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Hate-crimes bill passes out of Georgia legislature, heads to governor's desk

Georgia lawmakers reached across the aisle Tuesday to pass a contentious hate-crimes bill that aims to protect people from acts of violence or property damage perpetrated because of the victim’s race, sex or gender.

House Bill 426 was pushed through the Senate after stalling there for more than a year, following its passage out of the state House of Representatives in March of 2019. It then gained final passage in the House less than an hour later by an overwhelming vote, 127-38.

Kemp’s office said in a statement the governor would sign the bill once it has gone through legal review.

Through tears, Rep. Calvin Smyre, the General Assembly’s longest serving member, proclaimed after the vote that co-sponsoring the hate-crimes bill was his finest act as a lawmaker in Georgia.

“I’ve had a lot, a lot, a lot of moments in my career,” said Smyre, D-Columbus, whose tenure spans nearly five decades in the legislature. “But today is my finest.”

The bill designates hate crimes as an enhancement to charges that prosecutors have discretion to bring, not as standalone offenses. It specifies hate crimes as those targeting a victim based on “race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability or physical disability.”

It would restore hate-crimes protections enacted in Georgia in 2000 that were stripped out of state law in 2004 by the Georgia Supreme Court, which ruled lawmakers did not clearly define a hate crime.

Rep. Chuck Efstration, who sponsored the legislation, reflected on the historic nature of the bill, which if signed by Gov. Brian Kemp would make Georgia no longer one of four states in the U.S. that does not have a hate-crimes law on the books.

“(This bill will) send a strong message that there’s no place for hate in Georgia,” said Efstration, R-Dacula.

Its passage was also hailed by Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, who pressed hard for the bill to move swiftly out of the General Assembly in the wake of the high-profile fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick and nationwide protests against racial injustice.

“There are very few times that members of this legislative body get called upon at a defining moment in our history,” said Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. “But this is a defining moment in Georgia.”

Passage of the bill came after days of tense back-and-forth between Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the Senate over proposed changes, including whether to add police officers to the categories protected from hate crimes.

Sen. Harold Jones II, who led the Democratic side of negotiations in the Senate, framed the bill’s passage as a model for how both sides of the aisle can unite to pass important legislation amid intense disagreements at the state Capitol.

“We many times talk about bipartisan legislation,” said Jones, D-Augusta. “This is it. This is the definition of it.”

Sen. Bill Cowsert, who pushed for changes to the bill on the Republican side, called the bill a needed step toward curbing racism in the state that has lingered long after the end of slavery and segregation.

“We have a long history in Georgia of embedded discrimination,” said Cowsert, R-Athens. “We can’t deny it, we can’t run from it, but we can change it.”

The Senate passed the bill by a 47-6 vote with some Republican lawmakers voting against it.

Ahead of Tuesday’s votes, the bill by Efstration underwent some changes from its original version that boosted penalties to a maximum of two years in prison and limited offenses that could carry a hate-crimes enhancement to felonies and some misdemeanors like assault or theft.

It also was tweaked late Monday to include a proposal from Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan requiring the annual collection of statistics on hate crimes. Those reports would not be subject to public inspection except by defendants and their alleged victims.

Jones said the inclusion of data collection in the final version is “extremely important.” Keeping tight statistics would help local law enforcement agencies pinpoint where hate crimes may be taking place.

“It’s not just something that’s feel-good,” Jones said. “It’s actually something that’s going to allow us to combat hate crimes in a scientific way.”

Left out of the final bill Tuesday was a late move by Republican lawmakers to add police officers and other first responders as protected classes alongside inherent qualities like race and gender.

Those protections were added to the bill last Friday, sparking outrage from Democratic lawmakers and social justice advocates who viewed the move as a slap in the face for black communities and other groups that have historically faced hateful and discriminatory crimes, including from police officers themselves.

Instead, the first-responder protections were tacked onto a separate bill dealing with police peer counselors, House Bill 838. It also passed out of the General Assembly on Tuesday by a largely party-line vote.

The maneuvering marked a compromise between Republicans and Democrats that tempered passions on both sides enough to ease the hate-crimes bill’s passage, though some groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have opposed the first-responder protections.

Ralston, the House speaker, said those protections were pushed by Senate lawmakers and that he “didn’t have a problem” with them being in a separate bill.

Amid lingering concerns, the passage of Estration’s hate-crimes bill marked a breakthrough in pushing forward a high-profile measure that rose to the top of the agenda for many state lawmakers in what remains of the 2020 legislative session.

The bill gained fresh calls for passage following the fatal shooting of Arbery, a 25-year-old black man who was shot dead in February during a chase by two white men. One of those men, Travis McMichael, allegedly called Arbery a racial slur after shooting him with a shotgun, according to recent court testimony.

Renewed energy for passing hate-crimes legislation also came amid intense protests across the country over the deaths of Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks that spurred many top state lawmakers, including Ralston, to press for passage.

In the Senate, lawmakers from both parties roundly praised the hate-crimes bill.

Sen. Ed Harbison, D-Columbus, described the bill as “a healing factor” in Georgia that showed how “the spirit of mankind is great.”

“I believe this represents great hope, great belief that we can help each other change and be better for it,” Harbison said Tuesday.

Not everyone in the Senate was on board with the measure. Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen, worried lawmakers might be over-complicating the issue in a way that could “catch up a lot of people.”

“They’re going to get their name inscribed in a database with a lot of people they don’t want to be associated with,” Heath said.

But by and large, Senate lawmakers agreed the time is nigh for Georgia to go without a hate-crimes law.

Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, who is in the final days of her last term as a state senator, recounted receiving death threats and finding a cross in her yard after converting to Judaism. She cast the bill as a legacy vote for her and her Senate colleagues.

“We are better than this and we can do better than this,” Unterman said.

“We are thankful to the Rome Water Department for allowing us to turn these unsightly, ordinary objects into beautiful works of art,” Wells sa…

As temperatures heat up, homeless shelters seek donations of summer related products

With temperatures rising as the season goes on, the Salvation Army is asking folks to drop off some summer related products for them to hand out to visitors.

Lead case worker Cathy Hart said many homeless people don’t have a place to go during the day to avoid the heat, especially since COVID-19 has forced many places to remain closed to the public.

“Heat stroke and sunburns become a really big problem this time of year,” she said.

Hart and Salvation Army staff are asking for donations of sunscreen, SPF lip balm, wash cloths, hats, umbrellas and cases of bottled water.

The wash cloths help wipe away sweat and people can also dip them in cold water to help stay cool, according to Hart. The umbrellas serve a dual purpose by blocking the sun and providing cover during the rain.

Donations can be dropped off at the Rome branch at 317 E. First Ave.

Hart also encourages people to keep a case of water in their cars in a cooler and offer it to people who might look a bit overheated.

The Salvation Army is still providing cooked meals to people in need and says anyone can reach out and donate food or come cook a meal for their patrons. For more information, contact Hart at 706-291-4745.

The William S. Davies Shelter and Ruth and Naomi House are also looking for similar donations for the summer months. Executive Director Devon Smyth said they like to give people who come in something to take with them if they can’t provide them a bed.

They are always taking donations of new packages of underwear and gently used or new T-shirts, sweatshirts and sweatpants, Smyth said.

Donations can be dropped off anytime between 9:30 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. any day at the Davies Shelter at 132 E. 18th St. and the Ruth and Naomi House at 2007 N. Broad St.

For any questions regarding donations, call 706-802-6300 for the Ruth and Naomi Shelter or 706-512-1152 for the Davies Shelter.

Jacob Gravitt, a fifth-grader at Model Elementary School

Minority business leaders encouraged to invest time in getting to know their bankers

In the world of small-market banking and financial assistance, it’s all about relationships, relationships, relationships.

The Rome Floyd Chamber hosted a Minority Small Business Summit on Tuesday featuring the presidents of four community banks in Rome — and all four sounded the relationship theme in their remarks.

Georgia Power Northwest Regional Director Cassandra Wheeler moderated the videoconference and started off by reading from a TIME magazine article that pulled from a survey of 500 Black- and Hispanic-owned businesses. The article stated that only 12% of minority owned businesses received full financial assistance from the first round of Paycheck Protection Program funding through the CARES Act while two-thirds of the minority applicants did not receive any assistance at all.

Jarrod Johnson, owner of the Smoothie King franchise in Rome, explained how he was able to get full funding of his application, thanks to a relationship he had made with River City Bank President Jamie Tallent through the chamber.

“It is a relationship thing,” Johnson said. “Especially, I think, in a small town, you need to have a relationship with your banker ... I called Jamie and said what do I do and how do I get it?”

The funding enabled him to operate his business through the pandemic without laying off any of his employees.

David Lance, president of Greater Community Bank, said the small community banks had really separated themselves from the big national institutions during the crisis.

“It is all about relationships,” Lance said.

Tallent, at River City Bank, said banking is still all about people. He added that for anyone coming to their bank for financial assistance, a thorough knowledge and ability to explain both the short- and long-term business plans is critically important.

Ryan Earnest, president of Heritage First Bank, echoed that advice and told the summit participants to remember that their lender is fundamentally a silent partner in the business.

“Go meet a banker when you don’t need a banker,” said Scott Preston, president of the chamber and division president for Synovus Bank in Northwest Georgia.

“Banks want to be plugged in to their community,” Preston said.

Evie McNiece, who chairs the chamber Small Business Action Council, said the Small Business Development Center would be offering a number of free webinars in coming weeks. One is specifically aimed at helping with a survival strategy as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to linger.

Chamber President Jeanne Krueger told participants that there are plenty of opportunities for small minority-owned businesses to take advantage of sponsors willing to pay their first year dues to become members of the chamber.

“We have a unique opportunity right now to build new relationships and strengthen those that are already there,” said Lamante Attaud, owner of Tendo Technologies.

Contracts for new gas line to International Paper finalized

A contract for a major increase in gas service for the International Paper mill in Coosa is set, following negotiations among the Georgia Public Service commissioners and staff, IP and Atlanta Gas Light.

One of the keys to the project is the availability of $10.7 million from the PSC Universal Service Fund.

“This project will be of great benefit to International Paper and the economy of Floyd County workers and the state of Georgia,” said PSC Chair Lauren “Bubba” McDonald.

The state’s utility watchdog agency, International Paper and Atlanta Gas officials have been working on the deal that was initially announced in February of 2019.

International Paper asked the PSC and Atlanta Gas Light for assistance with the project to improve its boiler system and shift from a pair of coal-fired boilers to natural gas units.

The project will involve running a significantly larger 12-inch gas line to the plant. Since that time, Atlanta Gas has been in the engineering phase and setting up contractors. Now that a final contract has been signed, physical work on the project can get underway.

Tony Wackerly, a financial analyst for the PSC, said the new line is an upgrade to the existing main service line.

“If there is enough room in the right of way, AGL will abandon the old pipe in place. If not, they will remove it,” Wackerly said.

The new line will run a distance of almost 7.5 miles. The line comes into Rome along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to Turner McCall Boulevard and Shorter Avenue, west to the linerboard mill.

Tom Krause, a spokesman for the Public Service Commission, said he is not familiar enough with the line to say what kind of impact construction activity, once it starts, might have on traffic along the busy thoroughfare.

The work is slated for completion by mid-2021.

International Paper will contribute approximately $1.5 million to the project. AGL will spend $11.7 million and the PSC will contribute $10.7 million from the Universal Service Fund. That fund takes in money from a variety of sources, including unclaimed customer deposits and returns from various gas delivery programs.