Stay ahead of the curve as a political insider with deep policy analysis, daily briefings and policy-shaping tools.Request a Demo
State Rep. Esther Panitch on combating antisemitism and the responsibilities of representing the Jewish community
Since the most recent war between Israel and Hamas erupted last month, two of the most prominent voices in the Georgia General Assembly engaging in public dialogue over the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been two freshman Democrats — Rep. Esther Panitch, who is Jewish, and Rep. Ruwa Romman, who is Palestinian. Both have personal ties to the region, and distinctly different perspectives on what’s happening there.
State Affairs spoke to both legislators last week about their concerns over the conflict and its implications at home, as well as about their current legislative priorities. Today we hear from Panitch. You can find our conversation with Romman, posted on Monday, here.
Esther Panitch first made a name for herself in Georgia as an attorney in several high-profile court cases in Atlanta, including representing several former Boy Scouts in a sex abuse case, and a client whose husband was convicted in the murder of a Jewish businessman.
Now she’s also known as the sole Jewish lawmaker in the Georgia House of Representatives, and one who’s working doggedly to combat antisemitism, in part through a bill she co-sponsored last session that inspired passionate, marathon debates on the House floor. The bill didn’t pass, but Panitch and her Republican co-sponsors vow to fight for it again next year.
Prior to Oct. 7, Panitch said, “people didn't really want to believe antisemitism was a problem in the U.S.. Now the mask has slipped. People are pretty open about it, and shockingly, horrifyingly open about it … Now Jews are being attacked on college campuses for what's happening in Israel, and Jewish businesses in the United States are being attacked for what's happening in Israel.”
An active, practicing Jew, Panitch grew up in Miami, attending synagogue and becoming involved in Hadassah, the national women’s Zionist movement. She met her husband on a Jewish Federation mission trip in Israel.
A talented debater in high school, she leveraged those skills at the University of Miami in both her communications classes as an undergrad, and in law school. Over the past two-and-a-half decades she has served as public defender in Miami and Atlanta, and now leads a private law practice specializing in criminal defense, family law and personal injury.
Q. Tell me about your background and what (and perhaps who) led you to pursue public service and specifically to serve in the state Legislature.
A. I’ve always liked to talk, so I ended up as the first full-time debater on the new debate program with the new coach, even though I was in ninth grade and high school started in 10th grade. … I learned debate skills as part of the debate team with Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown [Jackson], who went to a competing high school. We overlapped for three years and spent our summers together in debate camp because we were all nerds and her coach used to teach some of these debate camps. She was in the speech events like oratory and I was in the debate events, so we never competed against each other. We were always friends.
And South Florida really led the country in national debate, so I became like a nationally-ranked high school debater, and I knew that I could use my voice, and I did not want to do any more math or science, and I was terrible at both. In the School of Communications [at the University of Miami], you had a double major. So I did broadcasting to help my oratory skills, and I also did political science, never thinking I would actually use both sides of my degree. My plan was just to go into law school. So I did that and joined the domestic violence court [in Miami-Dade County] as my first job out of law school, and realized instead of helping judges, I wanted to be in front of them, arguing. So I joined the public defender's office in Miami. I spent five years there, started my own practice, and then two years later, my husband, who worked for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, was transferred up to Atlanta for what was supposed to be only two years. We had three little kids under the age of 4 at that point, from three different pregnancies — bam, bam, bam.
And thinking we were going right back to Miami, and I wasn't gonna take the bar [exam] because we were only going to be there for two years, and I figured I'd stay home with the kids, which I realized I was not cut out for after a year. I said, ‘I'll take the bar here and if we go back, at least I'm licensed somewhere else.’ So I did pass the bar and then I got a job because I needed to exercise my brain and my kids were all in preschool at the time, and then my husband [Roger] got laid off … We had a choice: we could stay or we could go back home to Miami, and we decided we wanted to stay. We really liked Atlanta, people were really nice, and we had a change of seasons, which I never had growing up.
I had no real interest in running for political office until Trump won … when I realized you didn't have to have any political background to end up at the presidency. And I said, ‘I just can't sit back.’ I realized that he was dangerous. And we saw that at the moment of the Muslim ban, when I went to the airport and stood between TSA [Transportation Security Administration] and families coming in. I didn't do immigration law, but I was ready to use whatever skills I had to help families be reunified. … We sat at the airport and we were on-the-ground lawyers there for people who needed legal assistance at that moment.
… So fast forward to I guess it was 2021. My kids had all gone off to college. I had just turned 50. And I'm thinking, ‘I'm gonna live my best life now. [Then-Rep., now-Sen.] Josh McLaurin [a lawyer she’d previously worked with on the Boy Scouts case] calls me — it was November, I was actually here in the mountains taking a walk, and he said, ‘I'm thinking I'm going to run for Senate. Are you interested in running for my House seat?’ … Then February came and …[former state senator] Jen Jordan was running for attorney general at that point, and Josh and Jen said they had found out that [former Rep.] Michael Wilensky, the only Jewish member [in the House] at that point, wasn't going to run again for reelection. And they both said to me, ‘Did you know that there will be no Jewish voices next session?’ I checked, and they were right. … So I became essentially the defacto Jewish voice, even if that's not who all of my constituents are — they elected me and now I'm the voice for 150,000 Jews in Georgia, in government.
Q. What are the key issues that you're concerned about, working on and hope to see addressed in the next Legislative session?
A. So last session I had plans to kind of sit back and learn before filing any bills on my own. I was approached by [Rep.] John Carson, who's a Republican, about the antisemitism bill, which had been introduced the year before, and didn't make it out of the Senate. And so I said, ‘Sure I'll get involved,’ and it wasn't a big part of what I was planning to do, but I knew it was something that the Jewish community supported. So I was happy to lend my voice to it. And then I got flyered — the antisemitic flyers; they landed on my door, so I tweeted about it. The thought was, I could either be quiet about it — this had been happening in the Jewish community for months, and nobody said anything — or I could be vocal about it and alert the non-Jewish community to what had been happening to us. And that's what I chose to do. So after that, the bill became my primary focus in the Legislature, just because that's how things worked. This year it didn't pass the Senate; it did pass the House. We're going to try again. I even tried to get it on the Special Session agenda, but the governor said no, so we're going to bring it back up in the next full session and try again to have it pass.
[Another antisemitism bill] went to the Senate Judiciary Committee and was amended in a very dangerous way. So we asked to table the bill at that point, John and I.
Q. What did you consider dangerous about the amendment to the antisemitism bill?
A. So the definition we wanted essentially says antisemitism is a ‘certain perception’ of Jews which leads to other things, and [Republican Sen.] Ed Setzler, who doesn't really have a Jewish constituency, decided he knows better and said it should be a ‘negative perception’ of Jews. He brought that into the committee meeting. He obviously had planned for it, and didn't discuss it with anybody in the Jewish community. I immediately saw it and said, literally while I'm sitting there testifying, ‘This is dangerous.’ It's not just negative perceptions that get Jews killed. It's positive perceptions — that Jews have power, or Jews have money — those get Jews killed just as much as any other antisemitic tropes. When they passed the amendment, we were shocked, and then John and I looked at each other and said this cannot go forward. So we asked the chair to table the bill. … Then the Lt. Governor decided it was important enough that he called a separate meeting of the Children and Families committee in the Senate, and it passed as we had authored it with the IHRA [International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance] definition of antisemitism … and then it was ready to get called up on Sine Die.
And we waited all day and night and it never got called, and I don’t know why. I'm a freshman Democrat. The president of the Senate doesn't consult me on what legislation he calls up.
Last year, when the community was being taunted by antisemites throughout the state, we thought that would have been enough to get it called. Obviously, we're in a whole new dimension right now, after Oct. 7. Last year the challenges we came up against were that you should be able to criticize Israel, and this bill wouldn't let you. Which is untrue — it's a definition. And it’s only applied to decide the intent of a crime or an unlawful act. It doesn’t come into play except for discerning the motive of a crime against somebody Jewish, or perceived to be somebody Jewish, or something that's already unlawful, like housing discrimination or school discrimination because you're Jewish. So that's the only way it comes in.
And now after Oct. 7, I think people can see that what other people used to call anti-Zionism but not antisemitism has a lot of overlap, and something that's anti-Zionist can easily be antisemitic. Whereas last year, people wouldn't accept that reality. … So now we’re seeing ‘Gas the Jews’ at protests, and ‘River to the Sea,’ which calls for the expulsion of Jews or the murder of Jews. All of these used to be just called, ‘I'm criticizing the Israeli government.’ No, you're not. … Why are you attacking Jews in America for what you don't like going on in Israel? That's antisemitic. So this definition, and I said this in my speech last year — we hadn't seen very many examples of this in the United States, but Europe had, and that's who came up with the definition. So they were already dealing with anti-Zionism as antisemitism and we just hadn't seen it. … And now that definition is the only definition that takes into account people harming Jews because of what's going on in Israel.
Q. The war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza is far away from Georgia, but close to your heart. You've been very vocal on social media and elsewhere about the conflict. What is most important for people in Georgia to understand about this latest chapter in the complex 75-year Israel-Palestinian conflict??
A. So somewhere between 90% and 95% of Jews believe in Zionism, which is Jewish self-determination. Not Jewish supremacy, [but] Jewish self-determination. And so when you see these outlying groups like Jewish Voice for Peace [JVP], or If Not Now, they don't represent the Jewish community. They are the fringiest of the fringe and they are anti-Zionist and don't believe that Israel has a right to exist. Again, that's contrary to what 90% to 95% of the world's Jews believe.
So I want them to know that anybody who tokenizes Jews by holding up JVP, or If Not Now, that's what they're doing, they're tokenizing the Jewish community by using some who are willing to be used as a cover. And don't forget, there were Jews who supported the Nazi party before they were killed. So I put those in the same category. And nobody ever believes me when I say there were Jews in favor of the Nazi party, but there were … and just like now, it's very difficult for the mainstream Jewish community to believe that there are people actively trying to harm Israel during this time. And everybody I know has a personal connection to what happened over there. One of my children was friends with somebody who was murdered in the music festival. There was a lone soldier that was just killed from Dunwoody a couple weeks ago. And I have family in the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces]. Everybody here has a connection there. It might be remote geographically; it is not remote emotionally and psychologically.
And then, as if what happened wasn't bad enough, you have the denialism. I went and watched that 43-minute video that they were showing to the journalists. I wouldn't wish watching that on anybody who doesn't have to. These are things you can't unsee. They are seared into your soul. But I had to bear witness as an elected representative that these things actually happened. And the glee that was taken by those murderers. So I do a lot of domestic violence work as part of my practice. And when there's a murder with domestic violence, it’s incredibly personal.… and that's what this was, but between strangers. … Of course everybody should be concerned about innocent civilians being caught up in it. The blame needs to be on Hamas for putting civilians in harm’s way intentionally. They want their numbers to go up, the numbers of dead. They don't include the numbers of combatants in their totals, but any child's death, any baby's death is one too many deaths. I look back to other wars that were fought to eradicate terrorists, like the Nazis — there was a blockade of Germany, because things were going to be used by the Nazis. There's always this balancing act of how to treat civilians, not just children, all civilians. And I believe there are a lot of mostly innocent people there, so you have to balance it … Hamas has said time and again that they will do this again and again and again. They have to be wiped out. But every life is sacred and every death is mourned. But again, Israel didn't start this.
… I criticized the far left, the Squad [progressive Democrats in Congress], for not speaking on Oct. 7. I made a snarky Tweet. And I was attacked by the far progressive left. And they threatened me with the primary. I say bring it. I didn't need this job. I have a law career. I still have a practice if I don't win. I mean, I'll be sad. I like doing what I'm doing, but I'm losing money being in the Legislature because I’m out of work for three months. So I'm not scared by competition.
Q. What does it mean to you for Gov. Brian Kemp to announce that he was sending an additional $10 million in state funds to support Israel's defense and flying the state flag at half staff for a week in the wake of the Hamas attack??
A. I was in Israel at the same time as Gov. Kemp in May. We saw each other at the U.S. Embassy reception. I'm incredibly grateful that he went. It was his first time and his family's first time to see why Israel means so much to the Jewish community here. How we are inextricably intertwined. Our lives here, our survival here, is dependent on the survival of the state of Israel. So I'm grateful for everything he does for Israel. And I'm hopeful that he will do the same for the American, Georgian Jewish community if this [antisemitism] bill passes, by signing it.
Q. Your work as a legislator can impact many people's lives and must feel consequential and perhaps even stressful at times. When you're not working, what do you do to unwind, free your mind and conjure up some joy?
A. That's a good question. I try to get to the mountains as much as possible just to disconnect. And I will say that I was raised in the Conservative branch of Judaism … and I was never [so] observant as to have no phones, no travel, no cars, that kind of thing on Shabbat [the Jewish sabbath]. Last weekend for the first time I realized how stressful everything was, and it was getting to me, and I stopped social media for the first time for Shabbat. And I think each week from here on out, I'm going to do something else that requires me to disconnect, because it is stressful. There's a lot of honor being the only Jewish member and a lot of responsibility, especially since Oct. 7. So I take that very seriously and it's hard to disconnect. I haven't done anything fun. My mother and I were supposed to travel to Europe and Israel for my birthday five days after Oct. 7, and I didn't feel that I could leave the district. … So I haven't had a vacation in a very long time, but I'm grateful that my family has a place in the mountains where I can just get away and wear a sweatshirt and disconnect.
The Esther Panitch file
Position: Representative, District 51 (D-Sandy Springs/Fulton County)
Birthplace: North Miami, Florida
Current residence: Sandy Springs
Education: Bachelors of science in communications and a law degree, both from University of Miami.
Career path: Started her legal career as a domestic violence court coordinator, and then served as an assistant public defender in Miami-Dade County, handling cases from misdemeanors to murder. Moved with her family to Georgia in 2004, and joined the Fulton Conflict Defender’s Office before opening a private firm in Atlanta representing criminal defendants, victims and clients in family law cases. She is serving her first term as a state legislator.
Family: Husband, Roger Panitch, and three children: Miriam, 24; Ben, 22; and Jacob, 20.
Hobbies/passions outside work: Spending time in the north Georgia mountains; volunteering with Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.
Read this related story:
Subscribe to State Affairs so you will have unlimited access to all of our stories.
Bills to track illegal immigrants, oust squatters, boost film industry make the cut on Crossover Day
A controversial religious freedom bill cleared the Senate Thursday despite heavy criticism from some lawmakers who said the bill would open “the floodgates to discrimination” against the LGBTQ+ community.
Senate Bill 180 was among dozens of bills Thursday that will now face another round of discussions and debates in the opposite chamber. SB 180 now heads to the House.
It’s part of the Georgia legislature’s midsession ritual known as “Crossover Day,” the last chance for bills to pass at least one chamber in the General Assembly. A succession of bills underwent rapid-fire discussion, debate and votes throughout the day.
Here’s a look at some of the bills that have made it across on Leap Day and a few that emerged as wildcards.
What happened in the House
COURTS and PUBLIC SAFETY
- HB 1105, the “Georgia Criminal Alien Track and Report Act,” would require Georgia law enforcement to work with federal immigration officials in reporting and, in some cases, detaining suspected illegal immigrants who have been charged with crimes. Failure of sheriffs and other law enforcement agencies to comply with the law could result in the loss of state and federal funds, and misdemeanor charges.
- Rep. Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah, the lead sponsor, said the bill does not target all foreign nationals but focuses on those who commit crimes. The bill gained steam in the House this week following the death of nursing student Laken Riley in Athens allegedly at the hands of a Venezuelan immigrant who entered the country illegally. During a 1.5-hour debate, the bill was vehemently opposed by many Democrats, who said it would terrorize undocumented immigrants and unfairly defund the police.
- Rep. Sam Park, the House minority whip, said the bill “won’t promote public safety, but it will lead to discrimination against people of certain ethnic backgrounds.” Rep. Pedro “Pete” Marin, D-Duluth, said it’s “yet another attempt to politicize fear and hatred. It is tempting during an election cycle to target immigrants to score political points.” Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, said, “Fixing policy in the face of unspeakable tragedy is not politics.” The bill passed 97-74.
- HB 1017, also known as the “Squatter Reform Act,” makes it easier to remove an intruder from private property, charge squatters with criminal penalties and issue them fines. Sponsor Devan Seabaugh, R-Marietta, said, “There are no more free homes in Georgia. If you are currently in a home you don’t belong in, leave now.” It passed 167-0.
WORKFORCE and ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
- Several bills related to occupational licensing reform have moved through the House. HB 839 creates an interstate compact agreement to allow social workers and massage therapists licensed in Georgia or any of the several states in the compact to practice in those states without having to obtain a new license. HB 1190 requires professional licensing boards housed in the Secretary of State’s office to review and issue licenses to professionals who meet requirements within 60 days of application. If that doesn’t happen, the license must be issued by the office immediately after the 60-day point.
- After 12 years of trying, Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, persuaded his colleagues to pass HB 349, a bill to allow mobile barbering. Williams said the bill “lets Georgia move into the 21st century. Poodles have been able to get mobile service. You can buy food of any description, get a tooth pulled, get an x-ray, give blood on a mobile truck. And finally, Georgia, for those of you who still need it, you can get a haircut.” The bill passed 165-1.
- After passionate debate, lawmakers voted 131-34 to pass HB 1180, which makes changes to Georgia’s Film Tax Credit, providing tax breaks to the state’s $1.9 billion film industry. The bill limits the state’s total annual obligation on film tax credits to $900 million, keeps a minimum investment by film businesses at $500,000 to qualify for the credit, and adds some new incentives to earn a 10% higher credit amount, including filming outside of metro Atlanta and using Georgia musicians, crews, studios and postproduction houses.
- HB 1125 phases out payments below the minimum wage to people with disabilities. Rep. Sharon Cooper said some programs that hire the disabled have been operating “like sweatshops,” offering pay as low as 22 cents per hour. It passed 160-0.
- HB 583 allows cottage food industry businesses to sell their products via third-party vendors such as restaurants and grocery stores instead of just direct to consumers. Rep. Leesa Hagan, R-Lyons, said it allows people “to see if their business is viable before putting a lot of investment in a commercial kitchen.” The bill passed 166-1.
- HB 1146 allows the Environmental Protection Division to issue water permits to private companies in areas where no public water service can be provided. It was prompted by problems providing water to the massive Hyundai electric vehicle plant near Savannah and workforce housing under construction in the counties around it. Many lawmakers expressed concerns over allowing private companies to control access to water and what it will cost communities over time. The bill passed 105-58.
- HB 1341 makes wild Georgia white shrimp the state’s official crustacean. The bill passed 171-0.
- HR 780, which would put the question on the ballot to amend the Georgia Constitution to allow only U.S. citizens to vote in Georgia elections, received a vote of 98-61 and failed to pass because it didn’t receive a two-thirds majority vote required for a constitutional amendment.
- HB 1335, sponsored by Rep. John LaHood, R-Valdosta, sets up a medical emergency alert system and requires a minimal level of staffing in senior care facilities, including personal care homes, assisted living communities and memory care centers.
- The House passed HB 1410, which creates the Stable Housing Accountability Program, a voluntary program to help homeless people with addiction issues to secure stable housing while participating in programs that help them “get back on their feet, be gainfully employed and self-sufficient,” said Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Auburn. It will be funded by the State Housing Trust Fund for the Homeless and private sources.
- HB 1361, an unusual hybrid bill, creates the offense of criminal trespass for entering the cage of a wild animal and creates a criminal offense for distributing obscene material depicting a child using computer or artificial intelligence technology. It passed 164-1.
What happened in the Senate
- SB 395 authorizes schools to have opioid antagonists such as Narcan on hand so they’re readily available for teachers and others to treat fentanyl overdoses at school. Currently, only nurses can administer opioid antagonists, and sometimes schools are understaffed. The bill passed 54-0.
- After a lengthy debate, the controversial SB 390 — which prohibits the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia and certain libraries from using taxpayer or privately donated money on any materials services or operations offered by the American Library Association — passed by substitute by a 33-20 vote.
- SB 198, which creates the Georgians With Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Innovation Commission, passed 50-2. It has five years to complete its work.
- There are 40,000 incidents of domestic violence each year. Senators passed SB 407, which would require documenting certain information in incidents of family violence. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Donzella James, D-Atlanta, passed 52-1.
WORKFORCE and ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
- SB 460, which revises the number of advanced practice registered nurses and physician assistants a doctor can supervise at any one time, passed 40-11. Sen. Bo Hatchett, R-Cornelia, said the bill will help rural hospitals “survive in the current medical climate.”
- SB 480, which would repay student loans for mental health and substance use professionals serving in certain capacities, passed 44-1.”
- SB 420, prohibiting foreign investors from buying agricultural land or land near military bases, passed 41-11 . The bill also would make it a felony for investors to purchase farmland if they have ties to any countries considered adversarial by the Department of Commerce.
- SB 180, known as the “Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” is intended to protect people’s religious rights from state and local government intervention, but critics say it will lead to greater problems for the gay community.
- SB 542 — which allows the public the right to use all navigable streams for passage on boats, including kayaks and canoes, and for hunting or fishing — passed 51-0. It does not allow for passersby to recreate on private property along such streams.
Other key bills that have already crossed over this session:
- HB 1339 changes Certificate of Need regulations and determines where and how new hospitals and medical facilities can be built.
- HB 881 provides standards of conduct and rules governing the Prosecuting Attorneys Qualifications Commission, which is empowered to oversee, discipline and remove state prosecutors.
- HB 1037 creates the Georgia Commission on Maternal and Infant Health.
- SB 465, also known as “Austin’s Law,” would charge anyone who illegally sells or distributes fentanyl that results in an overdose death with aggravated involuntary manslaughter, a felony.
- SB 421 is an anti-swatting measure that would make it a felony to make fake or unlawful calls or requests for emergency services.
- SR 155 creates the Senate Truck Driver Shortages Study Committee.
Why it matters
It’s a somewhat frenzied process, but the flurry of activity at the Capitol on Thursday sets the course for how lawmakers want to govern the state going forward. It’s a time when laws and policies are introduced or updated.
That said, it’s ultimately supposed to make the lives of Georgia’s 10 million-plus residents easier.
All of the bills that crossed over to the other chamber will be assigned to committees in the House or Senate. Lawmakers have until March 28, the last day of this legislative session, to consider, discuss, debate and vote on these bills.
This story has been updated to reflect the final legislative action on Crossover Day.
Read these related stories:
And subscribe to State Affairs so you do not miss an update.
As the General Assembly prepares to put its stamp on the fiscal year 2025 budget proposed by Gov. Brian Kemp, school transportation officials and education advocates are praising, some a bit warily, the governor’s large and long-awaited increase to student transportation funding.
Two decades of continuous disinvestment by the state in the cost of transporting students to and from school has left many school districts with aging bus fleets and insufficient funds to hire and retain bus drivers.
Following a series of State Affairs stories charting the plight of children stuck with poor transportation, Kemp proposed in late January doubling the state’s share of the student transportation budget in 2025 with an additional $210 million for busing operations and $20 million for 227 new buses.
“It’s huge, extremely huge,” said Pat Schofill, assistant superintendent of operations for Jackson County Schools, who was director of pupil transportation for the state Department of Education from 2016 to 2022.
“What these funds are going to do for a growing system like Jackson County is significant,” he said. “Where we’re now getting $1 million for pupil transportation, the state will provide maybe $2 million of our $11 million budget. This will allow us to invest in salaries for bus drivers and technicians, training initiatives and upgrades to buses like GPS technologies, seat belts and other safety features.”
Better yet, Schofill said, the extra state funds “will allow us and many other districts to offset some of our local funds on initiatives we’ve been trying to work on,” such as building new schools and hiring more teachers and mental health counselors.
“When we heard the numbers they were tossing around, we were excited,” said Jason Ayers, transportation director for Barrow County Schools. “But we know we have to wait and see what the actual allocation looks like.”
Still, Ayers and his team are already looking at hiring more staff and increasing pay for bus drivers and bus mechanics, who both start at about $16 an hour, hoping that more competitive salaries will help to fill some long-standing vacancies.
“The reason you don’t have anybody applying for transportation departments is because they can go other places and make more money,” he said. “Anything that moves the needle on helping us to compete with trucking companies and bigger school districts is a big deal.”
Ayers said about 60 buses in his fleet of 200 are 15 or more years old, the age when most buses are considered beyond their useful life. With new buses costing about $120,000 each, “you make that bus last as long as you can. But then there comes the point where it’s just so old it’s not even practical to fix it anymore. We’ve got a lot of ground to gain with upgrading our fleet. This new funding will allow us to invest in infrastructure and operations across the board.”
Richmond County school bus driver Yolanda Brown told State Affairs last year that buses are plagued with mechanical problems and regularly break down, causing students to arrive late to school. Some miss out on breakfast as well as their first-period classes.
Brown said the problems still exist and the district still has 40 vacancies among its 176 driver positions, and many drivers have to do double routes on crowded buses. “Frustrations are running high” among drivers, students and parents, she said.
But Brown, who is president of the Transport Workers Union Local 239 of the AFL-CIO in Augusta, said she’s cautiously optimistic about the influx of new funding the governor has proposed.
“It’s a good thing he’s doing,” she said. “I’m a little concerned about how the funds will reach the local level, but I think it will filter down.” She said the district’s chief financial officer and superintendent “are finally looking at revamping employee pay,” which for bus drivers starts at $14.06 an hour. “Hopefully that will slow down the constant turnover we have.”
Paul Abbott, senior director of transportation for Richmond County schools, is more positive about the future.
“It’s going to be a boon for us,” he said. “We don’t know the dollar amount yet and exactly what it will allow us to do, but we’re planning to give a nice bump on starting pay, which is what we’ve needed to get people in the door.”
Why it matters
Until the mid-1990s, the state, which by law is required to support the cost of transporting kids to public schools, covered about half of school districts’ total cost for student transportation. But over the years, Georgia’s investment has steadily dropped — amounting to about 17% of the total $1.1 billion cost in 2023.
This drop has put a strain on many school districts, which have had to cut other educational expenditures to keep bus operations going. And many districts have not been able to find enough funds to maintain bus fleets adequately and pay personnel a livable wage. Many career bus drivers and mechanics have quit or retired, and schools are finding them hard to replace.
Kemp’s proposed fiscal year 2025 budget would cover about 31% of school districts’ total costs for transportation. And instead of a one-time grant, Kemp’s move to put transportation funds in the education formula funding part of the budget signals “that schools can count on this level of funding every single year,” said Stephen Owens, education director at the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute.
“This will do real good in schools, to have these funds baked into the budget,” Owens said. “If the General Assembly approves it … this will be a huge jump in formula funding that will allow school districts to plan on not only to replace school buses, pay bus drivers and bus monitors a better wage, and make sure that we have safer buses on the road, [but] … they can recommit the funds that they’ve been taking from other areas of school to support instruction in other ways.”
While “this is an incredible step forward,” Owens said, “if we treat this like the last thing we needed to do to support schools, in four years we’re going to be right back in this position where we have a similar amount of underfunding for school districts.” Owens estimated the total cost of student transportation for school districts increases about $200 million every four years.
“So this can’t be a one-and-done,” he said. “It needs to be a regular part of the way the General Assembly moves towards fairness between districts and the state. There’s still a wide gap until we get to true parity.”
House and Senate leaders have expressed strong support for Kemp’s proposed fiscal year 2025 budget, which includes $1.4 billion in new education spending. Besides the increase in student transportation, the education budget includes raises for teachers and new funding for school security measures and expanding pre-K programs.
Over the next month, budget writers in the House and then the Senate will review and propose changes to the 2025 budget. The changes must be approved in both chambers and then submitted to the governor by March 28, the last day of the legislative session. The governor will then sign or veto the bill. He can also choose to reject certain line items within the budget. Georgia’s fiscal year 2025 begins July 1, 2024.
Read these related stories:
It’s do-or-die week at the Capitol as lawmakers race to get bills to the finish line if they’re to become law. Crossover Day, which happens this Thursday, is the last day a bill can clear its originating chamber and move to the other chamber for consideration. A bill introduced in the Senate must pass the …
Georgia student’s death spurs Gov. Kemp and lawmakers to push state solutions for ‘failed federal policies’ on immigration
Anti-immigration proponents on Monday may have gotten the necessary fuel they needed as Gov. Brian Kemp blamed “failed federal policies” for last week’s death of a Georgia college student allegedly at the hands of a man who had immigrated illegally.
Kemp told the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce at a breakfast meeting that Augusta University nursing student Laken Riley’s death “is a direct result of failed policies on the federal level and an unwillingness by this White House to secure the southern border.”
University of Georgia Police have charged Jose Antonio Ibarra, an immigrant from Venezuela, with kidnapping the 22-year-old while she was jogging on campus and murdering her. Ibarra, who authorities said entered the country illegally in 2022 and has since had a series of brushes with the law, had just been released from jail in Georgia a month ago and spent time in jail in New York City, reportedly for letting a child ride a scooter with no helmet.
“That is a failure of our system on multiple levels and at multiple times, and it resulted in a young woman’s death,” Kemp said. “That’s inexcusable.”
Kemp’s impassioned speech comes as state lawmakers are considering a slew of last-minute measures that must pass from one chamber to the other by Crossover Day, which is Thursday.
Outrage among Kemp and Republican lawmakers over Riley’s death is fueling a late-breaking push on legislation related to immigration and oversight of state prosecutors in the General Assembly.
On Tuesday, a House Public Safety and Homeland Security subcommittee is expected to take up Republican state Rep. Jesse Petrea’s House Bill 1105, also known as the Georgia Criminal Alien Track and Report Act. The bill would require the state Department of Corrections to track the immigration status and criminal offenses of inmates who are not U.S. citizens and penalize sheriffs who don’t coordinate with federal immigration authorities.
“This tragedy is as lamentable as it is maddening,” House Speaker Jon Burns said in a statement over the weekend. “And while our state continues to mourn Laken’s loss, over the coming days, the Georgia House will be looking at ways to strengthen the security of our state, enhance public safety, and act where the federal government has failed to do so.” He added that House leadership “will be pressing for answers over the coming days as to why exactly the suspect and his brother continued to roam freely in the Athens area.”
Republicans have long been critical of so-called sanctuary cities whose laws limit local cooperation with federal immigration enforcement efforts in order to protect undocumented immigrants from deportation or prosecution. Atlanta, Clayton County, DeKalb County and Athens-Clarke County are considered sanctuary cities.
Senate President Pro Tem John Kennedy condemned sanctuary cities in a statement about Riley’s death, saying they “embolden criminals and endanger Georgians at the expense of the taxpayer.”
“Policies that shield criminal aliens from federal immigration authorities undermine our legal immigration system and prevent law enforcement officers from doing their job,” Kennedy said.
Senate Bill 232, which would give the state broader powers to discipline or remove state prosecutors, passed the Senate and will be heard in a House committee today. Republicans sponsoring the bill have cited the policies of Athens-Clarke County District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez not to prosecute some low-level offenses, including misdemeanor marijuana possession, or to jail some undocumented immigrants found to be in the U.S. illegally, as impetus for the legislation.
While Riley’s death has elicited an outpouring of sympathy and outrage, it’s also evoked criticism from those who fear some will use her death as a political or campaign tool.
“And while there’s a lot happening around the country, we can’t allow ourselves to look at everything solely through a biased electoral lens or partisan or party lens,” said Alejandro Chavez, the grandson of the legendary civil rights and labor movement organizer Cesar Chavez.
“We also have to remember that the rhetoric that has been said out there is actually scaring and attacking and intimidating students who are Latin, documented and undocumented citizens and immigrants across the board,” said Chavez, who is working to get more Latinos elected to office in Georgia.
“We should not use this young woman’s tragic death as a reason to create more terror in the community. I don’t think one person represents an entire culture or an entire group of people. What he did has nothing to do with his status. It had to do with him as a person. We have to remember that,” Chavez said.
Kemp also flexed his anti-immigration stance earlier this month when he and other governors went to the Texas border in support of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s efforts to combat illegal border crossings. Kemp, who has been to the southern border five times, bolstered his support, saying he plans to send additional Georgia National Guard members to the region. Kemp blamed Biden for the influx of fentanyl seizures at the border over the past year and warned that “drugs, weapons and dangerous criminals that aren’t stopped at the border head to other states, like ours.”
“We’re already putting more and more resources into public safety, including raising the pay of state law enforcement to retain and attract talented men and women who will keep our streets safe,” Kemp said in a statement. “All of these measures and more are designed with the same goal: to keep Georgians like you safe, and to keep your neighborhoods, schools, and businesses safe. Because everyone should feel secure in their own community.”
Correction: This story has been updated to clarify where Laken Riley attended college. We regret the error.
And subscribe to State Affairs so you do not miss an update.