Labor Commissioner Mark Butler Spurns Legislators

This week, Georgia Department of Labor (GDOL) Commissioner Mark Butler cancelled his call with the Senate Democratic Caucus, saying:

“Due to threats to protest at the Commissioner’s personal residence by members of the Democratic Caucus and the recent protests that almost started a riot at a GDOL location, we will be cancelling the meeting scheduled for August 5, 2020 at 2 p.m.”

If you had been at the GDOL location like I was, you might have been surprised to see the approximately 50 people attending the press conference described as “protests that almost started a riot,” and no legislators have threatened Butler’s residence.

Meanwhile, the Commissioner has kept the GDOL offices closed to the public since March, and tens of thousands of unemployment claims have yet to be processed. Right next door, the Department of Drivers Services is fully open and serving the public.

I attended the Democratic Caucus-organized press conference in Gwinnett last Wednesday along with constituent Douglas Weinstein and his college-aged son, Jack. A few weeks ago, Douglas called me because he was locked out of his account due to a simple PIN issue. He called the GDOL repeatedly and couldn’t reach anyone to help. Without his unemployment benefits, he didn’t have the gas money he needed to travel to Tennessee to pick up Jack from school. Instead of getting help from GDOL, he found someone with the technical skills to find his PIN in his computer’s cache so he could access his account.

The press conference I went to last week was like many others being organized by Democrats in Georgia – peaceful and constructive. Attendees share the stress of mounting debt and the fear of pending evictions. Legislators explain how they are working hard to try to fix this mess. And the local press spreads the word.

Yet Commissioner Butler calls these rallies “a threat.”

Commissioner Butler doesn’t understand how important it is to our democracy that Georgia’s citizens are heard. He also misunderstands exactly how he is responsible when he allows thousands of phone calls from Georgia citizens to go unanswered. GDOL being overwhelmed is understandable. Being inaccessible is unconscionable.

But it’s difficult to make Commissioner Butler comprehend these issues when he cancels our conference call.

Later in the week, he released another statement to WSB-TV:

“We here at the Georgia Department of Labor are very disappointed in the actions of certain members of the Georgia State Legislature. … we implemented a process for these elected officials to forward information to our office regarding older claims.”

It isn’t working.

I worked directly with the GDOL to design the process, and I have forwarded more than one hundred claimants’ problems to the GDOL myself.

Unfortunately, despite my efforts, many of the same people are calling me back, telling me no one from GDOL ever contacted them. What other choice do I have to make the GDOL pay attention but to stand with my constituents and amplify their voices through the press?

For example, my office has been communicating with a homeless veteran for about five weeks, and we turned in his name and phone number to the GDOL. He still has no benefits, and he told me he had only $2.78 left.

But Commissioner Butler would rather duck and cover than help people like this veteran who served his country.

I called the GDOL legislative liaison and begged for someone to call this man. She said they would, but the veteran tells me his phone has not rung yet. He’s scared to even take a shower for fear he’ll miss the call.

A kind constituent heard the veteran’s story and sent him enough cash to buy food for several more weeks.

Many of you reached out to me when I shared a similar story about a single mom who only had $10 left. I followed up with her, and her benefits did finally come through, so she’s okay.

The GDOL may have abandoned Georgians in need, but we don’t have to. If you are in a position to offer a random act of kindness, like sharing some money, or delivering some meals, please fill out this form (Click here to sign up) and let us know. We will keep a log of “random act of kindness” volunteers. When my administrative assistant, Keridan Ogletree, talks to people in crisis, she’ll let me know if there’s some way you can help.

Never has it been more clear that our leadership either is incapable or unwilling to fulfill their obligations to our people during this extraordinary crisis. Georgia deserves better.


P.S. Even during these trying times, I still need to fund my re-election campaign. The Governor has threatened to call another Special Session of the legislature. If he does, the law says I can’t fund raise while in session. If you can send a contribution now, it will help hold this seat, and I can keep up the “good and necessary trouble.” My campaign relies heavily on small contributions to diminish the power of special interests. If you haven’t given yet, please consider it now! Online contributions make it easy, and every amount helps. Please give what you are able. I promise I will continue to “disappoint” our Commissioner of Labor!

Hope Isn’t Cancelled

Georgia’s Governor is running our state like an authoritarian dictatorship, and it’s not sitting well with local leaders. In a recent AJC “Power Poll”, respondents made it clear that local elected leaders should be able to protect their communities with public health ordinances that are more strict than the Governor’s orders. As Doraville City Council Member Stephe Koontz stated, “Local conditions will many times require laws that are stricter than state laws. … Let us do the job the people elected us to do!” As these voices of local leadership rise in unison, it tells me that “hope isn’t cancelled.”

 

Here’s What is Not Going Well

Our hospital ICUs are teetering on full: On June 30th, the Georgia Emergency Management Agency reported 1,459 active COVID-19 hospitalizations. As of July 30th, that number has more than doubled to 3,200. The AJC reported Athens and Tifton have run out of critical care beds. Another rural hospital, Southwest Georgia Regional Medical Center, has decided to close its doors. Located in the town of Cuthbert, the hospital is unable to recover from the financial blow COVID-19 brought last spring. Cuthbert is in one of the hardest hit regions of the state.

Testing struggles to meet the need: All 50 states must compete for supplies, due to the massive failure of Trump’s leadership. Public labs have been inadequately funded for years, and private labs are so backlogged results come in too late to support effective contact tracing. Georgia is testing at one-third the national average (GA: 501 per 100,000 people; National Average: 1,657 per 100,000 people).

Schools and universities are about to open: When Governor Kemp allowed summer youth camps to open last spring, he unknowingly initiated an experiment about whether children can be spreaders. After an outbreak at north Georgia YMCA camps, the CDC took note. Seventy-five percent of the YMCA campers and staff tested were positive for COVID-19. The overall rate of infection was 44%, which is an undercount, because this includes 250 for whom test results were not available.

Ambulance services may become inadequate: Over the last decade, ambulance services have been privatized. Operating on a profit motive means that medical transport companies constantly strive for a sweet spot — how few ambulances can they maintain in the fleet and still arrive in time without someone dying? Every time an ambulance is “stalled” at a hospital due to admissions delays, the overall fleet is reduced which slows response times. And the ambulance companies, instead of adding to their fleet, point fingers at the hospitals. What that means is that right now, if you need an ambulance, it might not be there for you.

 

Here’s What Can Still be Done

Be Careful: Dunwoody Mayor Lynn Deutsch recently shared some advice from a local doctor, who reported that his number of weekly patients sick with COVID-19 had risen from 5 to 30. Though patients reported having been “careful,” three situations were commonly described: 1) outside cul-de-sac gatherings; 2) dining-in at restaurants; and 3) indoor family get-togethers. Now, even more than during April and May, it’s best to restrict your contact with people outside your immediate circles.

It’s Actually Not Hopeless: As more people personally know someone who has been hospitalized due to COVID-19, it’s hopeful that more people will take the situation seriously, reduce unsafe behavior, and start wearing a mask in public.

Hospitals Can Still Add Beds: In April, the Governor’s Executive Order called for surgi-centers and scheduled/elective surgeries to be temporarily halted. Though this Order ended in May, hospitals still have the option to pull that lever, making more room for COVID-19 patients. Additionally, all hospitals have “surge plans” in place, outlining how they will add beds and staff. Finally, according to GEMA data, only about half of the state’s ventilator supply is in use.

Fight the Governor’s “Local Governments Can’t be More Restrictive” Order: As the Governor threatens to sue and silence Atlanta Mayor Bottoms over her mask mandate and other restrictions, this week the Senate and House Democrats filed an opposition brief in Fulton County Superior Court. Last March, the Georgia General Assembly voted to give Governor Kemp broad emergency powers to protect the lives of Georgians. This power can also be revoked by the legislature. Brookhaven Rep. Matthew Wilson, who is taking the lead on the House side, stated in the AJC, “The governor’s lawsuit against Atlanta’s mayor and city council does the opposite of that — it puts more Georgians directly in harm’s way, all to score a few political points.” While Democrats don’t have the votes to overturn these gubernatorial emergency powers alone, pressure from cities all over Georgia, 100 of whom have passed their own mask mandates, could potentially influence Republicans to join Democrats in revoking the Governor’s emergency powers.


* I borrowed the phrase “Hope Isn’t Cancelled” from a 5/10K “on your own” Face Mask Run that donates part of your fee to purchase a front-line worker a take-out meal. And you get a t-shirt with the “Hope Isn’t Cancelled” logo. I’m planning on doing it. How about you?

P.S. Our Fundraising Committee is working hard to ensure we have enough money in our bank account to fight off any attempts by Republicans to regain Senate 40. If you haven’t contributed yet, we still need your help! Thanks to all who have donated already.

I cannot be quiet and do my job. Many of you helped me get elected, and the “Senator” you put in front of my name now amplifies my voice.

A couple weeks ago I told you about Georgians who have not yet received their unemployment benefits and are struggling to survive. Their pleas have still not been heard, so I brought out my senatorial megaphone to make some noise.

I was asked by the Senate Minority Leader to write an opinion piece for the Atlanta Journal Constitution on Georgia’s unemployment crisis.

Here’s that piece:

Georgia legislators have been hearing disturbing reports about the Georgia Department of Labor (GDOL) — reports that can be backed up by GDOL’s own data: Tens of thousands of Georgians cannot get through to GDOL to find out why they aren’t getting their unemployment benefits. Phone lines are busy and emails go unanswered. Some of their situations are dire, like a single mother I heard from who had $10 left and no food for her or her child.

The Georgia Department of Labor acknowledges that almost 10% of post-pandemic claimants, more than 100,000 people, have yet to receive any benefits.

Additional people report that their benefits suddenly stopped, and they can’t find out why. If even one small thing goes wrong, like an employer’s clerical error in a report, or a PIN that stops working, people are being left in the dark. When benefits stop, claimants have no way to reach the GDOL to resolve the issue.

Commissioner Mark Butler has said “Our overall commitment is at a level that one day historians may revisit and deem a noble effort.” I contend that the Department of Labor is falling far short of their “A” game. We are facing a humanitarian, health, and economic crisis, all wrapped in one, and relief is needed now.

We have to act immediately with the expectation that this pandemic is going to be around for a long time, and many industries will not recover. People need the benefit of time that unemployment payments offer them – time to find new jobs or retrain without ending up on the street in the middle of a pandemic with no food and no housing.

If we do nothing, GDOL’s failure will eventually cause damage to other parts of the economy: mortgages will go into default; evictions will spark a dramatic increase in homelessness; state and local governments as well as school systems will experience revenue shortfalls.

The Century Foundation, a think tank that studies unemployment systems, recommends technology options beyond simply relying on phone lines and email. For instance, they say the GDOL should update its technology with a queue system that allows for triaging the most needy cases, like the single mother with $10 in her pocketbook.

Hiring more workers to address the backlog would require training, which the Commissioner Butler has said they don’t have time for right now. But business as usual won’t work either.

Our Georgia National Guard has been successful in other pandemic response areas like helping to clean nursing homes, staffing hospital admissions and food banks, and running school lunch programs. Perhaps GDOL could use the Guard to answer phones and follow triage protocols, freeing up GDOL staff for the real problems.

The Governor and the Commissioner of Labor need to equip Georgia for the economic recovery they have been promising – by giving people time to handle a layoff, furlough, or dried up employment market. Our state has talented, committed people who have the ingenuity to fix this, but it’s going to require an acknowledgement first that the Department of Labor is failing our people.

Mask Madness, Civil Disobedience and John Lewis

Several weeks ago, I received a few dozen emails warning me that “Mandated medical interventions have no place in a free society.”

Yet requiring masks is one of the only tools we have left to slow the rapid spread of COVID-19.

My grandmother, “Nana,” wrote in her memoir about being quarantined, once for the measles and once for diphtheria. “We were quarantined for three weeks. A card was tacked outside the door. No one could enter except my father who had to work.”

Nana’s experience reminded me how important it is for all of us to think more about the “we” than the “me” during a crisis.Thanks to modern medicine and vaccines, we no longer live as my grandmother did with the constant threat of childhood killers like measles, diphtheria, and polio. For this reason, I have long feared that our society has forgotten how much is at stake when we decide that our personal beliefs outweigh our moral obligation to live in community with one another.

Is a society that refuses to protect its citizens actually free? Or is that society held hostage by disease, superstition, and the lack of a moral conscience?

In Georgia, “conservative” ideological beliefs about the role of government are failing us – costing us lives and jobs. Our Governor has decided to add to these burdens a legal battle to force the City of Atlanta to remove its mandate for mask wearing in public places.

Hospitals are nearing capacity, and many are now unable to accept new patients while community spread soars. School systems and parents of school-aged children are faced with terrible choices whether they provide in-classroom learning or go virtual.

Yet, our Governor believes that everyone should be able to do what they want, no matter the cost to others around them. This is immoral, and it is anarchical thinking that inspires him to refuse to allow cities and counties to enforce their own ordinances to protect its citizenry. He has made us a tragic example of what not to do for societies in crisis.

It is time for civil disobedience from our local leaders.

One need look no further than our own late Congressman John Lewis to find the inspiration to take these steps. As a teenager, Lewis’ parents begged him to “lay low” and “stay out of trouble”, but an inner voice led him to defy his parents advice and dedicate his entire life to calling out and fighting iniquity, which sometimes meant getting into what he called “necessary trouble”.

It’s not time for our local leaders to “stay out of trouble.” It’s time to enforce the ordinances they have already passed. It’s time to defy our Governor.

P.S. If you can’t get through the Governor’s phone line (404) 656-1776, you can also submit a message digitally at the following link: https://gov.georgia.gov/contact-us/constituent-services. Choose “COVID-19 – other concerns” from the list of selections. There is a 400 character limit, so you must be concise. Please remember you can also mail letters to: The Office of the Governor, 206 Washington Street, Suite 203, State Capitol, Atlanta, GA 30334. Make your messages passionate and personal.

 


https://actblue.com/donate/sd40

John Lewis and Sally Harrell

 

 

 

Silence is a Strategy

The worse the news gets about Georgia’s COVID spread, the more silent the Governor’s office gets. And that’s no accident. Silence is being used as a strategic tool. The data I’ve studied says that COVID hospitalizations are rising quickly. Within a week or two, things could be really bad.  As I’ve often said, it’s time to “Be Loud!” If you want to know how the Governor intends to intervene, I suggest you call his office at 404-656-1776. Ask the Governor when he will step up with meaningful action to really fight this pandemic. And if he won’t do that, ask him to at least get out of the way and let local officials do what’s best for their own communities.

Just How Bad is it?

To answer this question, I compared numbers from Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) for June 30th and again for July 9th to get a sense of how quickly the situation is escalating. Here’s what I found.

The GEMA “Situation Report” divides Georgia into 14 regions and tracks the capacity and availability of in-patient and ICU beds. On June 30th, across the state, 75% of ICUs were in use, and 76% of in-patient beds. Nine days later, both these numbers have increased to 83%. At this rate, the situation could be dire by the end of the month.

At the regional level, on June 30th there were three regions with in-patient beds at 80% or higher. Now there are eight. Regions with ICU bed capacity at 80% or over went from six to nine, and regions with ICUs over 90% capacity shot up from zero on June 30 to six now. Ventilator availability is still good for now — only 35% of the ventilator supply is in use (up from 32% on June 30th).

Overall, every region saw an increase of in-patient admissions, ranging from a 1% increase in Augusta to a 23% increase in Columbus. ICU admissions increased in every region except the Dalton area, ranging from a 2% increase in Augusta to a 23% increase in Gainesville.

Georgia’s New Hot-Spots

On June 30th the regions with the highest increases in hospital admissions were Athens, as well as the Atlanta suburbs to the west (Cobb, Douglas & Paulding) and south (Henry Co. down I-75 to Macon). Now, according to the July 9th data, Columbus, Savannah, Brunswick, and Gainesville are also showing high numbers. Coastal Georgia is particularly worrisome, with ICU capacity at 99%.

Coastal Georgia and Columbus

The Savannah Morning News reports that cases quadrupled in June and continue to rise. Hospitals are adding bed space in meeting rooms and auditoriums and are postponing some non-COVID acute surgical care. PPE in Savannah seems to be in good supply. But here’s this — Memorial Hospital in Savannah stated that “the hospital system is planning for this situation to persist until March 2021.” St. Joseph’s Hospital in Savannah has purchased $600,000 worth of beds that they say will be in place by September 1st.

Columbus area hospitals, where GEMA reports a 23% increase in in-patient admissions, are being a bit more close-lipped. However, Columbus Mayor Skip Henderson is publishing some pretty scary data, and using it to urge people to wear masks and social distance. Savannah’s mayor recently defied the Governor’s order that no local government pass ordinances stronger than the State’s Executive Orders, by requiring masks to be worn. Other cities around the state have followed suit, and the Governor is fighting back claiming these orders are illegal.

Choosing Hope

The situation we are in is frightening and it’s easy to feel hopeless. I have said before, hope is a choice, and choice is embodied in action. So in the face of crisis, choose to do something. Call the Governor’s office and break his silence. Use the ballot box to change the direction of the county. Donate to a political campaign to help fight for humane leadership. The future of our country depends on it.


https://actblue.com/donate/sd40

Bringing It Home

Back in May, we celebrated our collective efforts at “flattening the curve,” but the virus is spiking again. And today, as we celebrate the 4th of July without parades, it has hit me especially hard that the COVID-19 virus is not going away anytime soon. Its path of destruction has brought about not only a health emergency, but an economic crisis as well.

Over the last few months, I’ve received hundreds of emails from people who lost their jobs due to the pandemic and are struggling to get the support that our government promised them. An estimated tens of thousands of Georgians who qualify for unemployment have not received the benefits they needed months ago to pay rent and buy food. My constituents have told me they call the Georgia Department of Labor (GDOL) hundreds of times each day, hoping someone will eventually answer the phone. They send desperate emails into an abyss, while they face the imminent threat of eviction, the pain of hunger, and a growing fear for their very survival. 

Here is one example of a constituent’s situation: “Seven weeks and no payment. I’ve done everything they asked, and 1,000s of calls and emails with no response. I’m about to lose everything. Single mom, no food, and down to the last $10 with no family to help.” I emailed the GDOL on her behalf, and I’m told someone will call her. I checked with the mom two weeks later to see if she got that call. She didn’t. 

Is this who we are? Is this government’s breach of contract acceptable? 

This week, I’ve made some progress. Through the Senate Budget & Evaluation Office, we reached out to the Labor Commissioner, and got GDOL to design a spreadsheet that allows Senators and their administrative staff to document the calls and emails they get, downloading the information to the appropriate GDOL department each day. It’s working — last night another one of my constituents told me she got her benefits! Waiting since the end of March, she knew there was an error in her application, but previously neither she nor her employer could communicate with the GDOL to get it fixed.

This is an important step that can make all the difference for hundreds of people, but there are thousands who still need help. We can scale this up by bringing in the National Guard to answer GDOL phones and emails, directing them to the correct departments, just as our Senate staff have been doing. I will continue to work with my fellow Senators to put pressure on the GDOL Commissioner and the Governor to move this action forward.

We must keep working to help our neighbors find economic stability so they can thrive. 

But if we don’t also work to win in November, things may get even worse for families like that single mom. 

Last week, over 100 of you donated to my campaign — thank you! If you haven’t yet donated, and are able to, please consider that now is the time.

Even if you have never donated to a campaign before, your support will mean one more yard sign or extra postcards to help us defend this seat. 

This pandemic has shown that no one is safe from COVID-19 or its impacts on our health, our communities, and our economy. We must be a safety net for each other. Do what you can to help make sure we can help those who need it most now and after November.

https://actblue.com/donate/sd40

Sally’s Senate Snapshot #12 – It’s Over!

Last week was bad, but this week was worse. At times I felt like I was observing the pit of humanity. At other times I felt like I was in the middle of a war, with bad bills circumventing the process overnight. All this was played out against a backdrop of spiking COVID cases and sick staff being sent home to quarantine. Sine Die (the last day of the session) was a welcome relief.

But it’s finally over, and now, with just four months to go, it’s time to get focused on elections!

November will change the face of the Georgia legislature. Picking up three Senate seats in 2018 saved Georgia from private school vouchers that would have further destroyed our public schools.

The abortion ban last year and this week’s police bill both passed the House with only 92 votes (they needed 91 to pass). We will pick up enough seats this November to block these kinds of reckless bills. We could pick up enough seats to block Republicans from being able to gerrymander districts into the next decade.

The Georgia Ethics Commission ruled in April that the law banning legislators from accepting campaign contributions during session remained in effect while the session was suspended. This means I have been unable to raise money since January. If you have appreciated these emails, and are able to donate, please help me keep this seat next term. I do have a Republican opponent who has been able to fund raise the entire time. Donate online at https://actblue.com/donate/sd40

 

Hate Crimes Legislation Takes Center Stage

Following a one-day break for Father’s Day, Monday June 22nd started out early with a Natural Resources & Environment Committee meeting. This meeting was led by a Chairman who refused to wear a mask the entire two weeks. We took up HB 1057, which bans domestic septage in fertilizer, a harbinger of the week to come.

Stay with me, it’s a long story…

HB 426, The Hate Crimes Bill: In my last Snapshot, I told you about the evolution of the Hate Crimes bill. Intense behind-the-scenes negotiations continued Monday, and by Monday afternoon, I heard that the police protection language had been dropped, data collection added, and the bill was headed to the Rules Committee.

After sitting through a long floor debate about broadband pole rates and EMCs (Electric Membership Corporations), I decided to stay late to attend the historic Hate Crimes vote in the Senate Rules Committee. To me, this was an important repeat of Georgia history: I cast my first vote for Georgia Hate Crimes legislation in 2000 when I served in the House. That law was later struck down by the Georgia Supreme Court due to its vague language.

HB 426 passed Senate Rules with a few votes against, but the Majority Leader abstained stating he had just received the language for the new bill and had not yet had time to review it. Things looked hopeful for the next day, but unsettled among Republicans. Then came the surprise…

HB 838, The Police Bill: The Rules Committee Chairman pulled out a Committee Substitute to HB 838, with the original language completely stripped out and eight pages of a brand new bill inserted in its place. The new bill created a felony crime of “Bias Motivated Intimidation” against a police officer, defined a Police Officers’ Bill of Rights, and included a right for police officers to sue civilians. It was hastily written legislation that was never vetted or debated in Committee, had no public feedback, and would be on the floor of the Senate for a vote the next day.

Timing is Everything: HB 838 passed the Senate early the next morning, but with another surprise Republican amendment no one was given time to read, which deleted the “Bill of Rights” section. HB 426, the Hate Crimes Bill, came to the Senate floor in the afternoon, and passed with a wider margin. Both were immediately transmitted to the House. Since both bills had originated in the House, but were amended by the Senate, the House would have to vote to agree or disagree with the changes made by the Senate.

The House delayed voting on HB 838 until after the Senate had passed HB 426. Timing was everything. If the police bill passed but the Hate Crimes bill did not, there could be severe civil unrest. Ultimately, the Senate version of both bills passed both chambers: the Hate Crimes bill with overwhelming majorities, and the Police Bill much more narrowly.

The narrative was that the police bill was needed to secure the Republican votes for the Hate Crimes bill, but I believe we had the votes for HB 426 without the police bill. Unfortunately, we will have to deal with the negative consequences of HB 838, which will only contribute to further mistrust between the police and the citizens they are meant to serve.

And that was only Tuesday! The Hate Crimes legislation was signed into law by the Governor on Thursday, among a crowd of supporters, and demonstrators holding signs that said, “Veto HB 838.”

 

The Rest of the Week

Bills that Passed

HB 793, The Budget: I voted no. A conference committee of House and Senate members worked through their differences, and both chambers ultimately approved the compromise, fulfilling our only Constitutional duty. But I could not vote for a budget that cuts school funding by $950 million and severely underfunds other critical services such as mental health and disabilities. Remember that these deep cuts were necessary because of a budget that was in disarray before the pandemic thanks to irresponsible Republican tax cuts. We’re already seeing the effects of an understaffed Department of Labor that can’t keep up with unemployment claims, a disturbing issue I raised at the Senate well this week and something I plan to work on in the interim.

HB 1114: I voted yes. This bill provides six months of Medicaid coverage to new mothers following childbirth as well as Medicaid lactation services. Georgia’s maternal mortality rate is one of the highest in the country, with black mothers dying at even higher rates than others. This was a big win for the Georgia Legislative Women’s Caucus, which I have chaired for the last two years. 19.7 million dollars was allocated in the budget for this coverage. This is one tiny step toward Medicaid expansion.

SB 359: I voted no. This bill shields business from COVID-19-related liability. It requires the claimant to prove gross negligence, which is extremely difficult. Though businesses might fear lawsuits, it would be very difficult to prove where a person “caught” COVID-19. This law could disincentivize business and other entities from taking necessary steps to protect their employees and customers from COVID-19.

HB 879: I voted yes. I know many of you will like this one! It allows for expanded home delivery for alcohol. As an aside, April revenues showed a dramatic increase of alcohol sales tax during the Shelter-in-Place Order.

SB 416: I voted yes. It cuts legislator Pay by 10%. Legislators make $17,350/yr in addition to per-diem for several Committee days throughout the year.

HB 857: I voted yes. This prohibits burning railroad ties treated with toxic creosote, with some exceptions. This bill passed both chambers unanimously.

SB 375: I voted yes. This bill raises the age to buy tobacco and vaping products to 21, and adds a 7% tax to vaping products (Georgia currently has no vapor excise tax). No action was taken to raise Georgia’s tobacco tax, which is one of the lowest in the county. Several research groups and advocacy organizations have noted that increasing the tobacco tax could help address our revenue shortfalls this year due to the pandemic.

HB 987: I voted yes. It improves staffing, training and accountability at long-term care facilities. In amendments added by the Senate, it requires senior care homes to plan for a pandemic, have a supply of PPE, and to notify residents and family members of a COVID outbreak.

 

Bills and Ideas that Died on the Vine

HB 463The Elections Bill”: This was the elections bill that began in 2019 in the Senate. The House stripped all the language from the Senate bill and added new language that included banning governments (state, counties and municipalities) from being able to mail out absentee ballot request forms. This was an overt attempt at voter suppression during a pandemic.

HB 765Magistrate Judge Salaries”: This bill would have raised salaries for magistrate judges 21.6 percent. Yes, you read that right — “raise” during the worst budget crisis since the Great Recession. Someone in the Senate really wanted those raises, because we wasted a considerable amount of time debating this bill on the floor of the Senate. It got tabled, then removed, amendments failed, and then, it finally passed the Senate amended with an enactment delay of two years. I voted no. The House, which moved slower because they took social distancing much more seriously than the Senate, ran out of time to act on the Senate version, so ultimately the bill did not pass.

Gambling: There was a lot of talk about passing enabling legislation to allow for sports betting, casinos and pari-mutuel betting. None of these bills passed this session.

Revenue Enhancements: There was also a lot of talk about ideas to generate revenue to plug the holes in the budget, including rolling back special-interest tax breaks, revenues from gambling, and raising the tobacco tax to the national average. But for the most part, none of these happened. In 2018, the legislature passed a huge income tax cut based on expected revenue that never materialized. There was zero talk about reversing this tax cut, yet this tax cut is a big part of why we are having to cut things like public education by another billion dollars.

HB 906, Ossabaw Island: This bill sought to amend the Heritage Preservation Act of 1975 by allowing up to 15 acres of property to be transferred to local governments and “business entities.” Currently, Ossabaw Island is protected under a 1978 Governor Executive Order that only allows recreation that promotes research, education and preservation. Follow the Georgia Conservancy for more details.

Peachcare Public Option Study Committee: This year, I filed SB 339, that would create a plan for a Medicaid Public Option. The bill was assigned to the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Chairman Jack Hill not only allowed me to present SB 339 to his committee, but he also wrote me a letter saying that he believed it to be a worthy idea and would support a study committee to conduct an actuarial analysis of such a plan. Sadly, Republican leadership did not allow that study committee to move forward. I will re-file this bill next year.

 

Looking Ahead

We have big challenges ahead. COVID case numbers are on the rise. Schools and universities will be returning to classes in some form or another soon. Our unemployment system must be overhauled to prevent food and housing insecurity. Our hospitals must remain vigilant to prepare for surges of patients.

Now, more than ever, we need a functioning government at local, state and national levels.We need leaders who believe in the power of government to serve and support our communities. We have four months to ensure that we can carry out an election in the midst of a pandemic, and we must force our leaders to do what’s right for democracy.

I pledge to you that I will be working every day in the coming months to embrace all these challenges. Help me to be part of the solution by donating to my re-election campaign if you are able. Every little bit helps!

 

Pictures from week 12 of the 2020 Legislative Session
This is where the rope line used to be, where Senate pages sat and Senators greeted constituents
On Thursday, the Senate served a buffet-style lunch (which I did not eat). Social distancing was not observed. Law enforcement officers declined to wear masks all week.
Protesters ask for the police bill, HB 838, to be vetoed by the Governor. Call Governor Kemp at 404-656-1776 and ask him to veto HB 838.
Hate Crimes Bill Signing: A crowd of people gather at the Capitol for the signing of HB 426, the Hate Crimes bill.
DeKalb Ethics Bill: Rep. Karla Drenner gives all the DeKalb Senators a gift of champagne for passing revised DeKalb Ethics Legislation after voters rejected the 2019 bill.
Sine Die: The House did not allow confetti throwing and kept social distancing rules all week. I left the chamber quickly, because people were wanting to give me hugs.
Senator Sally Harrell, Georgia Senate District 40

This Father’s Day, I remember how proud my dad was when I won my election to the Georgia Senate, but if he were with us today, he would have been ringing his hands at the thought of me returning to work.

It was a rough week at Georgia’s State Capitol. After three months of mostly staying at home to avoid Covid, and the Atlanta shooting of Rayshard Brooks the weekend before, the agitation in the air had me pretty nervous about returning to the Capitol. Plus, I wondered which bills the majority party would choose to act on, given the hundreds of bills that would remain on the table due to the difficulty of legislating while observing physical distancing rules.

Monday morning there were police everywhere —  even on the roofs of buildings. Since police presence was not as intense the rest of the week, I can only assume they were there due to a NAACP march that culminated at the Capitol at 10 am.

I took a little walk around the Capitol Monday morning to watch the NAACP march. Unfortunately, I missed the rally, but I was so happy to see and talk with lingering attendees back inside the Capitol, affirming that it truly still is the People’s House.

The Best Laid Plans Go Awry

The careful protocols the Senate established to keep legislators and staff physically distanced from one another all went out the window first thing Monday morning when many members of the Republican Caucus decided to ignore the rules.  To limit the number of people in the Senate chamber, most Senators were supposed to watch the session from their offices or on Capitol grounds until it was time to speak or vote. By Tuesday, I realized they weren’t giving us enough time to get to the chamber and back between votes, so most of us eventually gave up and remained in the chamber.

While the majority of Senators wore masks, some Republicans outright refused. I noticed that many lobbyists and all the police went without masks. When I asked them about it, they didn’t offer good answers. I was so frustrated that I went to the Senate well on Friday (video) to remind my colleagues that wearing a mask is a science-based way to protect each other, and a necessary measure for our police force to keep all of us, members of the public, and our families safe.

Georgia’s Bare Bones Budget Gets Slashed Again

HB 793, the FY 2021 General Budget, came to the Senate floor on Friday. It called for painfully deep cuts in essential services, including a $1 billion cut to local school funding, a $122 million cut in Behavior Health and Developmental Disabilities funding, $127 million in Public Health and Human Services, $250 million less for Georgia’s universities and colleges and $40 million less for our technical schools.

In March I gave the late Sen. Jack Hill, Senate Appropriations chairman, the courtesy of informing him that I would probably vote against the budget. He replied by telling me that it’s a long-standing tradition for the Senate to pass the budget unanimously, and instructed me that “We must govern.” I am proud to report that not a single Democrat voted for this budget. We understand the steep financial challenges we face due to the pandemic, but we also can no longer ignore the bad decisions that made a terrible situation so much worse. Well before the pandemic, years of tax cuts, special interest tax breaks, a refusal to expand Medicaid, and the defunding of critical programs have left us with severely underpaid state employees, underfunded schools and mental health services, and an unconscionable number of uninsured Georgians. Georgia’s Quality Basic Education (QBE) funding formula had been consistently underfunded since the early 2000s. Often these “temporary” cuts become permanent. Georgia can’t afford another lost decade of under-serving its communities.

Another important “no” vote this week was my vote against confirming the Governor’s 200 or so board appointees. These individuals have mostly been chosen, sworn in, and are already doing their jobs, so confirmation by the Senate is basically a “rubber-stamp” vote, and I wasn’t elected to be a rubber stamp. Plus, many of the appointees govern with values very different from the values I campaigned on, and their positions will continue to shape education, social justice, healthcare and many other policy areas for years to come.

The Hate Crimes Bill Takes a Troubling Turn

In my last email I mentioned that there might be some back and forth between the House and the Senate about HB 426, the Hate Crimes Bill. Sure enough, by mid-week, the Lt. Governor announced a new version. There were some good things in his bill, but also some very bad things. The Speaker of the House objected to the bill and urged the Senate to pass the House version.

By Friday, following behind the scenes negotiations, instead of advancing the Lt. Governor’s bill, the Senate Judiciary Committee considered the House version of HB 426 but added law enforcement as a protected class of citizens. After a heated debate, it passed in Committee along party lines. It immediately drew ire from the Georgia NAACP who went from supporting it to strongly opposing it. Law enforcement officers are an important group of people who perform a difficult and valuable public service. But law enforcement already enjoys special protections in existing state laws. Senator David Lucas said it well (watch video).

The Hate Crimes Bill is expected to be on the Senate floor on Tuesday and the Senate Democrats will stand strongly united against it in its current form. Please take time before the bill comes to the Senate floor on Tuesday to call or email all the Senate Republicans to tell them to remove occupations from HB 426.

Legislative Highlights

I’m proud to join my Democratic Caucus in signing the Georgia Justice Act, a slate of 10 bills that have now been bundled together to create sweeping criminal justice reform. The Act includes reforms that had previously been introduced and adds new measures to address recent issues.

Some other noteworthy bills that moved forward this week:

 

    • The Senate passed HB 888 which would reduce surprise hospital billing by requiring insurers to cover certain care regardless of whether the provider was in or out of network, and prohibits certain balance billing. I voted yes.

 

    • The Special Judiciary Committee heard HB 903, originally a short traffic citation bill that was “hijacked” with new language calling for a referendum to potentially allow on-line sports betting administered through the Georgia Lottery, which could then allocate 20% of proceeds to Pre-K and the HOPE Scholarship. I voted against the bill. The Georgia Lottery has not experienced an economic downturn, so current funding for Pre-K and the HOPE Scholarship are not in jeopardy. For government services that benefit all Georgians such as education, I prefer progressive tax structures.

 

  • After a very lengthy debate, HB 545, passed largely along party lines. The bill severely limits the conditions and time-frame that an agricultural operations facility can be sued for nuisance. I voted no.

What’s Coming Up:

This week we were in session Monday – Saturday. Next week we are currently scheduled to be back in session all week, ending the session, Sine Die, Friday, June 26th.

Some of you might have noticed that I have not asked for campaign contributions for over six months. This is not because I don’t need the money, but because the Georgia Ethics Commission chose to interpret Georgia law banning fundraising during session to include the “suspended” session for the last three months.

I do have Republican opposition in the November 2020 election, so if you have appreciated these emails and are able to make a contribution, you can do so after June 26th. At that point, I will need all the help I can get! Thank you in advance for your consideration.

Voting “No” on the budget
Protester beside confederate statute
Bad examples of mask wearing
Signing the “Georgia Justice Act”
Crowded Senate Chamber

Back to Work, 2020 Style

On March 12th, 2020, the legislature was suspended on day 29 of a 40 day session. On June 15th, three months later, the Georgia General Assembly will return to work to finish the last ten days of the legislative session.

How the Next Ten Days Will Work

During the time between when I served in the House and when I was elected to the Senate, I occasionally had a dream that I was back in the legislature, but instead of sitting in the chamber, I was relegated to the “overflow” room.

For the next two weeks, until Sine Die, I will literally be in the overflow room, watching the session through video streaming instead of my seat in the chamber. In order to adhere to physical distancing, only designated leaders of both Parties will actually be in the chamber. If we want to speak, we must notify the leadership, entering the chamber only temporarily. We will be called in to vote in small groups. Like one-way grocery store lanes, there’s a diagram showing us where we enter, the direction we walk, and where we exit.

There will be no student Pages, no special presentations, and the press will be in the gallery instead of the people. There will be no rope line to greet constituents, and, of course, no hand shaking. Those who want to watch democracy in action will have to do so through streaming on the internet. Committee testimony by the public will be limited due to lack of space.

Debate, both by the people and the legislators, will be severely limited. While this new way of getting our work done might be necessary, it is not good for democracy. Let’s hope it’s short-lived; let’s get through the next ten days; and then get busy on those November elections!

Finishing the Work of the 2020 – 2021 Georgia Budget

The state budget begins in the House: According to Georgia’s constitution, the state budget must begin as a House bill, and prior to the suspension of the session, the House passed its version of the budget and sent it to the Senate. But now the state’s projected revenue is at least 11% lower than the revenue estimate the House based its budget on — so for all practical purposes, the budget process must start over — in the Senate. For the last three weeks, the Senate Appropriations Committee has been hearing testimony from State Department heads, who were ordered by the Governor to cut budgets by 14%. In watching these hearings, it’s clear to me that Georgia currently lacks the revenue it needs to do what it is mandated to do. But still, according to Georgia’s constitution, the legislature must pass a balanced budget. The Governor, in consultation with the State Economist, will set a revenue estimate, and the legislature must budget within that estimate. If we had national leadership, I believe at this point the federal government would be bailing out the states, as states cannot “print money” as congress can. Without federal help, or without a tax increase, schools across the state will lose another 1.5 billions dollars, on top of the 9.2 billion they have lost since the 2008 Great Recession. Georgia cannot afford another lost decade.

Moving the Hate Crimes Bill

It is clear from the number of emails I have gotten that the people of Georgia want a Hate Crimes bill to pass. And I am very hopeful that this will happen before the last day of the 2020 session.

Many people have also communicated with me that it’s not enough just to pass a Hate Crimes bill — that we need additional legislation addressing police brutality and the repeal of laws such as Stand Your Ground and Citizen Arrest laws. I agree. But because it is past Crossover Day, according to the legislative rules, we can no longer act on bills that haven’t passed their respective chamber. While rules can be waived, they cannot be waived without the support of the Majority Party, which we do not have at this time. The Democratic Party in both the House and the Senate have unveiled legislative packages that can be acted on when we reconvene in January 2021, following the November elections.

We are able to pass the Hate Crime bill, HB 426 now, because it already passed the House with bipartisan support. Until now, the Senate Judiciary Chair, Sen. Jesse Stone, has refused to hear the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee. But due to the upset over the brutality in the murder of George Floyd, and now the Atlanta police murder of Rayshard Brooks, and your emails to Sen. Stone, the political environment has changed. On the second night of the Atlanta demonstrations, Lt. Governor Geoff Duncan placed personal phone calls to members of the Senate Black Caucus, asking for their input on what needs to happen. Shortly after, he released a statement calling for the strengthening of HB 426.

Expect there to be some back-and-forth between the House and the Senate on the Hate Crimes bill. Many are asking for the bill to be passed unchanged, but some say the bill as passed by the House is weak. If HB 426 is changed by the Senate, it must be voted on again by the House, as they must agree or disagree with the Senate changes. Because HB 426 passed the House narrowly, House members are concerned another vote could jeopardize the passage of the bill. But clearly, the political climate has changed since the House voted on HB 426. The Republican leadership in both the House and Senate now want this bill to pass.

Why is HB 426, as written, weak? Because it is merely a penalty enhancement bill, which would put it among the five states with penalty-only statutes. In addition to penalty enhancement, other states include independent crime offenses, training, data collection and civil action. Incidentally, Georgia already has statutes on two independent crime offenses, including crossing burning (O.C.G.A. 16-11-37) and church vandalism (O.C.G.A. 16-7-26).

The Lt. Governor, who presides over the Senate, said in his statement that he would like to add training and civil action to HB 426, which would make the bill somewhat stronger.

The purpose of any law is to create an awareness of the parameters that society will tolerate, and to set penalties for behavior that cross these lines. In that regard, passing any kind of Hate Crimes legislation in Georgia is a huge symbolic step forward, and will create the positive momentum for bringing about further change.

Looking Ahead

If the June 9th Democratic electoral turnout is predictive of November elections, we will take additional seats in both the Georgia House and the Senate to help pass these “Justice” bills next year. Picking up 16 seats in the House would end the Republican majority and the political gerrymandering they are planning in order to rig the system for another decade. An increase of five seats in the Senate will close the gap, slowing the far-right agenda and putting Georgia back on the track of progress. We have great candidates in all those districts, so let’s support them, and give Georgians a reason to go vote!

Demonstrations and protests during a pandemic are unsettling. Many have asked me, “what can we do?” To start, we need to listen to black people. Last week, my neighbor Deontez Winbley published an essay on Georgia Public Broadcasting’s news website about the need to be uncomfortable, and he has given me permission to reprint it here.  Please hear what Deontez has to say. After reading, I hope that you’re motivated to do more, and there are some calls to action at the end of the email. –Sally


The recent protests in response to the death of George Floyd have sparked a lot of discussion, activism and social unrest. I write this to provide what I believe is necessary context and perspective. —Deontez Wimbley

THE WHY

I would like to believe that everyone understands why this weekend happened, but I do not want to rest on that assumption. People are BEYOND tired. Literally since 1619, Black people in America have been working generation after generation to be treated like human beings. Unfortunately, federal and local policies have not been sufficient at achieving that goal. The discontinuation of the trans Atlantic slave trade did not do it. The signing of the emancipation proclamation did not do it. The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments did not do it. Brown v. Board did not do it. LBJs civil rights legislation did not do it. The 1990s crime bill set us WAY BACK. And even electing America’s first Black president DID NOT DO IT.

At this point people are wondering what is there to do. I do not want to be misinterpreted as thinking these vital pieces of policies did not do anything, but they did not fully achieve the goal of Black people being treated as full humans in this society. So the first purpose of the protests is to work towards raising public consciousness on the value, beauty, and humanity of Black people.

The protests were designed to deliberately disrupt the comfort of this city and ultimately this nation. In disrupting the city’s comfort, the city is forced to evaluate its consciousness.

THE HOW

There has been considerable discussion about the rioting and looting. Let me be clear. I did not participate in the rioting and looting and I do not think that such actions are the answer. I do want to offer a perspective on why some feel it is. For far too long there have been people who have cocooned themselves in the comforts of their luxury homes, turning a blind eye to the injustices faced by people a few blocks away. The means many believed will wake them up is to do strategic destruction.

From downtown to Buckhead, everyone is thinking about black life, suffering, and injustice, and that matters. Today, folks can’t just run to Lenox and the CNN center to continue to ignore injustices in the world. They have to pause. They have to reflect. The city has to wonder how to rebuild from this. The comfortable have been afflicted.

We see how quickly Mayor Bottoms terminated the cops for excessive force on the two AUC students. This is the result of protest. The ten tolerance is slowly making its way to zero tolerance. You know what is taking it there? Voting didn’t do it. A petition didn’t do it. Volunteering at a shelter didn’t do it. DISRUPTION is doing that. CHAOS is doing that. PROTEST is doing that. Let me be clear. I vote in EVERY election. I sign petitions AND volunteer with my community EVERY WEEK. But I know this is not a one solution issue. These measures happening are going to wake up this nation and make all of us uncomfortable.

THE PROTESTS

The overwhelming masses of protesters DO NOT believe in rioting and looting. They simply want to be heard and seen. Anyone who thinks otherwise, is being disingenuous. Young people DID listen to the voices of the mayor, Andrew Young, and other members of older generations.

Look at the actions that took place on the 17th street bridge Sunday evening. It was strategic. It was unified. It was disrupting. I will even say for many, it was cathartic. I call on elected leaders, public intellectuals, journalists, clergy, business leaders, and others to listen to our voices, take seriously our concerns, and work on a multi-pronged platform to lead us to liberation.

I call on white people to do some deeply uncomfortable introspection, examine unconscious and conscious biases, and have conversation with each other about the “isms” that are so rooted in their hearts and minds. White supremacy is like rain. It drenches us all. It just drowns some, while others get to float.

Deontez Wimbley lives in Senate District 40 in north DeKalb County and works as a health educator.

He says about himself, “I am a millennial born and raised right here in Atlanta. I am a PROUD Grady baby, and I am a PROUD Black, Gay man.

This essay was originally published by GPB at https://www.gpbnews.org/post/opinion-protests-are-needed-disrupt-our-comfort, and includes audio of Mr. Wimbley reading his essay.

 


What Can I Do? — Calls to Action

Help pass HB 426, Georgia’s Hate Crimes Bill. The bill is stalled in a Senate Committee.  Call or email the following people and ask them to move the bill to the floor for a vote. While you have them on the phone, also ask them to repeal the “Citizens Arrest”, and “Stand Your Ground” laws.

  • Lt. Governor Geoff Duncan: (404) 656-5030; https://ltgov.georgia.gov/contact-lt-governor
  • Senate Judiciary Chair Jesse Stone: (404) 463-1314; Jesse.Stone@senate.ga.gov
  • Senate Pro-Tem Butch Miller: (404) 656-6578; Butch.Miller@senate.ga.gov
  • Majority Leader Mike Dugan: (404) 656-7872; Mike.Dugan@senate.ga.gov

Passing a Hate Crimes bill is a big step for Georgia, but we must also address police brutality head-on. In 2015, following Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri, President Obama convened a Task Force on how to prevent police brutality. The final report, “The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing”  provides a roadmap that is still very useful and relevant today.

Based on the 21st Century Roadmap, Campaign Zero has continued to provide research-based action steps for eliminating anti-blackness and police brutality. Use this site to educate yourself on what kinds of things can be done at the federal, state, and local levels.