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Antonio Fleetwood and Lakiela Edwards’ long trek to the altar came to an end on Valentine’s Day at the Fulton County Probate Court. That’s where the Atlanta couple finally exchanged vows in a tearful ceremony attended by the bride’s mother as other couples waited in the wings to wed.
“We’ve been trying to get married for about two years,“ the new bride told State Affairs.
The couple’s plans got waylaid by the coronavirus pandemic and had to take a backseat to more pressing court cases such as serious felonies: murders, rapes and armed robbery. The backlog in felony cases drew state and media attention — and federal money.
Constitutional pressures — most notably, the right to a speedy trial — have forced Georgia courts to focus first on reducing cases of serious crimes, and they have state and federal financial backing to do so.
In 2021, Gov. Brian Kemp designated about $96 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money to deal with backlogs of court cases. A committee, headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Boggs, oversees applications from courts statewide for the ARPA money and helps decide which courts get the funds. Now in its second year, the committee has awarded grants to 42 of the 50 judicial circuits in Georgia, totaling more than $44 million. Most of that money has gone to reducing the backlog of court cases involving violent felonies.
Tracking the backlog of civil cases isn’t so easy.
“There’s a lot of concern on the civil side because the priority was, of course, going to be given to criminal trials. Folks were afraid they were going to have to wait,” former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton told State Affairs. Melton guided the state’s court system through the early days of the pandemic.
“The courts have done a really good job of getting those civil cases in there where they can and I’m not hearing too many complaints about the ability to get civil cases heard across the state,” Melton added.
Still, a full picture of the impact of the pandemic on civil matters like marriage and divorce, business and insurance disputes, slip-and-fall and personal injury and child custody matters is not readily available.
“We don't have anything statewide that gives us a snapshot of what that looks like,” said Tracy J. BeMent, district court administrator for Georgia’s 10th Judicial District, which handles civil and domestic cases for 21 counties in northeast Georgia. The third-largest district in the state, it received funding from ARPA in the range of $25,000 to $2 million. The money was used to bring in senior judges, usually retired judges, as well as court reporters, clerks, pre-trial release officers and probation officers. The money also was used for local district attorney offices to act as prosecutors.
“Our judges were still working in all our superior courts,” BeMent said. “So they were still handling cases. A lot of them I’ve heard anecdotally made great inroads during the pandemic getting caught up with existing civil and domestic caseload because they had time to not focus as much on criminal [cases] and turn their focus on the civil.”
That said, BeMent noted that “there may be a backlog in some individual counties, but it is not as big as it once was on the civil side.”
The use of Zoom, WebEx and other technology during the pandemic helped courts quickly and efficiently hear and settle cases remotely.
“I’m hearing a lot of really wonderful stories on the civil side and on domestic matters,” BeMent said. “We've got a lot of judges that are now holding on to that remote hearing as a regular component of their caseload. So that’s really speeding up some of these simple and domestic matters, especially with a lot of our judges who traveled a circuit. Now, depending on the nature of it, they can stay in their office and do a Zoom or WebEx. We're really excited to see what that looks like as that becomes part of the norm.”
Georgia's court system: By the numbers
- Branches of government in Georgia: 3 (legislative, executive, judicial)
- Georgia Supreme Court justices: 9
- Judges: About 1,500 statewide
- Judicial circuits: 50
- Administrative districts: 10
- Types of courts in Georgia: 9 (municipal, magistrate, probate, juvenile, state, superior, appeals, Supreme, Georgia Statewide Business Court)
- Juvenile, magistrate, probate, superior courts: 159 each (one for each county)
- State courts: 71
- Municipal courts: 370
Source: Georgia’s Court System; Administrative Office of the Courts; staff research
In the northwest Georgia counties of Whitfield and Murray, many of the civil cases are being handled through mediation, Superior Court Judge Cindy Morris of the Conasauga Judicial Circuit of Georgia, told State Affairs.
“So they were able to keep working through COVID,” Morris said. “We have a very high number of cases settled in mediation. We were busy but I don’t feel like we had that bottleneck like some of the larger circuits have had."
“Probate court is a court for real life because not everyone will be the victim of a crime or commit a crime. Not everyone will be evicted from an apartment or have a small claims case,” Johnson said. “But during a pandemic and anytime, people pass away every day. So there’s things and business matters that come up as a result of that. This is the court for your average citizen because everyone has or will experience loss.”
Deaths caused by the pandemic also caused probate cases to increase.
Johnson said when she first arrived, there was “a four-to-six month delay in getting a response from probate court and now we've gotten that down to 30 days” with the help of county management and extra staff, which include 15 new people.
In addition to dispensing marriage licenses and performing weddings, probate court deals with firearms licenses, estates and wills, and guardianships.
“It was taking several months to get a firearms license,” Johnson recalled. “We've gotten that down to three weeks now.”
Marriage licenses are more instantaneous, the judge noted. But it took a while to process the marriage certificates once probate got them back.
“That kind of held people up from getting insurance switched and handling other financial things. So it was an inconvenience to those citizens. We now have that down to two weeks,” Johnson said.
In Henry County, Superior Court Chief Judge Brian Amero attributes any increase in caseloads now to the county’s growing population versus pandemic backlog. His docket is evenly split between criminal and domestic cases. There are four Superior court judges in the district.
“I had 160 cases on my trial calendar, starting at the beginning of this term,” Amero told State Affairs. “I think we moved about 74 of those cases in the first two weeks of the term. My docket doesn't feel like it's being stressed too much.”
Despite the pandemic, court work never completely stopped.
“At the end of the day, we never stopped working in the courts because there were always emergency matters,” BeMent said. “There were people that had to get married, people that had to get divorced, people that had to sue each other, people that got arrested. All those cases were still heard, albeit, a little slower than we would have liked but the judges were out there.”
See the Edwards-Fleetwood wedding ceremony here.
You can reach Tammy Joyner on Twitter @lvjoyner or at [email protected]. Joyner is State Affairs’ senior investigative reporter in Georgia. A Georgia transplant, she has lived in the Peach State for nearly 29 years.
Header image: Antonio Fleetwood and Lakiela Edwards exchange vows on Valentine's Day in Fulton County Probate Court. (Credit: Tammy Joyner)
In this election year and constant social media bemoaning of the cost of groceries and other consumer items, legislators are working on several tax measures to return money to Georgia taxpayers.
Here’s what the bills would do if they pass in both chambers and the governor signs them.
The House of Representatives passed three bills to provide income and property tax breaks to Georgians, all of which are now under consideration in the Senate:
- HB 1015 cuts the state income tax for individuals to 5.39% from 5.49%, retroactive to Jan. 1. The bill would accelerate a graduated tax drop that already started, per a 2022 law, at a top tax rate of 5.75%, which is planned to decrease to 4.99% by 2029. At the time, House Ways and Means Chair Shaw Blackmon, R-Bonaire, said the cuts, once fully implemented, would save a family of four with an income of $75,000 about $650 per year.
If the Senate and governor approve the new bill, Georgia residents who earned $58,000 in 2024 would save another $34 in annual income tax, according to a Georgia Budget & Policy Institute analysis. Those earning $105,000 would save an additional $72, and those earning $183,000 would save $128, according to the institute.
|GEORGIA 2024 INCOME TAX RATE CUTS
|Enacted and Proposed
|Estimated Annual Savings from Tax Rate Cuts
|From 5.75% to 5.49% (Enacted)
|From 5.49% to 5.39% (Proposed)
|Top 1% ($1.87 Million)
|Note: Both tax rate cuts are planned to be effective Jan. 1, 2024.
The state is expected to collect $1.1 billion less in income tax revenues this year if the latest tax rollback is approved.
- HB 1021 increases the state income tax deduction for each child or dependent (including an elder parent) to $4,000 from $3,000. The Georgia Budget & Policy Institute estimated that families will save about $54 per dependent per year through this tax exemption if implemented in fiscal year 2025, which begins July 1, 2024.
The change would cost the state about $152 million in revenues in fiscal year 2025.
- HB 1019 increases the homestead exemption on the assessed value of an owner-occupied home to $4,000 from $2,000. Bill sponsor Rep. Matt Reeves, R-Duluth, noted that tax bills vary according to the assessed value and local tax rates and said that average savings to homeowners in his Gwinnett County district would be about $100.
Meanwhile, the Senate passed a competing bill that would prohibit local governments from raising home property assessments more than 3% a year. Senate Bill 349, sponsored by Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, is now under consideration in the House.
Both bills to change how residential property taxes are calculated would require a majority two-thirds vote in both chambers and voter approval through a state referendum in November.
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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.
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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.
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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 …