemp’s campaign pledge to raise teacher pay by $5,000 was a dominant issue in the last legislative session. He made a $3,000 down payment on that promise, but he hasn’t committed to fulfilling the remainder this year, as falling revenue has triggered budget cuts. That doesn’t mean education will be a tame topic. Lawmakers may renew the debate around private school voucherlike Education Scholarship Accounts, which proved controversial last year. Kemp and state school Superintendent Richard Woods have said they want to roll back standardized testing. And there will likely be a push to curb vaping, a growing problem for schools. Key players: Kemp; Duncan; Ralston, Senate Education and Youth Committee Chairman P.K. Martin, R-Lawrenceville;House Education Committee Chairman Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper; Cooper. Prospects: Backing from the governor and legislative leaders could push Education Scholarship Accounts across the finish line after a narrow defeat last year, though teacher and school board advocacy groups remain staunchly opposed. A rollback of test requirements could be easier to achieve given test fatigue, particularly among teachers. Curbs on vaping have proved controversial, but the industry is facing a backlash nationally. — Ty Tagami Gambling Supporters of expanding access to gambling are heading into the 2020 legislative session with high hopes after a series of hearings were held in the fall and winter investigating the best ways to bring the industry to the state. Proponents believe a call from Gov. Brian Kemp to tamp down spending has created an opening to expand gambling, which supporters say would bring hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, bolster the HOPE scholarship and create thousands of jobs in the state. Lawmakers must determine which if any form of gambling they want to allow in the state. Any change to the gambling industry will likely require voters to approve a constitutional amendment, which means two-thirds of the lawmakers in each chamber have to vote in favor of any proposal before it’s placed on the ballot. Key players: Harrell; House Regulated Industries Chairman Alan Powell, R-Hartwell;House Economic Development and Tourism Chairman Ron Stephens, R-Savannah; and Senate Transportation Chairman Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta. Prospects: Supporters of the gambling industry believe this is the year legislation could make it on to the ballot, but getting it out of the General Assembly remains a heavy lift. — Maya T. Prabhu

News

  • The father of the Florida man accused of killing his wife, three children and family dog, also had a history of violence, according to court records dating back 40 years. Robert Todt was convicted by a jury in 1980 for a murder-to-hire plot. It bears an eerie parallel to this week, when his son, Anthony Todt, told Osceola County detectives that he killed his wife, three children and family dog at their Celebration home, WFTV reported. Alan Rubenstein is now a judge in the same Pennsylvania community where he was an assistant district attorney in 1980, and prosecuted Robert Todt’s case. He said the Todts appeared to have a picturesque life. Neighbors had great things to say about Robert Todt, who was a special education teacher and wrestling coach at a Pennsylvania high school. Then, he was arrested for hiring one of his students to kill his wife, Loretta Todt, on March 19, 1980, at their Bensalem home, People reported. The student, John Chairmonte, pleaded guilty to his involvement, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in 1980. At the time, Chairmonte was characterized as a “burglar and a drug addict,” the newspaper reported in a Dec. 13, 1980, Inquirer story. “Who do you expect Bob Todt to hire to kill his wife, Donny Osmond?' Rubenstein told the newspaper. “A shot was fired right into her skull,” Rubenstein told WFTV on Friday. “It landed through her left eye and blinded her. She should’ve died, but, amazingly, she survived.” What originally seemed like a home invasion didn’t add up, Rubenstein said. “Then we did some background checking on (Robert) Todt,” Rubenstein told WFTV. “We found out about his being engaged to this woman while he was married, about his various girlfriends, the fact that he was having a relationship with one of his students.” When Robert Todt was convicted in 1981, “everybody was wailing, especially his family members and Loretta,” Rubenstein recalled. “The calmest person in the courtroom was Robert Todt.” Robert Todt served about 10 years in prison. Investigators said Anthony Todt was in the home when his mother was shot. A local newspaper reported he woke up to his mother’s screams. Many have described Anthony Todt as a loving father and husband, devoted physical therapist and soccer coach to neighborhood kids. Investigators said they found Anthony Todt’s family’s bodies Monday, but believe Todt killed them weeks earlier. The FBI is also investigating Todt for Medicaid fraud, and records show he was being evicted from their Celebration home.
  • Will moviegoers finally find out what’s on Page 47? That’s a possibility as reports of a “National Treasure 3” movie are beginning to circulate. Chris Bremner, who was tapped to write a “Bad Boys 4” movie, told The Hollywood Reporter he would be writing the screenplay for “National Treasure 3.” “National Treasure,” released in 2004, starred Nicolas Cage an amateur cryptologist Benjamin Franklin Gates. The movie pulled in $247 million worldwide for Disney, Variety reported. The cast, including Cage, Diane Kruger, Justin Bartha, Jon Voight, Harvey Keitel and Armando Riesc, returned for the 2007 sequel, “National Treasure: Book of Secrets.' That film made $457 worldwide, Variety reported. The sequel ended with the characters looking at 'Page 47” of a secret book owned by the president of the United States, but no explanation was given. Jerry Bruckheimer is reportedly producing the upcoming film, People reported. Jon Turtletaub directed the first two films. A Disney spokesman did not respond to the magazine’s request for comment.
  • Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are no longer working members of the Royal Family, Queen Elizabeth II announced Saturday in a statement. The Queen said the Sussexes “will continue to maintain their private patronages and associations.” The couple also will no longer formally represent the Queen, the statement said. 'Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much-loved members of my family, the Queen wrote. “I recognize the challenges they have experienced as a result of intense scrutiny over the last two years and support their wish for a more independent life.” The couple will forgo state funding and repay millions of taxpayer dollars used to refurbish their official residence in Windsor, The New York Times reported. The agreement will go into effect later this spring and will be reviewed by the palace after a year, the newspaper reported. “The Sussexes will not use their HRH titles as they are no longer working members of the Royal Family,” according to the statement from Buckingham Palace. The agreement was made to end the crisis that began 10 days ago when the couple announced plans to step back from their royal duties and spend time in North America, the Times reported.
  • Odell Beckham Jr.'s legal problems might be behind him. The Superdome officer who was slapped on the rear by the Cleveland Browns wide receiver after LSU’s championship victory Monday has decided not to press charges, NOLA.com reported. A video of the encounter has gone viral. The website, citing several anonymous sources, said the 48-year-old officer had signed an affidavit saying he did not want to pursue legal action against Beckham, 27, who is from New Orleans and played for LSU. The New Orleans Police Department had obtained a warrant for Beckham’s arrest on a count of simple battery, WAFB reported. New Orleans police could rescind the warrant or continue to pursue it, NOLA.com reported. According to the website, the officer had ordered LSU players to put out celebratory cigars lit in the locker room. While talking with one player, the lieutenant said he was struck in the rear by a man who was identified as Beckham. The Browns issued a statement Thursday and said Beckham’s representatives “are cooperating with authorities to appropriately address the situation,” WAFB reported. Beckham has already come under scrutiny for reportedly throwing cash at players after the Tigers’ 42-25 victory against Clemson, potentially violating NCAA rules.
  • Professional wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson posted a loving tribute to his father, who died Wednesday. Rocky Johnson, who wrestled for 27 years and broke barriers for black wrestlers, died at age 75. Dwayne Johnson posted a long tribute on Instagram, along with a video. “I love you. You broke color barriers, became a ring legend and trail blazed your way thru this world,” Johnson wrote on Instagram. “I was the boy sitting in the seats, watching and adoring you, my hero from afar. The boy you raised to always be proud of our cultures and proud of who and what I am. The boy you raised with the toughest of love. The intense work. The hard hand. The adoring boy who wanted to know only your best qualities. Who then grew to become a man realizing you had other deep complex sides that needed to be held and understood. Son to father. Man to man. That’s when my adoration turned to respect. And my empathy turned to gratitude. Grateful that you gave me life. Grateful you gave me life’s invaluable lessons.” The elder Johnson was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2008, along with his former father-in-law -- and the Rock’s maternal grandfather -- Peter Maivia. Tony Atlas, who along with Rocky Johnson became the first black tag team champions in WWE history, also posted a tribute on Twitter. “We changed wrestling by paving a new path, knocking down doors while showing what movin’ n groovin’ is all about!” Atlas wrote.
  • Amazon said Saturday it will open another massive warehouse in metro Atlanta that will create 500 new jobs, part of an ongoing courtship of the e-commerce giant that spun out of Georgia’s attempt to land the company’s second headquarters.  The company said Saturday that the 1-million-square-foot facility — roughly the size of an average mall — will be built at the Cubes of Bridgeport site in Newnan. The facility’s employees will pack and ship customer orders for Amazon, the world’s largest retailer. Gov. Brian Kemp said Amazon’s announcement was a testament to Georgia’s “logistics infrastructure, top-ranked workforce and nationally recognized business climate.” The firm did not say when it expected the construction to be complete.  It’s the second major Amazon project for metro Atlanta in the past year. The company announced in July it would build a warehouse in Gwinnett County that would eventually employ 1,000 people, and construction is well underway.  The warehouse is part of a construction spree by Amazon to expand its shipping footprint. The company now operates more than 75 fulfillment centers in North America that employ more than 125,000 staffers, including 3,500 in Georgia.  State economic officials have grown familiar with the company after years of recruiting. Georgia offered billions in incentives and Atlanta made the short list for Amazon’s massive second headquarters before losing out to New York and Northern Virginia in November 2018. Documents released to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed that the state offered more than $2 billion worth of publicly funded incentives to lure the corporate campus, including an academy to train its employees and an exclusive lounge at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.  Also in 2018, Amazon picked Nashville, Tennessee, for a new operations office where it plans to hire 5,000 workers. The company later scuttled its New York plans, briefly raising speculation that the Big Apple’s loss could be Georgia’s gain. But economic development officials were also focused on enticing the company to bring smaller projects to Georgia. Amazon operates several other fulfillment centers and warehouses in metro Atlanta, including East Point and Lithia Springs, and in other parts of Georgia, including Macon.  The warehouse project will make Amazon one of Coweta County’s largest private employers, joining other major firms such as Yamaha Motors and PetSmart, which also has a distribution center that employs about 500 people.  It’s not immediately clear what incentives were offered to Amazon to lure the project. An AJC review showed that nearly $20 million in tax breaks and infrastructure improvements were required to secure the Gwinnett project.  The company also did not immediately say how much it will spend on the site. Trae Westmoreland, head of the Coweta County Development Authority, said the “significant capital investment” will strengthen the local economy and help other firms bring in new business.