On Air Now

Listen Now

Weather

cloudy-day
47°
Cloudy
H -° L 42°
  • cloudy-day
    47°
    Current Conditions
    Cloudy. H -° L 42°
  • cloudy-day
    Today
    Cloudy. H -° L 42°
  • rain-day
    43°
    Tomorrow
    Rain. H 43° L 30°
Listen
Pause
Error

News on-demand

00:00 | 00:00

Listen
Pause
Error

Traffic on-demand

00:00 | 00:00

Listen
Pause
Error

Weather on-demand

00:00 | 00:00

Political Headlines

    A Georgia House panel on Wednesday approved legislation that aims to allow anyone to bring their firearm into Georgia if he or she has a permit to carry a weapon. Georgia currently operates under what is known as “reciprocity” — where only people from states that allow those with Georgia gun permits to carry the weapons there can bring their guns here. Georgia has the “reciprocity” agreements with 32 states ranging from South Carolina to Wyoming. The proposal unanimously cleared a House Public Safety subcommittee. House Bill 787, sponsored by Canton Republican Rep. Mandi Ballinger, said the purpose of the legislation is to make it easier for travelers to bring their guns into the state.  “It would be good for hunting and fishing, as well as some other, kind of, pro-Second Amendment folks,” she said. “It doesn't it doesn't expand our licensing here in the state of Georgia.” It’s unclear if anyone who has brought a gun from a state that Georgia does not have an agreement with has been prosecuted unless he or she already was charged with other crimes. Gun control advocates warned that allowing people from states that may have loose licensing laws could endanger Georgians.  Page Rast, a Smyrna resident and volunteer with gun control group Moms Demand Action, told lawmakers she worried allowing gun permit holders from all states to carry their weapons in Georgia. “Weakening reciprocity laws is just not a good practice,” Rast said. “This will only make it more difficult for local Georgia law enforcement to help keep our communities safe.”
  • The race to become the Democratic Party’s nominee for president is still wide open, and all attention is on Nevada this week as it becomes the third state to vote. Nevada has something the two previous states didn’t have: a sizable nonwhite population. That makes this state more comparable to Georgia than either New Hampshire or Iowa. With some candidates surging (Michael Bloomberg) while others hold on for dear life (Joe Biden), there will be great interest regarding who lands a the top after Saturday’s voting concludes.  An added wrinkle: Nevada is among a handful of states and U.S. territories that decides its winner via the caucus system. After the drama in Iowa caused by faulty technology, Democratic Party officials in this western state have vowed not to make the same mistakes. Here are the storylines to follow: Bloomberg’s first debate Tonight’s debate will be the first for Michael Bloomberg, who was ineligible to participate in previous ones because of rules that made it nearly impossible for self-funded candidates to qualify. Now, Bloomberg will be on stage with his opponents for the first time and facing tough questions about his policies as New York City mayor, his previous life as a Republican and whether it is his money, as opposed to his vision for America, that has given him a leg up in national standings. Biden needs a good showing The pressure is on Joe Biden to prove he still should be considered a top-tier candidate after fourth and fifth place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively. He is expected to lean heavily on Nevada’s minority voting populations, and a good finish here is crucial to keeping him in the conversation among moderate Democrats. If Biden does not do well in Nevada, he could start losing support to other candidates whose campaigns appear to be in a stronger position. On the evening before the debate, Biden held an event with Asian-American and Pacific Islander supporters at a seafood restaurant in the Chinatown Mall plaza. His brief remarks focused on America being a country built by immigrants, and he spoke about his pro-immigration platform. Afterward, staff members directed audience members to a nearby early voting site. Sanders could secure top-dog status Recent polls point place Bernie Sanders in the lead, and a win in Nevada would be his second in a row and solidify his position as the front-runner. He was a close runner up to Pete Buttigieg in Iowa. However, Sanders’ self-described socialist policies scare some moderate Democrats who fear he won’t be able to beat Trump in the general election. The question is: will the moderate candidates fight among each other for the centrist vote in hopes of overcoming Sanders’ later or will they try to poke holes in Sanders’ coalition now?  In addition to Bloomberg, Biden, Buttigieg and Sanders, the other candidates participating in the debate are U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Another self-funded candidate, Tom Steyer, failed to qualify for the debate but has been spending heavily in Nevada and could do well on Saturday. Warren has been losing support to Sanders as both are vying for the same progressive voters. Klobuchar’s campaign is gaining steam, and she ended New Hampshire’s primary in third place. Buttigieg, the former Indiana mayor, finished first in Iowa and second in New Hampshire, putting him at the top near Sanders. But he still struggles to connect with voters of color, who constitute about half of Nevada’s population. The impact of unions One of Nevada’s most powerful unions, the Culinary Workers Union, decided not to endorse a candidate ahead of the caucus. The organization, which represents 60,000 hotel workers, has been critical of Sanders’ “Medicare for All” healthcare plan and some of its leaders have long-standing relationships with Joe Biden. So, the decision not to get behind a single candidate is worth tracking to see if unions in later primary states like Georgia follow suit. Is this an indication that the wide-open field leaves even the most politically connected groups hesitant to make a choice? Is this a new trend, where powerful groups avoid the risks involved with endorsing a candidate and instead focus on pushing a platform of policies they can pursue with whoever is the eventual nominee?
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Gov. Brian Kemp traveled to Cobb County Thursday to tour a high school and to bolster public support for his proposed pay raise for teachers. After getting the General Assembly to back a raise last year, Kemp is pushing for another $2,000 to complete a 2018 campaign pledge. But fellow Republican and state House Speaker David Ralston has his own goals for the 2021 budget and has said a raise for teachers may have to wait. The state likely cannot afford both that and an income tax cut that many lawmakers want. The impasse has led to a legislative shutdown that Ralston called last week to work on the budget. On Thursday, Kemp toured McEachern High School in Cobb County, which has a new nurse prep program. It was a friendly venue to tout his legislative agenda, including the raise. Under his budget proposal, the state would, for the third year in a row, pay the maximum in the school funding formula. And Kemp is budgeting more than $350 million more “to deliver the promise of the $5,000 pay raise that I campaigned on,” he said during the school visit. Standing in front of cameras and flanked by educators, students, lawmakers and other officials, the governor said 44% of Georgia teachers leave the profession within their first five years. “Those in this room know we have a serious teacher retention problem that requires our immediate attention,” he said. “I believe this well-deserved pay raise will go a long way to incentivizing our best and brightest to stay in the classroom.” He is also budgeting millions more to give other school employees raises. It may not sound like much in a $28 billion budget, but a lot of that money is already spoken for. The overall education allocation alone consumes more than a third of the total, at nearly $11 billion. Health care and other costs consume much of the rest. Lawmakers have their own plans for the remaining discretionary dollars. In 2018, they cut the top income tax rate from 6% to 5.75%, and planned to reduce it further this year to 5.5%. That 2018 reduction played a role in Kemp’s demand for budget cuts this year and next. His budget doesn’t contemplate the extra quarter percentage point tax cut that Ralston wants, and the money would have to come from somewhere. Last week, after Ralston called a halt to the legislative session, he described the raise as “a big, big ticket” item and said the tax cut “was a commitment that we made to the taxpayers of Georgia. … We had always planned to do the second step this year.” The next day, he said he understood Kemp wanted to keep his campaign promise and that he didn’t disagree with the goal. He said he wasn’t saying “no” to the raise. “It may just be saying ‘not now.’” Kemp’s decision to take his campaign on the road suggests he wants leverage in negotiations with Ralston, said Brandon Phillips, a Republican strategist. In his first year in office, Kemp traveled across the state to meet with teachers and school administrators. It’s a meet-the-people style that makes Phillips think of President Donald Trump, whose election campaign he managed in Georgia. “I think our governor has found success and likes being out on the trail,” Phillips said. “I think he’s using all the levers he can find.” He said it’s unclear which is more popular, a tax cut or a teacher pay raise, but added that Kemp did campaign hard on the pay raise and won statewide and, as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last month, his poll numbers have risen considerably since his election. RELATED →  Georgia House budget writers vote down some of Kemp’s proposed cuts RELATED → ‘Toxic politics.’ The feud between Kemp and Ralston takes sharp turn RELATED → Kemp’s budget may make it harder to cut Georgia income tax rate again in 2020 Lawmakers who previously found it difficult to get financial information from the Kemp administration have found a “renewed spirit of cooperation” during the legislative break, said Kaleb McMichen, Ralston’s spokesman. With that cooperation, they have discovered even more budgetary needs, such as a 95% turnover rate among correctional officers, GBI scientists to process sexual assault evidence, food inspectors and mental health professionals. “The speaker agrees with the governor, in principle, that teachers deserve a further raise, but the budget process is about balancing priorities with critical needs,” McMichen said. Kemp has a ready-made network to support his pay initiative. The Professional Association of Georgia Educators has been encouraging its 97,000 members to pepper Ralston’s colleagues in the House of Representatives with emails and phone calls in favor. Next week, as the legislative session resumes, that group and others will be hosting member visits to the Gold Dome. It’s an annual show of force, when teachers meet lawmakers and lawmakers, who will be up for reelection later in the year, try to make a good impression. “I suspect that advocacy in support of the pay raise will intensify next week,” said Margaret Ciccarelli, the group’s chief lobbyist. In a survey of association members last year, compensation was the No. 1 concern, she said. The $3,000 pay raise granted last year, and the promise of more to come, may already be having an effect, at least with older teachers. “Great teachers who may have retired are staying,” said Regina Montgomery, the McEachern principal. Teacher pensions are based on the final two years of pay, so to capitalize on the recent increase, teachers need to stick around. L.C. (Buster) Evans, executive director of the Teachers Retirement System of Georgia, said the number of teachers who retire statewide had been growing by 200 or 300 a year — until now. So far this year, retirements have actually dropped by a hundred, he said, and he surmises it is because teachers want these raises reflected in their pension checks. “I really think it’s one of those things that’s an unintended consequence,” he said. “People like making more money.” Cobb Superintendent Chris Ragsdale said his district used last year’s $3,000 raise to supplement local funding that gave teachers the biggest pay raise in district history. Dave Shuler, 65, is an automotive instructor at McEachern who can retire next fall, and probably will. His body can’t take the work anymore, he said, and the pay raise doesn’t change that. Even so, it’s been nice to have the extra $300 or so a month. “My wife really loves it,” he said.
  • 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.”
  • 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.”
  • Bill Compton, senior vice president for Grady Emergency Medical Services, is happy to deliver data on response times for his ambulances in one of the most vulnerable corners of the state: south Fulton. And why wouldn’t he be pleased? Grady, he said, has shaved off 10 minutes from the previous ambulance service’s response times. “That’s my Reader’s Digest version,” he recently told an Atlanta committee of evaluators. Meanwhile, not everyone is buying it, especially a competitor. Compton’s data is “self-reported and not vetted,’’ Terence Ramotor, regional director for American Medical Response, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That’s why he cautions against using the data to compare AMR’s performance of a year ago to Grady’s. » RELATED: Proposal falls short of needed EMS reforms, critics say » MORE: Politics and conflicts mire EMS service in Georgia Amid public uproars over long waits for emergency transport, debates over the accuracy of reported response times for ambulances are common across the state. While the measure falls short of defining the quality of emergency care, the time it takes an ambulance to arrive on the scene at times can mean the difference between life and death. Now, a statewide committee of top EMS officials that advises state leaders wants to put an end to the data disputes and establish an objective process that could better ensure the public is getting the best service. The Georgia Emergency Medical Services Advisory Council wants the state to require regional EMS councils to evaluate providers based on independent data that is tied to clinical and system performance. The proposal, adopted by EMSAC members late last year, is a top priority of a 25-page strategic plan that is aimed at overhauling the state’s EMS system. “Sometimes, when you look at your own house, you don’t see the dirt,’’ said Courtney Terwilliger, a member of the Georgia Trauma Commission. “Sometimes, you need outside eyes.” In June, an AJC examination found the state fails in its duty to ensure the quality, timeliness and reliability of Georgia’s emergency medical services system. Many of the problems, the AJC found, stem from vague state rules for determining who is selected to provide emergency transport services and how they are vetted, leaving the system vulnerable to political pressure and conflicts of interest. Over the last several months, state EMS leaders, including Terwilliger, have been pushing a host of reforms to lend more clarity to decisions. The state, meanwhile, has said it plans to improve oversight and develop rules to hold providers accountable. In December, the state adopted a new rule that requires the regional councils to adhere to the open meeting law and to disclose conflicts of interest. David Newton, who became the director of the state Office of EMS and Trauma about a year ago, recently announced that there will also be a push for a rule that would allow the regional councils to develop their own measures for evaluating the performance of ambulance providers. Newton’s office just hired a data manager to produce reports to aggregate data from patient care reports, he said. So far, none of the regional councils has made a formal request for the data to evaluate providers, Newton told the AJC. Welcome involvement More than a dozen fire chiefs in Fulton County would welcome the state’s involvement. In fact, leaders across the state have petitioned Newton’s office to allow municipalities to establish a reasonable standard to apply to evaluations of providers. In south Fulton, fire chiefs from several cities said such a move would increase their level of comfort with the quality of service from an ambulance provider. Some have had concerns about their inability to hold providers accountable to pledges of good service. “What fundamentally has to happen is that, in order to improve a system, we have to define what the desired outcome is,’’ Fire Chief Henry Argo, of the city of Palmetto, told the AJC. » RELATED: Long waits for ambulances erode public confidence in DeKalb » FROM 2018: DeKalb working to address slow ambulance service That outcome hasn’t been defined in an effective way by the councils or by the state, he said. To start, the state could charge local leaders with establishing a clear definition for the response time statistic that must be reported. Providers in the past have reported only average response times, a figure that doesn’t paint an accurate picture of the level of services, Argo said. So, for example, he said, if most 9-1-1 calls happen in one area, a provider that concentrates resources in that area can keep average response times very low, even while response times are poor in outlying areas that account for a smaller percentage of calls. A better standard, he said, would be a statistic that is required by elected officials in Palmetto. Every month, Argo said he must report to his bosses if his medic-fire crews are arriving within eight minutes on 90 percent of calls. That is what elected officials consider a reasonable level of service for the community. So why not define such a goal for ambulance providers? “Until there is a common determination of what those statistics are,” the system can’t be evaluated properly, Argo said. Data wars Feuds, big and small, break out all over the state, thanks to attackable data. David Loftin, a former EMS regional director in northwest Georgia, remembers one dispute in which he played the role of referee between two competitors. He spent days watching them as they sat across the table from each other, passing pieces of paper to fact check each other’s response times. “We had to print out all the patient trip reports off the computer and they looked at each of the (response) times, at every single call, to make sure the other wasn’t telling fibs on trip reports,” Loftin said. A similar dispute still festers in south Fulton. » MORE: Ambulance delays continue to put south Fulton lives at risk » RELATED: Scant resources undermine EMS in Georgia Argo said south Fulton fire chiefs have asked Fulton County EMS to provide verifiable data on response times in their respective cities. They prefer that to Grady’s self-reported data. “That is something that collectively we feel very strongly about,’’ Argo said. “As long as it rests with Fulton County, we’ll get more of a true picture.” Grady was selected as the ambulance provider for the area a year ago largely on the promise that it would provide a 9-minute response time. In January, Compton said it had delivered an average response time of about 11.46 minutes, based on a year’s worth of Grady data. Meanwhile, Fulton County reported an average response time that was close to Grady’s analysis, said Pete Quinones, chairman of the EMS Council ad hoc committee that evaluated Grady. Quinones and Argo acknowledged that Grady had not hit the 9-minute average response time goal but said its service has been an improvement over AMR’s. Argo added, however, that he and other fire chiefs believe Grady’s service “could be better.” Meanwhile, Ramotor, the AMR official, points out what he sees as gaps in the evaluation process. A year ago, he bid a 12-minute response time for ambulances in south Fulton, where there is no financial support from the county and most trips are reimbursed at low rates. When the council reviewed the bids, he said evaluators appeared to cherry pick his company’s highest average response times in rural communities that are harder to access, including Chattahoochee and Palmetto. At the same time, they overlooked average response times that appeared better in the cities of College Park and East Point, which are in urban areas. In response to some of the criticisms, Quinones, who was among the evaluators that voted to replace AMR, said leaders in EMS Region 3 have implemented a series of performance measures to evaluate providers like Grady. Grady administrators, in response to questions, told the AJC that they have implemented modifications to improve performance. In April, it plans to integrate its 911 Emergency Medical Dispatch Center with Fulton County’s computer-aided dispatch, which will allow Grady to have real-time information on the location of ambulances nearest to calls. A new deployment of crews also will boost the number of 24-hour units on the streets, administrators told the AJC. ‘Invaluable’  Georgia may be on the cusp of bringing objective data to bear on decisions as it also will face pressures like other states to adopt priorities set by the health care industry, others say. The health care system, which includes EMS, is quickly moving toward value- and quality-based decision making, said Matt Zavadsky, president of the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians, and chief strategic integration officer for MedStar Mobile Healthcare in North Texas. It only makes sense to equip those regional councils that make determinations about providers to have access to data upon which to make their decisions, he said. “Having the ability to prove quality and make decisions based on quality,” he said, “would be invaluable.” ---
  • 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.

News

  • A mother in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, is heartbroken, claiming her son was kicked out of Walmart because of his disability. Buddy, 24, is 6-foot-2 and nonverbal with special needs, but he communicates with noises that can sometimes get loud. His mother told WPXI that while he and his service worker were inside the Walmart in Baden, they were approached by a worker who asked them to leave. Tammy Sheets said an employee who claimed to be a manager asked them to leave because of the noises her son was making. “She (the service worker) said, ‘Are you serious?’ Because she was shocked. And he said, ‘If he is going to continue to make those noises then yes,’” Sheets said. Sheets doesn’t know if her son understood what happened, but she said he cried afterward. She called Walmart’s corporate office and filed a complaint. She also called the American Civil Liberties Union. WPXI reached out to Walmart. A spokesperson said they are aware of the situation and that this was a misunderstanding. Walmart officials claim the employee did not ask them to leave the store. “I don’t know if he was sad or embarrassed or both, but that hurt me as a mother. … I’m here, I’m supposed to defend him,” said Sheets. Walmart updated its statement Wednesday, and the full comment is below: “Our associates and customers reflect the diverse communities we serve and our doors are open to everyone. This was an unfortunate misunderstanding, and at no point did we ask or tell these individuals to leave or exit the store. Our management team has experience serving customers and family members with autism and working to ensure they have a positive experience in the store.”
  • Two Calhoun State Prison officers in Morgan, Georgia, were arrested for allegedly smuggling drugs and other items inside a popular microwavable sandwich. The two female officers were arrested Monday after a metal detector alerted investigators to about 112 grams of meth and tobacco inside a Pepperoni Pizza Hot Pocket, according to WALB. Officer Corlethia Lattimore was charged with drug trafficking and Imani Ferguson was charged with conspiracy and giving illegal substances to inmates. Both were charged with violation of oath of office. Calhoun County Sheriff Josh Hilton told WALB that there have been almost a dozen arrests in the last year of people trying to smuggle contraband into the prison.
  • Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg took fire from all sides Wednesday in a contentious Democratic presidential debate that saw him questioned on race, money and calling women “fat broads.” In the course of the two-hour event, Bloomberg, in his first debate appearance, was forced to defend his policy of stop and frisk and was asked if he would, there onstage, release from non-disclosure agreements women in his company who have complained about a hostile workplace. Bloomberg was hesitant in some answers and seemed nervous when answering other pointed questions, many thrown at him by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Warren displayed a take-no-prisoners attitude for much of the debate, going after not only Bloomberg but everyone else on the stage over issues such as health care, climate change and taxing the wealthy. A recurring argument between Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar turned heated at one point with Klobuchar asking Buttigieg if he was saying she is dumb. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, also got into several sharp exchanges with Bloomberg, saying he doesn’t believe a billionaire should be allowed to “buy an election.” Former Vice President Joe Biden, who likewise went after Bloomberg and his wealth, also took a swipe at Sanders’ Medicare-for-all plan. “When you asked Bernie how much it cost last time he said...' We’ll find out,’” Biden quipped. “It costs over $35 trillion, let’s get real.” Here’s how the debate went: Live updates: Closing statements 11 p.m. ET Feb. 19, 2020: The debate ends as the candidates are asked to give closing statements. Klobuchar says it’s about heart and Trump doesn’t have one. She then asks people to go to her website. Bloomberg says people should go to his website, but he’s not asking for money. He says Trump isn’t doing the job – he’s not a manager, he can’t build teams. Buttigieg says time is running out but he is the candidate who can build the largest coalition to defeat Trump. “I grew up fighting,” Warren said. She talks about the hard times she had as a youngster and wonders why the US is still in hard times. Biden begins to talk and protesters begin to yell. They are escorted from the room. He resumes his statement saying he is running to help people. “I know what it’s like to get knocked down.” Sanders says he is the candidate for universal health care and taxing millionaires and billionaires. Who wins at the convention? 10:45 p.m. ET Feb. 19, 2020: Todd asks each candidate if the person with the most candidates should win the nomination, not the person with 1,991 – a majority of the total number of Democratic delegates to the national convention. Everyone but Sanders says no, the process should play out as the rules dictate. Sanders says the process is skewed with super delegates and that must be addressed. Perfection 10:43 p.m. ET Feb. 19, 2020: Klobuchar: tells Buttigieg she wishes 'everyone was as perfect as you” after he attacks her on her record. “You’ve memorized a bunch of talking points, and a bunch of things,” she says.Buttigieg begins to speak in Spanish. Helping with Trump’s re-election, according to Bloomberg 10:40 p.m. ET Feb. 19, 2020: Bloomberg takes a swipe at Sanders’s explanation of Democratic socialism. “I can’t think of a way that would make it easier for Donald Trump to get re-elected than listening to this conversation,” Bloomberg said. “This is ridiculous. We’re not going to throw out capitalism. We tried that. Other countries tried that. It was called communism and it just didn’t work.” Burnin’ down the party Biden on guns Who is the president of Mexico? 9:55 p.m. ET Feb. 19, 2020: Klobuchar is asked about her inability to name the president of Mexico during an interview a few days ago. She says his name, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, just slipped her mind. Buttigieg says that shouldn’t happen because part of her job as a senator is overseeing border issues, and he suggests she is not as prepared as she says she is. Warren steps in and defends Klobuchar, saying forgetting a name happens sometimes. Sexist remarks 9:50 p.m. ET Feb. 19, 2020: Warren pounces on Bloomberg for his answer on allegations that he made sexist remarks to women in his company, Bloomberg LP.Bloomberg says he will not talk about it, and that when someone makes sexist remarks at his company, “we investigate it. And if it’s inappropriate, they’re gone that day.”Warren cuts in and asks why he won’t release women from confidentiality agreements they signed relating to sexist comments and a hostile workplace.“I’m sorry the question is are the women bound by being muzzled by you and you could release them from that immediately? Understand, this is not just a question of the mayor’s character. This is also a question about electability.”He says he will not release the women from the agreements.The audience boos.“I hope you heard what his defense was. I’ve been nice to some women,” Warren said. ‘I can’t go to Turbo Tax’ 9:40 p.m. ET Feb. 19, 2020: Bloomberg explains why he has not yet released his tax returns. It’s a massive job to do that, Bloomberg says, and the results will be in the thousands of pages, he said. “I can’t go to Turbo Tax,” he says. Stop and frisk 9:37 p.m. ET Feb. 19, 2020: Bloomberg explains his stop and frisk policy: “I thought my first responsibility was to give people the right to live,” he said, but “it got out of control.” “I’ve sat, I’ve apologized, I’ve asked for forgiveness,” Bloomberg said. “We stopped too many people.” Warren responded, “This really is about leadership and accountability,” she said. “It targeted communities of color; it targeted black and brown men from the beginning. You need a new apology.” Health care is the issue 9:20 p.m. ET Feb. 19, 2020: Warren attacks the health care plans of everyone on the stage. She says Klobuchar’s could be written on a Post-It note. Buttigieg’s plan is a campaign slogan, she says. Klobuchar responds: “Post-it notes were invented in my state.” Fireworks from the start 9:10 a.m. ET Feb. 19, 2020: Sanders gets the first question. It is about Bloomberg and why he, Sanders, would be a better choice for president. Sanders says Bloomberg has baggage that will keep him from bringing in people for Democrats. Bloomberg says he doesn’t think there is “a chance of the senator (Sanders) beating Trump,” pointing to Sanders’ plan for Medicare for all. Warren goes after Bloomberg saying there’s one candidate who has referred to women as “fat broad” and “horse-faced lesbians.” “No, I’m not talking about Donald Trump, I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.” “We are not going to win,” Warren said, “If we substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.” Klobuchar said she was happy to see Bloomberg on the stage until she saw a memo from Bloomberg’s campaign that suggested she get out of the race. Biden says, according to an NBC poll, he is the one who can beat Trump. “Look at your own poll,” he tells the moderators. Buttigieg says the nominee could end up being one of the “two most polarizing figures on this stage.” Then he suggests, “Let’s put someone forward who is actually a Democrat.” xxxx The debate is about to start 8:53 p.m. ET Feb. 19, 2020: The candidates are taking the stage now. Who’s Number One? 8:40 p.m. ET Feb. 19, 2020: Sanders is now the front-runner in the Democratic race for the presidential nomination, replacing Biden. He is holding around 30% support in national polls. However, the leader in primary results, which is what matters in gaining the nomination, is former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. He’s up by one delegate over Sanders. Steyer isn’t there, but his money is 8:31 p.m. ET Feb. 19, 2020: Tom Steyer is not on the debate stage tonight. The billionaire entrepreneur has spent upwards of $14 million on ad buys in Nevada and is on the Nevada ballot, but he did not get enough support in polls to make the stage. When will we know Nevada’s results? 8:25 p.m. ET Feb. 19, 2020: The Associated Press is reporting that Democrats will not commit to releasing Saturday’s Nevada caucuses results on Saturday. According to The AP, Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez said several factors, including early voting and potentially high turnout, could affect the tabulation and timing of results. In addition, Nevada, like Iowa, will be reporting three sets of data from the multistage caucus process. The rules 8:16 p.m. ET Feb. 19, 2020: The rules for the night will allow debaters one minute and 15 seconds for answering questions they are given by moderators, and 45 seconds for follow-up responses at the moderators’ discretion. In past debates, those rules have often gone straight out the window with people jumping in on their own and, at times, hijacking the stage Health issues 8:03 p.m. ET Feb. 19, 2020: Bloomberg’s and Sanders’ campaigns have been trading barbs today. Sanders’ press secretary claimed this morning on CNN that Bloomberg has had “several heart attacks.” Bloomberg’s campaign called her out, saying Bloomberg has never had a heart attack. Sanders, himself, has been questioned about his health following the heart attack he suffered in the fall. 7:43 p.m. ET Feb. 19, 2020: Robert Reich, who was in Presidents Gerald Ford’s, Jimmy Carter’s and Bill Clinton’s administrations, offers a list of questions Michael Bloomberg may have to answer tonight. Live updates are beginning 7:30 p.m. ET Feb. 19, 2020: Welcome to live updates from the Democratic presidential debate. Six candidates are in Las Vegas getting ready for the debate which comes three days before Saturday’s Nevada caucuses.
  • A human brain was seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the U.S - Canadian border last week in a shipment that was only identified as an “Antique Teaching Specimen.” An inspection on a mail truck entering the United States from Canada in Port Huron revealed a package that contained a human brain inside of a clear glass mason jar, according to WKBW. The package originated in Toronto and was on its way to Kenosha, Wisconsin, before it was intercepted by agents. The item did not have any paperwork or legal documents and was denied entry into the U.S. “Individuals looking to import shipments such as this, need to remember that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has a strict Import Permit Program that must be adhered to. This is just another great example of just one of the many things CBP officers do to protect our nation on a daily basis,” Area Port Director Michael Fox told WKBW. According to WDJT-TV, authorities are investigating how to dispose of the brain.
  • A Louisiana man accused of shoplifting items from a Walmart dragged a sheriff’s deputy across the store’s parking lot in a car as he tried to flee, authorities said. Joseph Ray Hollingsworth, 44, of Independence, was booked on several charges, including theft, resisting an officer, battery of a police officer, aggravated flight from an officer by vehicle and possession of a stolen firearm, according to a news release by the St. John the Baptist Sheriff’s Office. Saturday, officers working security at the Walmart were alerted about a man, later identified as Hollingworth, allegedly stealing items from the store, WVUE reported. Deputies detained Hollingworth and put him in handcuffs, but he was able to get free and fled, NOLA.com reported. Hollingsworth got into a vehicle and a deputy dived on top of him, the website reported. According to the Sheriff’s Office news release, Hollingsworth was able to start the vehicle and drove away, dragging the deputy alongside him. Hollingsworth eventually crashed into a basket corral, and the deputy was able to put the vehicle in park, WVUE reported. According to the Sheriff’s Office, a search of the car revealed a stolen handgun and plastic bags containing methamphetamine residue, NOLA.com reported. In the news release, deputies said Hollingsworth had active warrants issued by the Walker Police Department and had a suspended driver’s license, according to WVUE. Hollingsworth and the deputy were treated for minor injuries, the television station reported. Hollingsworth is being held in lieu of $67,500 bail, according to arrest records.
  • Former Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Greg Robinson was arrested Tuesday and was being held in a Texas jail on drug distribution charges, authorities said Wednesday. Robinson, 27, who started 14 games for the Browns in 2019, was booked by the Drug Enforcement Administration on Tuesday, according to El Paso County jail records. Robinson was arrested at the Sierra Blanca border checkpoint near the U.S.-Mexico border, AL.com reported. Robinson faces a charge of possessing marijuana with intent to sell, ESPN reported. Robinson has played six seasons in the NFL. He was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft and was the first-round pick of the St. Louis Rams. He played collegiately at Auburn University. Robinson played the 2019 second season in Cleveland on a one-year contract, and the Browns already told his agent the lineman would not be re-signed by the Browns in 2020, according to cleveland.com. He will become a free agent March 18, the website reported.