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Hufstetler bill sets stage for revenue structure overhaul in Georgia

State Sen. Chuck Hufstetler submitted legislation Wednesday to launch a comprehensive review of the state’s revenue structure, with an eye to modernizing it in 2022.

The measure builds on the work of a 2010 committee that resulted in changes such as the elimination of the “birthday tax” on vehicles and a shift in the state gas tax that has provided steady funding for transportation projects even as federal money slowed.

“A lot of people would say that’s the biggest driver of Georgia being the No. 1 state to do business. The question now is, what do we do for the next decade,” Hufstetler said.

The Rome Republican, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, has about two-thirds of the Senate signed on as cosponsors. Its president pro tem, minority leader and majority leader are the next three signatories. The bill is expected to get a first reading Thursday and be assigned to a committee, likely the Finance Committee.

The five-page bill would create two entities: the 2021 Special Council on Tax Reform and Fairness for Georgians and the Special Joint Committee on Georgia Revenue Structure.

The Council would spend this year on the study and submit a report with recommended legislative action by Jan. 10, 2022. Any proposed legislation would be assigned to the special committee, with the idea that whatever it sent for a floor vote could not be amended.

“An up or down vote,” Hufstetler said. “The intent is, before special interests nibble away at it, to say this is the preference.”

The makeup of both the council and the special committee is designed to generate a wide-reaching buy-in, if they can come to an agreement.

The 11 member council would have a seat for Gov. Brian Kemp as well as three economists appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and Speaker of the House.

It would also include a nonpartisan fiscal expert agreed to by the minority leaders of the House and Senate; the 2021 leaders of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Business; two House representatives; and two state senators.

Hufstetler said the diversity puts everything on the table, so he wouldn’t try at this point to predict the outcome.

“That’s what we want to hear from these economics professors, what it takes for Georgia to be competitive for the next decade,” he said.

The special committee would have 12 members, all lawmakers — from both the House and the Senate.

In addition to a Republican and a Democrat appointed from each chamber, members would be the President Pro Tem of the Senate; Speaker Pro Tem of the House; the majority and minority leaders of each chamber; and the chairs of the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees, who would co-chair the joint special committee.

Attempts by the 2010 Special Council on Tax Fairness to pass a comprehensive overhaul got bogged down by various factions objecting to different pieces. Only a few of its recommendations were enacted over the years.

Hufstetler said he’s hoping this time will be different.

“We want to have a diverse tax structure in case something happens to one sector ... At the same time, we’re too dependent on income tax. We need to broaden that out,” he said.

Berry welcomes another eaglet to the campus Wednesday, second egg expected to hatch soon

It’s been nearly two years since the eagles nesting behind the Cage Center at Berry College successfully reproduced.

Wednesday morning, the first of two eggs laid in early January hatched and tiny B14 popped its downy head out from under one of the adults on the nest.

Berry College Director of Environmental Compliance and Sustainability Eddie Elsberry said the college designates the young as B, for Berry, and the sequential number of successful hatches, thus B14.

The two adults are known as M12 for male, first observed in the fall of 2012, and NF20, for new female observed in 2020.

Last year, neither egg hatched and the year before that both of the young eaglets died before they were a week old. One actually fell out of the nest while the other died of unknown causes a couple of days after it hatched.

The previous female eagle, with a badly damaged left talon, was last seen in the area in late November. Observers feel pretty confident the male in the nest is the same one since 2012.

Bob Sargent with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources said he suspects the new female got into a territorial battle with the original female and the original female simply couldn’t hang on to her space, possibly because of the bad talon.

No one knows what happened to cause the injury, which occurred sometime during the summer of 2013 right after the very first breeding season that successfully produced two young eaglets.

Berry’s Renee Carleton said she suspects the new female may be a young adult because of the way she acted around the nest in November and December.

The first of the two eggs was laid on Jan. 1 and the second was produced Jan. 4. The typical incubation period is roughly five weeks.

The young remain in the nest for approximately 12 weeks before they make their first flight. Adults generally continue to bring food to the nest for a period of time after that first flight, but it isn’t long thereafter before the young are on their own.

Elsberry said the college continues to document activity at the nest and submit a summary each year to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

He said the report is not as detailed as it was the first couple of years, but any unusual events are always noted in the report.

Shaun Burson, a student at Model Elementary School

Georgia prosecutor investigates election after Trump call

ATLANTA A Georgia prosecutor said Wednesday that she has opened a criminal investigation into “attempts to influence” last year’s general election, including a call in which President Donald Trump asked a top official to find enough votes to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the state.

In a Jan. 2 telephone conversation with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, Trump repeatedly argued that Raffensperger could change the certified results of the presidential election, an assertion the secretary of state firmly rejected.

“All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have,” Trump said. “Because we won the state.”

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, a Democrat elected to the job in November, did not specifically mention Trump in the letters she sent to state officials Wednesday announcing her investigation. But the former president has been under intense criticism for the call.

Willis spokesman Jeff DiSantis told The Associated Press that while he could not name the subjects under investigation, he confirmed that Trump’s call to Raffensperger was “part of it” and said “the matters reported on over the last several weeks are the matters being investigated.” In her letters, Willis also remarks that officials “have no reason to believe that any Georgia official is a target of this investigation.”

The letters, sent to Raffensperger, Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and Attorney General Chris Carr, instruct the four Republican officials to preserve all records related to the election, particularly those that may contain evidence of attempts to influence elections officials.

Representatives for Raffensperger, Duncan and Carr acknowledged receiving the letters but declined to comment. Kemp spokesman Cody Hall declined to comment in a text message.

Senior Trump adviser Jason Miller decried the district attorney’s announcement, saying “the timing here is not accidental given today’s impeachment trial.”

“This is simply the Democrats’ latest attempt to score political points by continuing their witch hunt against President Trump, and everybody sees through it,” Miller said.

U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, who is also chair of the state Democratic Party, applauded Willis “for holding Donald Trump accountable for attempting to influence our elections and throw out the votes of Georgia voters.”

“Let’s be clear — we know Trump and his cronies’ attacks on our elections were the direct result of Black and brown voters making their voices heard,” Williams said in a statement. “Now, it is the responsibility of every leader of this state, regardless of party, to put protecting the rights of Georgia voters above letting Donald Trump get away with his crimes.”

David Shafer, chair of the state Republican Party, did not immediately respond to a text or phone call seeking comment.

Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the watchdog group last month sent a criminal complaint to Willis’ office outlining laws that it said Trump appeared to have broken on his call with Raffensperger. The group asked Willis to begin a criminal investigation.

“Trump’s conduct violates not only the law, but the foundation on which our democracy is built,” Bookbinder wrote in an emailed statement. “He may have been able to evade facing criminal charges as president, but he is no longer president. We applaud Fulton County District Attorney Willis for launching this investigation and showing that no one is above the law.”

Willis’ letters note the investigation is looking into “potential violations of Georgia law prohibiting the solicitation of election fraud, the making of false statements to state and local government bodies, conspiracy, racketeering, violation of oath of office and any involvement in violence or threats related to the election’s administration.”

The district attorney added that she will request subpoenas for the investigation in March when the next Fulton County grand jury is set to meet.

After the November general election, Trump refused to accept that Biden had beaten him. His loss by about 12,000 votes in the state, a longtime Republican stronghold, seemed especially troubling to him. He and his allies made unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud in Georgia and repeatedly insulted Raffensperger and Kemp for not taking action to overturn his loss.

State and federal officials have repeatedly said the election was secure and that there is no evidence of systemic fraud.

Prior to his call last month to Raffensperger, Trump had tried to pressure others in Georgia. While election officials were verifying signatures on absentee ballot envelopes in one metro-Atlanta county in December, Trump told a lead investigator in a phone call to “find the fraud,” saying it would make the investigator a national hero. Also in December, he called Kemp and tried to persuade him to order a special session of the state legislature to overturn Biden’s victory.

Earlier this week, Raffensperger’s office opened an administrative investigation after a third party filed a complaint alleging that Trump’s call to Raffensperger violated Georgia laws.

Investigators with the secretary of state’s office who look into such complaints typically present their findings to the state election board, which then decides how to proceed. If the board believes there’s evidence that a crime occurred, it can take action ranging from issuing a letter of reprimand to referring the case to Georgia’s attorney general or to a local district attorney such as Willis.

County preparing to hire permanent elections clerk, overhaul of elections office will be "long-term process"

Hiring a new chief elections clerk is the first step in a long-term process to do a complete modernization and overhaul of the Floyd County Elections Office.

The previous job description of the chief clerk will be undergoing several changes. Elections Board Chair Melanie Conrad said it’s outdated and “less technical” than what is required now.

With the new generation of voting machines, Conrad felt that the job description needs to be more modern and technology-focused. She went on to say the new proposed salary for the position will be “more competitive” than the previous salary range of $34,405 to $37,925.

If approved, the position will be listed in the level 21 pay grade with a salary range of $44,774 to $71,369.

Before the job can be listed on the Rome-Floyd website and other professional boards, the description needs to be approved by the Administrative Finance Committee and be put to a vote by the Floyd County Commission. The elections board hopes to have the position listed by Feb. 24.

Last year, County Attorney Virginia Harman expressed interest in helping the elections board propose new legislation to overhaul how elections are managed in Floyd County, saying the current situation is “unique” compared to other areas.

Currently the elections board and chief elections clerk are the ones who oversee the elections process in Floyd County as a whole.

This has been a part of state legislation since 1986. The chief elections clerk is also a general merit employee, Harman said, meaning they can be hired or fired like any other employee.

Nearby counties have elections superintendents, whose roles are more supervisory and director focused, and their hiring and firing process is a lot more bureaucratic.

To change the Floyd County elections system, it would take a vote from the Georgia General Assembly. And before that, the new legislation would have to be approved by the County Commission and brought to the state House by one of the local legislators: Rep. Katie Dempsey, Rep. Eddie Lumsden or Rep. Mitchell Scoggins.

Dempsey said it would be signed by all three of them and they would decide who presents it.

If approved, it would then move to the state Senate and be presented by Sen. Chuck Hufstetler.

There are already a few statewide election bills on the House floor, according to Dempsey, and depending on the outcome of some of the bills, Floyd County wouldn’t need to do a system revamp.

Still, Dempsey said she and the rest of the state legislators are more than happy to work with the county on getting a new election system in place.

However, Conrad and the board want a new person in the chief clerk position before moving forward with any legislative measure — or choosing a new office space.

“We want them to have a voice in an office redesign,” she said. “This will be the start of permanent fixes to the elections office.”