Legislation banning the use of cellphones while driving passed the House before the Crossover Day deadline and moved on to the Senate.
Rep. Eddie Lumsden, R-Armuchee, who lost a teen daughter to a distracted driver, spoke in favor of House Bill 673 before the vote, which came in at 151 to 20.
Lumsden said there's been a 34-percent increase in accidents, injuries and fatalities over the past three years due to the use of smartphones and tablets by drivers. The insurance agent and retired Georgia State Patrol trooper said it has led to a measurable spike in insurance premiums and additional costs when the victims need government aid.
But he highlighted the human cost, pointing to supporters in the gallery whose families have been affected by death or disability.
"They want to know that their loss helps to bring about a change that will keep others from having to deal with the life-altering challenges that they are facing," he said.
Lumsden noted that drunk driving was a major issue 30 years ago, but legal crackdowns and public awareness campaigns helped change people's attitudes about alcohol and cars.
"In order to really deal with the problem it must become socially unacceptable to drive distracted," he added.
The "Hands-Free Georgia Act" prohibits a driver from holding or touching an electronic device and sets a minimum fine of $300 for the first offense and a 2-point assessment on their license. It doesn't apply to voice-to-text or GPS navigation.
Under the wire
Lumsden also carried a bill allowing Cave Spring to boost its hotel-motel tax to 8 percent from 5 percent, which passed under the wire with no opposition.
Floyd County's other House delegates — Reps. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, and Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville — were cosponsors, and also got several of their own bills through the chamber in time.
Coomer, the majority whip, quickly wrote and pushed through HB 999, which makes it harder for a mentally ill person to get a gun permit.
The legislation removes the mandatory five-year purge from the background check database any records of an individual's involuntary hospitalization in a mental or addiction treatment facility. A judge could still allow a permit after examining the professional assessments.
Dempsey shepherded three bills through the Crossover Day crush late Wednesday night.
Her HB 494 allows hearsay evidence during a preliminary emergency hearing to determine if a serious incident or fatality at a childhood early care or learning program requires closure or monitoring. It also replaces a fingerprint background check for employees with a comprehensive records check that includes fingerprinting.
HB 920 expands how the Department of Human Services can use its records on adopted children and their parents when the child dies, suffers a near fatality, or is an alleged victim of abuse.
Dempsey also sponsored HB 996, which establishes a central database and governing board to merge records of people receiving government social services from various agencies.
The integrated database initiative is similar to a bill sponsored by Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, aimed at getting a handle on healthcare costs and effective treatments. The measures will likely be reconciled before the General Assembly adjourns at the end of the month.
More than 60 wheelchair tennis players from 16 nations have registered for the ITF Georgia Wheelchair Championships March 14-16 at the Rome Tennis Center at Berry College.
Rome Sports Commission Director Ann Hortman told the Greater Rome Convention and Visitors Bureau Board of Directors that 11 of the competitors are coming from Japan alone. Eight of the top 10 ranked players in the world will be in Rome for the event.
Playing a long side the mostly professional wheelchair athletes, the United States Tennis Association will have a sanctioned wheelchair competition as well. Hortman said entries for that event won't close until March 8, so she is expecting well over 100 wheelchair athletes to be in town for much of the week.
The tournament week will kick off March 12-13 with a Train the Trainer Clinic put on by USTA professionals to help train people interested in helping to teach prospective wheelchair-bound athletes.
"I'm still looking for sponsors," Hortman said. "No amount is too small to help."
A new paddle event is being planned for July 7, GRCVB Communications Director Kristi Kent told the board.
Kent and Connie Sams from River Dog Outpost said they hope to make the event an annual event the first weekend of July to help draw attention to Rome's rivers and natural resources.
Sams said races are being planned for participants at least 18 years of age. The races — consisting of one, three and six mile events — will start from Heritage Park at the confluence of the rivers and have paddlers on the Coosa, Etowah and Oostanaula Rivers. Float events will be scheduled in conjunction with the races for younger folks or people who aren't actually into racing.
Three names have been suggested for the event including Mighty Magnolia, Chieftains Challenge and Kingfisher Challenger, Sams said, and her hope is to tie a name to the Native American history of the community.
Anyone with a suggestion is encouraged to contact the GRCVB office at 706-295-5576.
Today's artwork is by Kirsten Conti, a student at Armuchee Elementary.
Early learning center in need of support
Rome City Schools would need to commit $45,000 to the South Rome Early Learning Center to keep it in operation for the remainder of the school year, according to Superintendent Lou Byars.
Additionally, the school system would need to contribute $75,000 for next school year. The contributions would pay for the two lead teachers and two assistant teachers at the early learning center for 3-year-olds at Anna K. Davie Elementary.
A draft memorandum of understanding was presented to the Rome Board of Education during a called meeting Tuesday. A change from the original memorandum of agreement from 2015 is the teachers would become Rome City employees and would be paid by the system.
Berry College currently is in charge of teachers and staff, along with day-to-day operations, and the South Rome Redevelopment Corp. reimburses these costs.
The board did not make a decision on the matter Tuesday, deferring any possible action to its March 13 board meeting. Board members, including four just over two months into their first terms, sought to explore the issue more and have stakeholders meet before then for further discussion.
The center was founded as a partnership between the school system, Berry College and the SRRC. Officials said there is clear evidence of the program's success — the first set of 3-year-olds now in kindergarten are reading at a first-grade level — and it recently received the highest quality rating from Bright from the Start: Georgia's Department of Early Care and Learning. There are currently 30 students split between two classrooms — only five students live in the Anna K. Davie district, the target area.
SRRC Executive Director Charles Looney said, during the meeting, current anticipated funds could possibly keep the center going for another month. He said funding from several large grants was not received this year. Also, due to rule changes in the Division of Family and Children Services Georgia CAPS program, the center was not eligible to receive funding, he continued.
"There's a lot of grants out there to get programs like this started, but not a lot to keep them going," Looney said.
The SRCC, which has the main responsibility of fundraising and seeking out grants, commits to annually raising $50,000 a year, Looney said. The organization is currently fundraising but is about $20,000 short of their goal.
Looney said the yield from fundraising goes to supplement tuition, which is pro-rated depending on family income level. Most families pay the lowest payment of $25 a week, and only a couple currently pay the highest level of $82 a week — this brings in about $40,000 a year, he added.
"We're basically paying the remainder," of tuition costs, Looney said. "This is an incredible deal. This isn't just daycare, this is actual education."
It has been shared that even at its current levels tuition is a hindrance for some families. Looney said he'd love for there to be no tuition, but that is not possible under the current financial situation.
Looney estimated annual operation costs at $200,000, but that doesn't include the in-kind contributions from Berry College and Rome City Schools. The school system contributions include the classroom and office space, meals and playground designed for 3-year-olds. Berry provides the curriculum, student teachers and workers — to keep at least a 5-to-1 student to adult ratio — and administrative services.
The Polk School District took a threat made to a student online seriously enough to put schools on lockdown as the month began.
School officials and law enforcement were quick to respond to a threat on Thursday afternoon when the schools went into a lockdown situation as part of procedures for responding to the social media posting brought to administrators' attention by students.
Polk School District's campuses remained on lockdown through late afternoon until around 4:15 p.m. following the usual dismissal, when officials lifted the lockdown.
Cedartown Police Chief Jamie Newsome also reported, following the lifting of security measures, that they took a male person of interest into custody for questioning, and the investigation continues into the incident.
The threat of a shooting was sent to a student via social media through an account name known only as "MAGG."
That student then sought help identifying the sender, who threatened a school shooting at both Cedartown and Rockmart high schools. WGAA 1340 AM's Andrew Carter shared the screenshot made of the threat with the Polk County Standard Journal.
That threat read "I'm going to shoot your school up tomorrow (Thursday, March 1) around 1:30 so be ready" from a poster that went by "MAGG."
"MAGG" additionally said "In Polk County" when questioned by the student who received the post, and followed up "I'm shooting up Cedartown high school and Rockmart."
MAGG later stated "why did you screenshot" when the student asked for assistance in identifying the sender after taking an image of the social media posts.
Police were quick to respond, getting local investigators on the case during the afternoon lockdown along with the help of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Newsome and Rockmart Police Chief Keith Sorrells said their officers were dispatched to the schools to provide security during the full lockdown of the district.
The threat came just a week following the school district's posting of a letter to the community about their efforts to improve school security with the help of local, state and federal law enforcement officials.
Polk County School Superintendant Laurie Atkins asked parents and students to report any threats made against a student or school to teachers and administrators as soon as it happens, and to have age-appropriate conversations with their children about school security, cautions about social media postings and use, and to avoid cyber-bullying of any kind and report its occurrence as well.
She also thanked parents and guardians for their understanding of the additional time students spent in school during the lockdown, and also thanked law enforcement for ensuring that students and faculty were safe and secure during the incident.
Polk School District's encounter with the threat of violence came just a day after the area was shocked by the events at Dalton High School, when teacher Randal Davidson barricaded himself in his classroom and later fired a single shot with a handgun through a window.