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Walker County has a new police chief

There are probably people who didn’t realize that Walker County has a police force in addition to its sheriff’s office. It’s a small police force and it has the same authority as the sheriff’s office, but in reality it serves one main purpose: issuing code enforcement citations for court appearances.

The Walker County Board of Commissioners appointed Hal Gray, who is also a Rossville City Council member, to serve as chief of the Walker County Police Force, which consists of two officers and is housed at the Local Government Services building in Rock Spring.

The Walker County Police Force was formed in 1986 by then-commissioner Roy Parrish. Walker County Public Relations Director Joe Legge says that, in Walker County, it’s police officers and not sheriff’s deputies who serve codes enforcements citations that require a court appearance.

The police officers drive cars marked as police department or codes enforcements, wear uniforms and are fully trained as officers. They serve at the will of the Board of Commissioners and, according to the 1986 ordinance, can be fired with or without cause by the board (originally the sole commissioner).

Georgia moves ahead with Medicaid work requirement plan

ATLANTA — The state plans to implement a new Medicaid expansion plan — Georgia Pathways — that includes work requirements next July after several years of legal wrangling over the controversial proposal.

“I can confirm that we are moving forward with implementing the Pathways plan,” said Andrew Isenhour, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.

The limited Medicaid expansion plan will require enrollees to work, study or volunteer for at least 80 hours per month.

“No one who currently qualifies for Medicaid will be affected by the new program,” Isenhour said. “It is important to note that we are only adding people to the Medicaid rolls with this program. Georgia Pathways will expand Medicaid to otherwise ineligible Georgians who satisfy the work, job training, education, or volunteer requirements.”

Around 345,000 additional Georgians will become eligible for Medicaid under the new plan, as long as they meet other requirements, Isenhour added. Georgians whose incomes are below the federal poverty level (currently $13,590 for one person) will be eligible for the insurance.

To get the insurance, Georgians will need to work or perform other qualifying activities such as vocational training, education, job readiness programs or community service. Some enrollees will pay monthly premiums ranging from $7 to $16, depending on income and tobacco use.

Kemp has made the Pathways plan a cornerstone of his health-care policy. While 39 states have now opted for Medicaid expansion plans that allow low-income people to obtain health care, Kemp and other Georgia Republican leaders remain opposed to full Medicaid expansion, citing concerns about costs to the state and consumers.

Instead, the Republican-led General Assembly approved the more limited Medicaid expansion proposal back in 2019.

In October 2020, while Republican Donald Trump was still president, the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) approved Georgia’s Pathways plan. After Democratic President Joe Biden took office in January of last year, CMS rescinded approval for the work-requirement plans in Georgia along with 13 other states.

Although the other states, including Arkansas and Indiana, dropped their work-requirement plans, lawyers for Georgia sued in federal court. They argued the federal government, and CMS in particular, had overstepped its authority in blocking the work-requirement proposal.

In August, a U.S. District judge agreed, effectively allowing the Pathways plan to move forward. Although the federal government could have appealed to a circuit court, it has not done so, opening the door for Georgia to forge ahead with the new plan.

Some advocates are concerned the new plan will make it harder to get health care and argue Georgia should fully expand Medicaid instead.

“The Governor’s Pathways program makes it unnecessarily difficult for low-income people to gain health coverage. The program requires workers and students to repeatedly prove they are working or studying, rather than making it simpler for them to go to the doctor and fill prescriptions,” said Laura Colbert, executive director of Georgians for a Healthy Future, an advocacy group.

“Because of the program’s complications, only a fraction of low-income uninsured adults will get health insurance. Medicaid expansion would be a simpler and more cost-effective solution for Georgia and uninsured Georgians,” Colbert said.

Court ruling allows Saturday early voting ahead of Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoff

ATLANTA — It looks like there will be early voting on a Saturday after all ahead of next month’s U.S. Senate runoff in Georgia.

A Fulton County Superior Court judge ruled Friday, Nov. 18, that holding early voting on the Saturday after Thanksgiving Day is legal and may proceed.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office indicated shortly after the Nov. 8 election that put incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker into a runoff that Saturday, Nov. 26, would be set aside for early voting.

However, Raffensperger subsequently declared that holding early voting that day would violate a state law that prohibits runoffs on any day immediately following a state holiday. Besides Thanksgiving Day on Thursday, Nov. 24, the following day, Nov. 25, is a state holiday.

Warnock’s campaign sued to force a reversal of Raffensperger’s decision and prevailed in the ruling.

“Allowing for Saturday early voting is a win for every Georgia voter, but especially for workers and students who will have a greater opportunity to make their voices heard in this election,” said Quentin Fulks, Warnock’s campaign manager. “We look forward to counties announcing that they will provide Georgians the opportunity to cast their ballots on Saturday, November 26th.”

While Warnock held a slight lead over Walker following the general election, neither candidate captured a majority of the vote as required by state law to avoid a runoff. Georgia voters will return to the polls Dec. 6 to decide the winner.

Georgia House Speaker Ralston dies following extended illness

ATLANTA — Georgia House Speaker David Ralston died Wednesday, Nov. 16, at the age of 68, just two days after the House Republican Caucus nominated a new speaker to succeed him in January.

Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, had been suffering an extended illness. His wife, Sheree, his children, and other members of his family were with him when he passed away, his office announced. Arrangements will be announced in the future.

Ralston announced recently that he would not seek election by his House colleagues to another term as speaker, citing his health. Voters in the 7th House District in Northwest Georgia reelected him Nov. 8 without opposition.

At the time of his death, Ralston was the longest currently serving state house speaker in the nation.

As provided by the Georgia Constitution, House Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones, R-Milton, will serve as speaker for the remainder of the current term, which ends in January.

On Monday, Nov. 14, House Republicans nominated Majority Leader Jon Burns, R-Newington, to succeed Ralston as speaker. The full House will vote on the nomination on the first day of the 2023 General Assembly session Jan. 9.

Ralston was elected speaker at the beginning of the 2010 legislative session. He already had served in the House since 2003.

He spent six years in the state Senate during the 1990s, leaving the General Assembly in 1998 in an unsuccessful bid for attorney general.

Political leaders who served with Ralston remembered him Wednesday, Nov. 16, as an effective leader who played a key role in the major legislation the General Assembly adopted during his tenure.

“Speaker Ralston was a pioneer in the growth of Georgia’s Republican leadership and leaves an indelible mark on this state,” Gov. Brian Kemp said. “His last session as speaker will long be remembered for his landmark mental health reform bill, helping Georgians fight through inflation, and passing a historic income tax cut that puts more money in the pockets of taxpayers for years to come.

“We are also especially proud of our previous bipartisan efforts on reforming the citizens’ arrest law and adding an anti-hate crime statute to the Georgia code, which would not have happened without the speaker’s steadfast leadership. These historic accomplishments were only a handful of the numerous hallmarks of David Ralston’s decades-long service to Georgia.”

“Speaker Ralston was a steady, reliable guiding force under the Gold Dome in good times and tough times,” added state Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, who was elected majority leader by Senate Republicans recently. “He cherished the idea of his beloved House being a body that truly represented all of Georgia’s people, and he respected each of the elected members that comprised it, regardless of partisan differences. It takes a genuinely good heart and decent person to lead that way.”

Democrats, too, reflected on Ralston’s passing.

“Georgia Democrats join the entire state in mourning Speaker David Ralston,” said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party. “Speaker Ralston was a statesman who led with fairness and honesty, looked for common ground, and always put his commitment to Georgia first. ... Speaker Ralston will be missed dearly — by those who agreed with him, and by those who often didn’t.”