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Georgia Politics

    Six months after Gov. Brian Kemp ordered state agencies to cut spending, House leaders reacted Tuesday by backing a midyear budget that restores funding for everything from public health grants, mental health services and efforts to train doctors to agriculture research and court programs to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison. But after months of hand-wringing over the impact of Kemp’s proposed spending cuts, House budget writers also added $250,000 to refit cars on a short-line tourist excursion train in southwest Georgia. In general, the House pushed back on many of the proposed cuts that would impact small-town Georgia, a key constituency in a chamber largely run by lawmakers from outside metro Atlanta. The House Appropriations Committee voted Tuesday to make major changes to Kemp’s proposal to cut $200 million in this year’s budget. The full chamber will vote Wednesday, and then it will be the Senate’s turn to tweak the spending plan. Next up for both will be Kemp’s $28.1 billion budget for fiscal 2021, which begins July 1. That proposal includes $300 million in spending cuts — but also pay raises for teachers and state employees earning less than $40,000 a year — and could produce a more contentious fight over state spending. The votes Tuesday came after the House and Senate took a week-and-a-half-long break from this year’s session to review Kemp’s proposals. Kemp ordered state agencies in August to prepare plans for 4% budget cuts this fiscal year and 6% next year to both respond to slow tax collections last year and provide enough money for the governor’s priorities, including a $2,000 teacher pay raise and his effort to attack gangs. About three-fourths of the budget — money that goes to k-12 schools, colleges, the health program Medicaid and transportation — was exempted from reductions. Through the state’s budget, taxpayers help educate 2 million children, provide health care to more than 2 million Georgians, build roads and bridges, manage parks, investigate crimes and incarcerate criminals, and regulate insurance firms and utilities, along with dozens of professions. The state issues driver’s licenses and helps pay for nursing home care for the elderly. Under state law, the governor sets the estimate of how much tax money the government is expected to bring in next year. Lawmakers can’t spend more than that, so to make up for things they want to add, they must cut elsewhere. House budget writers balanced their plan by cutting vacant positions in the court system and other areas, reducing Kemp’s proposal for some areas of school funding after saying they were using more accurate numbers and eliminating a Department of Corrections electronic health records program that they say hasn’t been implemented. The governor’s office said the $12 million for the program has been used to pay for inmate health care. A major part of Kemp’s savings would come from eliminating about 1,200 vacant state positions, some of which — including crime lab scientists and guards in the juvenile justice system — lawmakers say need to be filled. House budget writers made preliminary changes last week, deciding to restore money to fund more food safety inspectors in the Department of Agriculture and to ensure staffers at the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, don’t have to take days off without pay. House budget writers rejected Kemp’s proposal to cut funding to accountability courts. The courts, which were greatly expanded by his predecessor, allow defendants to avoid prison time if they stay sober, get treatment, receive an education and find a job. The courts are set up for drug addicts, drunken drivers, the mentally ill and veterans who’ve been charged largely with nonviolent crimes and low-level offenses and have been highly popular with lawmakers. The House reduced cuts the governor proposed for the Agriculture Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, two areas of vital interest to rural lawmakers. The House said no to Kemp’s cuts in funding for Morehouse and Mercer medical schools for preparing doctors, and to his proposed reduction to the Rural Health Systems Innovation Center at Mercer, a project lawmakers started a few years ago to help improve health care in rural Georgia. House leaders also reduced cuts that Kemp proposed for mental health, substance abuse treatment, autism treatment and grants to county public health departments, and they eliminated reductions for local library materials. They also put money into the budget to hire three scientists and two lab technicians at the GBI crime lab, which tests rape kits, DNA and firearms. Lawmakers feared not filling those positions would increase a case backlog. House leaders also rejected cuts to the state’s public defenders, who represent indigent defendants in court. Budget writers also added money for a local project or two, something that was more prevalent in the 1990s and 2000s before the Great Recession, They included $250,000 for the Southwest Georgia Railroad Excursion Authority for the Historic SAM Railroad, where people can ride in vintage train cars that run from Cordele to the area around Plains, home of former President Jimmy Carter.
  • 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.
  • The kind of voting system rolling out in Georgia is gaining ground across the country but remains much less common than paper ballots filled out by hand, according to a new national map of voting equipment. Georgia is one of three states that will use touchscreens and ballot printers for all in-person voters this year, according to Verified Voting, a nonpartisan election accuracy advocacy organization. Delaware and South Carolina will also use this kind of voting system statewide. Many states use similar equipment but on a smaller scale to accommodate voters with disabilities. The voting computers, called ballot-marking devices, are available in parts or all of 44 states, often alongside hand-marked paper ballots. About 18% of voters nationwide, more than 37 million, will use ballot-marking devices as their primary voting method this year, according to figures provided by Warren Stewart, a data specialist for Verified Voting who worked on the map. That figure includes 7 million registered voters in Georgia. That’s a sharp increase from elections in 2018, when roughly 2% of voters used ballot-marking devices, Stewart said. The most widespread voting method in the nation is paper ballots with voters’ choices bubbled in with a pen. About 70% of voters, 149 million, use hand-marked paper ballots. There are still 12% of voters who cast their ballots on electronic voting machines that lack a paper ballot, which is the kind of system Georgia used from 2002 to 2019. The Verified Voting map also shows a snapshot of the United States voting equipment industry. Election Systems & Software is the largest voting equipment provider in the country, followed by Dominion Voting Systems and Hart InterCivic. Dominion won Georgia’s $104 elections contract in July. Verified Voting’s map, which was updated last week, now makes a distinction between jurisdictions where most voters are using hand-marked paper ballots or ballot-marking devices. Previously, the map didn’t distinguish between hand-marked and computer-printed ballots.
  • The federal government on Tuesday changed its system for distributing livers to transplant patients, likely meaning fewer livers and lower quality livers for patients in Georgia and some Midwestern states. Now more livers are likely to go to patients in more populous states, such as New York. Americans overall don’t donate enough livers for all the transplant patients who need them. So when a liver becomes available, a national computer system calculates which hospitals in which states and regions are offered the liver first. Hospitals in some populous states such as New York believed that the previous distribution system was unfair. Many agreed that the geographic regions used in the system were antiquated. So the national organization that runs the computer system, the United Network for Organ Sharing, drew up a new distribution system, with new regions. But Georgia and other states say the new system is also unfair. They sued. The case is ongoing, but a federal judge ruled in January that in the meantime the government can make the switch. U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg said she was not saying which system was right. But, she said, the government made a good enough argument for the moment that it drew up the change while working within the law. Many issues are involved in the fight over what’s fair. The federal government said its policy is designed to save the most lives by getting livers to the sickest patients. “This new policy will save more lives annually by providing more transplant access for the most urgent candidates,” UNOS said in a statement. Plaintiffs say it’s faulty. They say the new calculations rely in part on how long a patient has been on a waiting list. They say that gives an advantage to patients with more abundant medical access who may get on waiting lists earlier in their sickness. Patients with scarcer medical access, such as those in rural Georgia, may not get on the list as soon as necessary. One point that aggravated U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri is that some of the areas that are now likely to receive many more livers have a terrible record at trying to get people to donate organs. The organ procurement organization in New York was so bad the government threatened to close it down. “This is the wrong policy to implement and I will keep fighting it,” Blunt said in a written statement. “The new allocation policy rewards historically low-performing organ procurement organizations without taking steps to improve their performance and help more Americans receive a life-saving liver.”

News

  • A California man is accused of entering a home, where the residents said he was making scrambled eggs and eating flan while not wearing pants, authorities said. Carl Cimino, 61, of Desert Hot Springs, was booked into the Riverside County Jail on a charge of residential burglary Tuesday morning, according to arrest records. According to police, three people woke up at their home around 7:30 a.m. and heard banging and yelling in the kitchen. They found Cimino making scrambled eggs with bologna and ranch dressing and eating flan, The Desert Sun reported. According to deputies, Cimino was not wearing pants and refused to leave the residence, the newspaper reported. Deputies finally were able to remove Cimino after using a police service dog, according to the arrest report. Cimino was placed on a gurney and removed from the home by paramedics, according to The Desert Sun. According to jail records, Cimino was free on bail after being arrested Jan. 23 on a drug-related accusation, the newspaper reported. The home’s residents said they were not hurt and there was no damage. They believe Cimino entered the home through an unlocked door, according to The Desert Sun.
  • Nearly all the employees at Orlando’s religious theme park, Holy Land Experience, will lose their jobs this spring. A document sent to the city of Orlando on Monday shows that the theme park will lay off all its staff involved in its stage shows. The move comes after the park announced it will be “shifting the focus of the park away from entertainment and theatrical productions to focus on the Biblical Museum.” Park officials said the layoffs will take effect April 18. In total, according to the Federal Worker Adjustment & Retraining Notification document sent to the city of Orlando, 118 jobs will be eliminated. The restructuring comes as a result of a “corporate wide ministry reorganization,” according to documents filed with the city.
  • A man with a metal detector made an explosive discovery when he found a live mortar from World War II Monday. Police said the munition was a remnant from when the area was used as a training ground during the war. The bomb squad determined the mortar was too unstable to be moved so it was detonated near where it was found. “The blast was heard from a distance, which caused alarm for many residents,” Lebanon police said on social media. “We appreciate everyone’s concerns and phone calls.” Authorities searched the area for more mortars before deeming it safe.
  • Ja’net DuBois, who played feisty neighbor Willona Woods on the 1970s television series “Good Times,” was found dead in her home Tuesday morning, according to a report. She was 74. The actress’ family told TMZ that DuBois died in her sleep at her Glendale, California, home. DuBois played the Evans family’s neighbor on “Good Times,” and also sang the theme song to 1970s sitcom “The Jeffersons,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. DuBois composed and sang “Movin’ On Up” for the show. DuBois won two Emmys Awards for her voice-over work on “The PJs.” She also appeared in movies including “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka,” “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” and “Tropic Thunder,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. DuBois also worked on Broadway, performing in productions including “Golden Boy” and “A Raisin in the Sun.” TV Land, which has aired reruns of “Good Times,” tweeted a tribute to the actress, writing that DuBois “would be missed.”
  • A Florida woman died after a deer that went airborne Monday after being hit by a truck struck her vehicle. The passenger in the car, Edna Morgan Griffin, 81, died in the accident. The driver, Katharine Mills Comerford, 58, was taken to a hospital with serious injuries, WDHN reported. Jessie Alton Barnes, 47, hit the deer while driving a 2018 Dodge Ram. The deer flew through the air before crashing through Comerford’s 2010 Ford Escape. Investigators said the deer crashed through the front windshield, striking both Comerford and Griffin before flying through the back window, WDHN reported. No one else was injured.
  • A Texas woman admitted to robbing Sonic Drive-In carhops at two locations; during one of the robberies, her two children were inside the car, authorities said. Monica Michelle Logan, 21, is accused of robbing two employees at two separate Sonic locations in Converse, according to arrest affidavits. Logan’s 8-month-old and 1-year-old children were in the car during one robbery, KSAT reported. Logan was charged with robbery, aggravated robbery, and two counts of endangering a child, according to Bexar County jail records. Her bail was set at $55,000.According to an arrest affidavit, the first robbery occurred Wednesday. The carhop told police she was delivering a drink to Logan, when Logan said she had a gun pointed at her and demanded the money inside her apron, KSAT reported. On Thursday, Converse police were called to a different Sonic, the television station reported. That carhop told police Logan demanded money after ordering an 80-cent drive, according to the arrest affidavit According to the affidavit, Logan told the employee, “If you look down I have a gun. I want the money inside of your apron. If not, I’m going to shoot you,” KSAT reported. The employee told police Logan had two children in the back seat of her car, according to the affidavit. Converse police tracked down the license plate and discovered the vehicle belonged to Logan, the television station reported. Logan later admitted to the robberies and said the children were in the vehicle, according to KSAT.