Author: Jon Richards

Speaker Ralston Discusses the Upcoming Legislative Session

In a wide ranging discussion with members of the Capitol Hill press corps, House Speaker David Ralston covered several issues that are expected to come up during the 2016 legislative session, which begins on Monday. Among the topics the Speaker addressed were medical marijuana legislation, MARTA legislation, and funding for the Hope scholarship.

Speaker David Ralston takes questions from the media in advance of the legislative session.
Speaker David Ralston takes questions from the media in advance of the legislative session.
The Speaker expressed his disappointment with President Obama’s recent executive actions to expand the scope of background checks in an effort to reduce gun violence. He said that the president had tried to make a terror attack into a gun issue. “I am firmly committed to our Constitution, including the Second Amendment,” the Speaker said. “We blame a lot of things on guns in our society. I think we’re wrong to do that, and as long as I’m in this position, we’re going to continue to protect the rights of Georgians under the Second Amendment, and anything that will infringe on that will have a tough time getting past my office.”

On other issues, Speaker Ralston expressed his support for Rep. Allen Peake’s new bill that would expand the number of diseases that could be treated, and said that at some point, the decision over whether to treat a patient using medical marijuana should be made by medical professionals. On whether the state should permit casinos and / or horse racing as a method of raising funds for the Hope Scholarship, the Speaker said that ultimately, whether to allow gambling would be up to the people. But, figuring out the details of implementation could be more difficult. It’s also important, the Speaker said, to examine ways to reduce tuition and fee increases within the university system so as not to put such a burden on the scholarship program. Read more

Rep. Westmoreland Won’t Seek Another Term. Who Will Replace Him?

Rep. Lynn Westmoreland at the Georgia GOP 2015 convention. Photo: Jon Richards
Rep. Lynn Westmoreland at the Georgia GOP 2015 convention. Photo: Jon Richards
In a move that some in Georgia’s third congressional district had been suspecting, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland announced today that he will be retiring from Congress at the end of the current term.

His statement:

After a busy fall in Congress, I finally had the opportunity for quiet reflection over the Christmas break. I spent time in prayer and with my family, and with their blessing, have decided I will no longer seek reelection for Georgia’s Third Congressional District.

It has been an honor to serve Georgia’s Third District for the last twelve years, and I believe it is time to pass the torch to our next conservative voice. Washington, D.C. is a much different environment in 2016 than when I was elected in 2004. I know all too well the challenges the new representative will face, and pledge to offer my support and guidance to the next candidate.

Joan and I want to thank the people of Georgia’s Third District. We are forever blessed to have received your support and friendship during my time in office. I look forward to this next chapter in my life; returning to my community and spending more time with family and friends.

So who will replace the six term congressman? Early bets for those likely to run for the seat include State Sen. Josh McKoon of Columbus, Senator Mike Crane of Newnan, Senator Marty Harbin of Tyrone, Rep. Matt Ramsey of Peachtree City, and Westmoreland’s current Chief of Staff Matt Brass.

All are Republicans. Do you have any other ideas for possible contenders? Let us know in the comments.

Congress Passes Measure Repealing Much of Obamacare

On a virtual party line vote of 240-181, the U.S. House voted to approve H.R. 3762, the Restoring Americans Healthcare Freedom Reconciliation Act. The bill contains several measures popular with Republicans and conservatives, including a repeal of portions of the Affordable Care Act and the defunding of Planned Parenthood. Because the bill was passed under reconciliation rules authorized by the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, the bill was not subject to a Senate filibuster, unlike the more than 60 previous attempts to repeal Obamacare.

The measure now goes to President Obama, who is all but certain to veto it. According to the Associated Press, the next act in this political Kabuki Theatre will be an attempted override vote on January 22nd, which coincides with the annual March for Life and the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. Republicans likely will not have enough votes to override the President’s veto.

Legislative passage of a measure repealing the health care law does mean that a major goal has been met by the Republican congress, something demanded by the party’s base. And, Georgia’s representatives didn’t hesitate to crow about their achievement. You can read their statements below the fold. Read more

Allen Peake Releases Details of Proposed Medical Marijuana Legislation

State Rep. Allen Peake of Macon will file legislation that both expands the list of conditions under which patients can obtain medical marijuana and permits for the first time the cultivation of the plant for medical purposes in the state of Georgia. Details of the legislator’s plans were first reported by Atlanta’s 11 Alive. From their story:

In the new legislation, Peake aims to add Alzheimer’s, Epidermolysis Bullosa, Aids, Tourette’s syndrome, and intractable pain. Intractable pain will be the most controversial because it will allow the greatest number of patients to have access to cannabis.Currently, there are 465 patients on the medical marijuana registry in Georgia.

As part of the legislation, Peake is also pushing for a limited number of licensed growers to provide the state’s patients with medical cannabis. Peake foresees anywhere from two to six licenses being issued depending on a number of qualifying factors.

Following the passage of H.B. 1 during the 2015 session, Peake led a study committee over the summer that looked into expanding medical marijuana usage in the Peach State. That committee ended up making no recommendations. Governor Deal has indicated he is not in favor of in-state cultivation of medical marijuana.

On Tuesday, Peake released a video in support of his proposed legislation.

Bill Would Prohibit Legislative Conference Committee Members from State Employment for Two Years

You might call it the “No More Jay Roberts Promotions” bill.

Roberts was chairman of the House Transportation Committee during the 2015 session, and managed to shepherd House Bill 170 through both House and Senate, and fulfilling a goal expressed by Governor Deal, Lt. Governor Cagle, and Speaker Ralston during the early days of the session. A month after the end of the session, Roberts was nominated by Governor Deal to run GDOT’s planning department, replacing Toby Carr.

Under Senate Bill 256, prefiled on Monday by Senator Josh McKoon of Columbus, an offer like Roberts had would be prohibited for two years after a legislator serves on a conference committee. From the bill’s text:

No member of the General Assembly who serves on a conference committee shall be eligible for employment in state government, other than as an elected official, for a period of 24 months immediately following such member’s service on such conference committee.

Roberts, of course, served on the conference committee that produced the final version of the bill that was voted on during the penultimate day of the 2015 session.

Athens-Clarke County Commission Will Consider an Anti-Discrimination Resolution at Tonight’s Meeting

The Athens-Clarke County Board of Commissioners will consider a resolution designed to combat discrimination in the county’s bars at its meeting tonight. The resolution, which is expected to pass, comes after reports of discrimination against racial and sexual minorities in bars serving the University of Georgia population, as a story in the Athens Banner Herald explains:

The action by commissioners Mike Hamby, Kelly Girtz and Andy Herod, who enjoy wide support among their colleagues, comes on the heels of a couple developments late last year on the downtown bar scene. In October, a bartender “cheat sheet” including instructions for making a racially insensitive drink — a “N*****ita” containing tequila and watermelon juice — was discovered in General Beauregard’s, an East Clayton Street bar. Shortly after that, the results of an anonymous online survey conducted through the University of Georgia’s Student Government Association, comprising anecdotal evidence of discriminatory admissions practices at downtown bars, were shared with Commissioner Allison Wright, whose district comprises most of the UGA campus.

The dozens of incidents detailed in the survey, some dating back two years, described some bars’ use of “dress code” and “private event” exclusions to keep ethnic minorities and homosexuals out of their establishments.

The resolution itself “condemns unlawful discrimination in any form and hereby call upon all businesses serving the public within the boundaries of Athens-Clarke County to act in a non-discriminatory fashion with regard to race, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, national origin, citizenship, age, disability, or pregnancy.” The resolution expresses the support of the county mayor and commission of any investigations into incidents of alleged discrimination that violate federal, state or local non-discrimination laws.

The resolution also directs the Clarke County attorney and county administrator to make recommendations for possible changes to local ordinances that would support the commission’s non-discriminatory values. The resolution specifically contemplates changes to the county’s alcohol licensing laws so that an alcoholic beverage licensee could have its license suspended or revoked if the licensee was found to be in violation of discrimination laws at the federal, state, or local level.

Sen. McKoon Files Bills Affecting Transportation Funding Act Revenue

State Senator Josh McKoon of Columbus has prefiled several bills that if passed, would roll back some of the taxes that came with the passage of House Bill 170, last year’s major transportation funding bill. The measures have to do with the hotel tax and the excise tax on fuel that is paid by governmental entities.

The House – Senate conference committee that reconciled the two versions of the bill decided to add a $5 per room per night fee on most hotel stays that was estimated to raise $150 million annually. Those in the lodging industry were not happy. Senate Bill 252 repeals the fee completely, without another revenue source specified to make up the shortfall.

Senate Bill 253 exempts counties, municipalities, and school districts from having to pay the excise tax on vehicles they operate, including school buses. Senate Bill 251 serves the same purpose, but does not include counties and municipalities. The two measures address a concern by local governments that they are now being charged the excise tax on fuel purchases from which they were previously exempt.

Legislative leadership previously indicated a desire to mot make changes to the Transportation Funding Act until after it had been in effect for a full year, meaning changes to the funding formula would not be considered for the 2016 session.

The First Morning Reads of 2016

It’s the first Monday of 2016. For most of us, that means it’s time to go back to work, so, buckle up and welcome to the new year. And don’t forget, the 2016 legislative session starts a week from today.

The GOP presidential race in 2015 was divided into two parts: Before Trump and After Trump. Here’s how it went down, through the eyes of the candidates.

If you think America has never had a politician like Donald Trump, think again. He’s one of a long line of populists going back to William Jennings Bryan.

Is it any wonder, then, that white Republicans are the angriest Americans?

And speaking of angry, these white guys are angry enough to put #OregonUnderAttack.

Twice, Latinos were promised a path to citizenship if they voted for Democrats. It hasn’t happened. Will the third time be the charm?

Meanwhile, a new push by the Obama administration to deport Central American immigrants in the country illegally targets at least 11 families, including one living in Norcross.

If you think Speaker Paul Ryan is a RINO Muslim because the Omnibus passed, you should read this.

Supreme Court Justice Scalia: Government can support religion over nonreligion.

New Orleans has a streetcar named Desire. In Atlanta, some call ours a streetcar named Undesirable.

A Delta pilot feels the Christmas spirit, and returns to the gate to pick up a family trying to get to their father’s funeral.

The Southeastern Conference sets a new record with 8 bowl game wins.

Another Big Data Breach Releases Personally Identifiable Voter Information

A little over a month after it became known that the social security numbers, drivers license numbers and dates of birth of more than six million Georgia registered voters were sent to news organizations and political parties in what is known as the Peach Breach, a much bigger database of voter information was discovered in the wild. Databreaches.net reported that a database with 191 million records containing voter information was available publicly on the internet. After this report, public access to the database was removed.

While the information in the database didn’t include social security or drivers license numbers like the Peach Breach did, it did include dates of birth, phone numbers, email addresses and possibly more. Is this significant? Or as was pointed out in a tweet, is it no more than someone accidentally leaking Facebook?

A story in this morning’s New York Times tries to answer that question. In addition to talking about how voter information is aggregated and used by political campaigns, it talks about how the information can be used for less noble purposes:

Big data advocates argue that what is in most voter files is nothing more than the White Pages of a phone book augmented with party affiliation and voting history (not which candidate people voted for, but whether they voted.) But for privacy experts, that alone, especially when compiled in one place, is cause for concern.

“Simply by digitizing the data, collecting it in one place, making it freely available in one place — it’s a Christmas gift for thieves,” said Neal O’Farrell, the executive director of the Identity Theft Council. “I interviewed an identity thief, and he said credit card numbers are for chumps. It’s much easier to get caught. The cybercriminals really want to know who you are. And voter information and any kind of information that fills in all the blanks makes it easier for phishing, for social engineering, and for extortion.”

There is no doubt that this type of data has become essential to modern political campaigns. Democrats and some others use NGP/Van to aggregate voter data and enable voter contact. NationBuilder is a popular tool used by a wide variety of candidates and organizations to build support. And don’t forget that the voter data exposed in the Peach Breach except for personally identifiable information is required by Georgia law to be made available to those willing to pay a fee.

Many people, myself included, are willing to provide personal information to social media sites like Facebook in order to be able to enjoy social media. Plenty of people use a Kroger Plus Card or other shopper card to get discounts at retail while providing a wealth of personally identifiable information about what we purchase and use on a daily basis. And while the benefits can be great, there are also risks, as not only the unauthorized release of voter information but the legally required distribution of voter records shows.

Closing Out 2015, Trump Support Remains Strong

If you had asked the Peach Pundit editors at the beginning of the year who would be leading the Republican presidential candidate race in Georgia as its residents prepare to sing Auld Lang Syne to close out 2015, none of us would have guessed Donald Trump. After all, an Insider Advantage poll taken in early February had Jeb Bush in the lead with 22% of the vote, followed by Scott Walker at 17%, and Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee sharing 16% each. The Donald was way back at 2%.

How things have changed. Walker, of course, dropped out of the race. A mid-December poll by WSB TV has Bush at 4.8%, Carson at 6.7% and Huckabee barely registering at 1.9%. The leader, of course, is Donald Trump with 43% of the vote.

One potential reason why Trump is a popular candidate in the Peach State is put forth this morning by Nate Cohn, writing in an Upshot column for the New York Times. In it, Cohn says Trump’s biggest support comes from areas where Democrats vote Republican, and in a state like Georgia, where over the past 20 years, many Democrats–including some current Republican state legislators and even Georgia’s governor–have moved to the Republican Party.

Quoting Cohn’s story:

But during the Obama era, many of these voters have abandoned the Democrats. Many Democrats may now even identify as Republicans, or as independents who lean Republican, when asked by pollsters — a choice that means they’re included in a national Republican primary survey, whether they remain registered as Democrats or not.

Mr. Trump appears to hold his greatest strength among people like these — registered Democrats who identify as Republican leaners — with 43 percent of their support, according to the Civis data. Similarly, many of Mr. Trump’s best states are those with a long tradition of Democrats who vote Republican in presidential elections, like West Virginia.

Cohn is using data from a large nationwide survey to back up his conjecture. It’s not quite a poll. It eliminates people who are undecided about who they would vote for, and targets likely Republican voters in November. But, he does provide a breakdown of estimated Trump support by congressional district. Based on that analysis, Trump’s biggest base of support in the Peach Stare is in congressional districts 3, 9, and 11, represented by Lynn Westmoreland, Doug Collins, and Barry Loudermilk, with 39% support. Next is the Buddy Carter’s 1st district with 38%, Rob Woodall’s 7th District with 37%, Tom Price’s 6th District with 36%, Austin Scott’s 8th District with 35%, and Sanford Bishop’s 2nd District with 34%.

The 5th District, held by John Lewis and the 13th District, held by David Scott each have 33% of the estimated Trump vote. Rick Allen’s 12th District and Tom Graves’s 14th District have 32%, and the districts with the least Trump support at 30% belong to Hank Johnson’s 4th District and Jody Hice’s 10th District.

In the heat of the summer, there were predictions that Trump’s popularity would fade going into the new year. With the Iowa caucuses a month away and the SEC primary 61 days from today, Trump remains as strong as ever.

Olens: Governor Deal Cannot Block Syrian Refugee Resettlement

Following the November terrorist attack in Paris, Governor Deal issued an executive order that was intended to block the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Georgia. In an interview with reporters earlier this month, Deal indicated he might file a lawsuit against the feds to prevent Syrian resettlement, and would order a defense by the state against any federal lawsuit arising from the state’s unwillingness to aid in the resettlement process.

However, Governor Deal also asked Attorney General Sam Olens to issue an opinion on whether Syrian refugee resettlement could be blocked. That opinion was issued today. In it, Olens said that blocking refugees from a specific country was not permissible under the law:

Essentially, and to the extent it is read most broadly, the scope of the executive order is limited by two things: (1) federal law and the Supremacy Clause and (2) the terms of its voluntary agreement with the federal government to participate in, and accept federal funding relating to, the Refugee Resettlement Program. I am unaware of any law or agreement that would permit a state to carve out refugees from particular countries from participation in the refugee resettlement program, no matter how well-intended or justified the desire to carve out such refugees might be. Accordingly, it is my official opinion that both federal law and the State’s agreement to act as the state refugee resettlement coordinator prevent the State from denying federally-funded benefits to Syrian refugees lawfully admitted into the United States.

In his opinion, Olens indicated he shared the governor’s concerns, and hoped that the federal government would do its best to scrutinize incoming refugees.

[T]he executive order responds to serious concerns about recent terrorist attacks linked to the ongoing conflict in Syria, concerns that legitimately extend to the current federal process for reviewing and accepting refugees from Syria into the United States and, more specifically, into the State of Georgia. I share those concerns and similarly hope that the federal government will take all necessary and appropriate steps to assure that all refugees, regardless of country of origin, be carefully scrutinized to ensure the safety of our citizens.

The governor’s office is reviewing Olens’s opinion.

David Perdue Reviews His First Year in the Senate

Editor’s Note: The following is from Georgia Senator David Perdue. Sen. Perdue serves on the Senate Budget, Foreign Relations, Agriculture, and Judiciary Committees. Senator Perdue is currently the only Fortune 500 CEO serving in the United States Senate and is committed to using his business experience to grow the economy and tackle our national debt crisis. The pictures on this page are from his first year in office. You can view a complete album here.

January 6, 2015: Taking the Oath of Office with my wife, Bonnie, and my father’s bible to represent the people of Georgia in the United States Senate.
January 6, 2015: Taking the Oath of Office with my wife, Bonnie, and my father’s bible to represent the people of Georgia in the United States Senate.
Almost a year ago, I stood next to my wife Bonnie, put my hand on my Father’s Bible, and swore to uphold the Constitution and represent the people of Georgia in the United States Senate. This is a role I never imagined, but one I take very seriously.

To emphasize the magnitude of this responsibility, I held my first staff meeting at the National Archives—home of the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. We reflected deeply on the role of our federal government and the need to hold it accountable to the people we represent.

I came to the Senate with a sense of urgency to make a difference. In my first weeks, I sponsored three bills that would help put in place a system that is more representative of Georgia’s priorities, including a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, a Fair Tax system, and term limits legislation. But as a businessman with no political experience, it immediately became clear to me that Washington’s budget process is broken. It has only worked four times in the last forty years. In the real world, this would have been fixed long ago. Read more

Poor and Homeless in the Deep South

The Washington Post published a deep look into the plight of the poor and jobless in the southern United States. Much of the story focuses on south Atlanta, and the challenges one woman, a single mother with a young child, has with finding a job. The story opens with the woman trying to get from a homeless shelter in Forest Park to a company in the Fulton Industrial District; a journey of less than half an hour by car, but almost two hours by bus and train.

Aboard the bus, Scott zigzagged through Clayton County, an area that runs south from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and has transformed over 25 years from majority white to majority black, its poverty rate rising during that span from 9 percent to 24 percent. A generation of poor people resettled here after Atlanta shuttered inner-city housing projects, and now title loan and pawn shops were the lone life in sleepy strip malls; traffic backed up for an hour to wait in line at a weekly food pantry; and at a blood plasma center where people could get up to $50 for donations, lines formed many mornings around the building before the 7:30 a.m. opening.

The long commute is illustrative of one of the main themes of the article: a lack of decent mass transit options for the poor makes it very difficult for those without a car to get around to find work, let alone make a daily commute. The other focus is on how, beginning with welfare reform instituted back when Bill Clinton was president and Newt Gingrich was speaker of the house disrupted the safety net systems southern poor relied on, including housing projects and cash welfare.

Over the past 20 years, Atlanta’s wealthiest areas, spread along the north of the city, have changed little. But formerly middle-class suburbs to the south — areas of modest single-family homes — have been deluged by newcomers who lost homes as city officials dismantled dozens of housing projects in the hopes of reducing concentrated poverty. Experts who have studied Atlanta’s economic geography say the change has been partly successful; class no longer changes so clearly between neighborhoods, but meanwhile, the poor — given modest vouchers to help subsidize their housing costs — must head far from the city to find places they can afford.

“This city hasn’t built out its society,” said Deborah Scott, the executive director of an area nonprofit organization, Georgia Stand-Up, that focuses on low-income communities. “We’ve given the suburbs to the poorer people, but the opportunities aren’t here.”

There’s a lot more to the article than what can be excerpted in a blog post. Read the whole thing.

Parental Rights Legislation Prefiled for 2016 Legislative Session

A bill that could be the 2016 legislative session’s most significant pro life effort was prefiled earlier this month by Rep. Brad Raffensperger of Johns Creek. House Bill 713 provides for terminating the parental rights of a father of a child conceived through rape or sex trafficking. The bill also provides for a loss of parental rights for any parent who causes a child to be conceived through rape, child molestation, sexual assault, incest, or sex trafficking.

Rep. Raffensperger says the new law is needed because in many cases, the rapist threatens to exercise his parental rights as leverage to prevent his victim from filing charges or testifying against him. The story of one woman who was a victim of this situation inspired Raffensperger to author the bill:

“I became aware of this injustice this summer when I was first told of the ordeal of Ms. Shauna Prewitt. Ms. Prewitt was raped while in university, and a child was conceived and brought to full term. Ms. Prewitt reluctantly agreed not to testify against her rapist perpetrator as part of a settlement to ensure that he would not be part of her life and the life of her child. This injustice to Ms. Prewitt energized her to study law, and she now fights for legal protections for women and children that are victims of rape.”

The bill will be formally introduced when the legislative session starts on January 11th. Rep. Raffensperger expects the bill will be broadly supported in both the House and Senate.

With Water Language Removed, Georgia Lawmakers Support the Omnibus Spending Bill

Language that could have led to congressional involvement in Georgia’s ongoing battle with Florida and Alabama over water rights was removed in the final version of the 2016 omnibus appropriations bill that was passed by the House and Senate today and signed into law by President Obama before he left for a Christmas vacation in Hawaii. Both Senator Johnny Isakson and Senator Perdue voted to approve the measure. Earlier, the House approved the measure with only Reps. Hank Johnson and Jody Hice opposing.

Republicans and Democrats in the Georgia delegation, along with Governor Deal, united to oppose language in the original omnibus that could have brought federal intervention into the negotiations over the state’s water rights, rather than the present method of trying to secure an interstate compact resolving the issue.

A spokesperson in Senator Perdue’s office said that while the Senator didn’t appreciate the way the massive bill that covers $1.1 trillion in discretionary spending came to the floor, he voted in favor because the water language was removed. In a statement, the senator said, “When it came to funding the federal government for the remainder of fiscal year 2016, I’m proud the Georgia Delegation stood together to advance Georgia priorities. The Georgia Delegation along with Governor Deal worked to stop the latest political attempt to intervene in our state’s water supply.”

Senator Isakson also noted the efforts of the delegation to remove the water wars provisions, saying in a statement, “In particular, thanks to the efforts of a united Georgia Congressional delegation, I am pleased we were able to thwart efforts by one member of Congress to insert language in the omnibus that was designed solely to harm the state of Georgia while helping the states of Alabama and Florida in the tri-state water dispute.”

14th District Congressman Tom Graves offered similar praise for the removal of the water language: “The number one issue for Georgia in this legislation was stopping an assault by other states on our water rights,” said Rep. Graves. “These other states were trying to use a government funding bill to circumvent the legal process and restrict Georgia’s access to its own water. I’m grateful to every member of the Georgia congressional delegation, Republicans and Democrats, for working around the clock to secure this major victory for our state.”

11th District Congressman Barry Loudermilk, whose district contains the Lake Allatoona reservoir explained why he voted for the measure:

“The provision that was slipped into the end of year funding bill would have been disastrous to Georgia and especially devastating to the 11th Congressional District. Access to our water resources is critical to sustaining our quality of life and our economic growth. In a case like this, where the questionable provision was inserted in a must-pass piece of legislation, a simple no vote would have been insufficient. We had to act; and, thanks to the immediate action of a unified Georgia delegation and Governor Deal, we were able to protect our state’s water resources.

“The new leadership in the House has committed to change the culture in Washington DC, and their quick and helpful response to this last minute attempt to circumvent access to Georgia’s water is evidence that backroom deals are no longer accepted as the way we do business.”

Loudermilk is a member of the House Freedom Caucus. Members of the Freedom Caucus were instrumental in removing former Speaker John Boehner and replacing him with Paul Ryan. As for Ryan, this tweet from National Journal reporter Daniel Newhauser says it all.