Editorial: Tax revenue ramifications cloud incorporation debate

Editor’s note: This editorial is the first in series of pieces examining the issues involved with incorporation.

Fear and loathing frame the local incorporation debates.

But at the ballot box, Americans vote their wallets. The decision on cityhood, be it in two weeks on Skidaway Island or in the years to come elsewhere in Chatham County, comes down to costs to residents.

Millage rates. Exemptions. Sales tax distributions. Fees.

Funding a municipality

Funding municipal operations is foremost among the complexities surrounding incorporation.

Cities, large and small, rely on revenue to serve residents. And the potential revenue sources — taxes and fees — for new municipalities are grossly misunderstood.

Here in Georgia, municipalities rely primarily on property taxes and penny sales taxes for revenue. For example, Skidaway is projected to collect 80 percent of its annual revenue from a combination of real estate and sales taxes, according to a November 2016 feasibility study on Skidaway incorporation conducted by the Georgia State University Center for State and Local Finance.

Real estate tax proceeds for proposed new municipalities are easily forecast, especially in Chatham County, where a special homestead exemption establishes a static value for most residential properties. Charters for proposed cities can mandate that homeowners keep this exemption at its established value — as is the case with Skidaway.

This value multiplied by the millage rate determines the real estate tax bill. Only a significant millage change would lead to wild swings in real estate tax bills for those property owners moving from unincorporated to municipal status.

In Skidaway’s case, the millage rate would decrease, at least initially, from 4.9 mills to 4.13 mills, equal to $77 per $100,000 in value. Additionally, residents would not pay the $85 fee they currently pay the county for yard waste and bulk waste collection.

Sales tax squabbles

Much less predictable is the penny sales tax distributions to municipalities.

Chatham County levies a 3 percent tax on the sale of most goods and services. One of those pennies, the Local Option Sales Tax or LOST, can be spent on government operations.

LOST money is typically the second largest revenue source for municipal general funds. However, calculating a city’s LOST share is not as simple as looking at the pennies collected at businesses within the corporation limits.

LOST distribution is based on eight different criteria and portions are negotiated among Chatham County and the local municipalities, including the city of Savannah, once every 10 years.

These negotiations have proved unpredictable. The last time, LOST talks took nine months to resolve and ended up in court. Savannah saw its share cut 10 percent. Chatham County saw a 5 percent increase, but agreed to shoulder more jail-related expenses.

Among the other municipalities, Pooler and Port Wentworth received bigger shares while Garden City got less, largely due to population shifts. The other small cities saw little or no change.

How much a new municipality would receive in the next LOST negotiations, coming in 2021, is a guessing game.

Covering shortfalls

Georgia State’s feasibility study based its LOST projection on a per capita basis. However, this runs contrary to Georgia’s distribution guidelines, which specifically state that population is not to be more heavily weighted.

What’s more, Skidaway’s projected LOST proceeds, per the feasibility study, constitute 37 percent of total revenue. Statewide, LOST monies make up just 16 percent of general fund revenues, on average.

Should Skidaway or any new municipality not receive its projected share of LOST funding, the new government would have to find those budget dollars elsewhere. This would most likely impact the budget surplus most proposed municipalities project in feasibility studies.

In Skidaway’s case, the surplus totals more than $1.8 million per year, money earmarked — wisely — for a rainy-day reserve.

Cityhood comes with a range of tax revenue ramifications. Residents would do well to consider them as they consider incorporation.

Rep. Bill Hitchens column: Legislature moving ahead on new voting machines

The right to vote is one of the most valuable rights we have as Americans. Voting is the cornerstone of our democratic system and an integral part of what makes our nation great.

This legislative session, and most recently as this past week, our state’s 17-year-old voting system has been the issue of much debate in the Georgia General Assembly. Currently, Georgia is one of only four states in the nation that relies solely on electronic voting machines without a verifiable paper ballot. And regardless of your political affiliation, we can all agree that fair elections are vital to the integrity of our democratic system. We have the responsibility to do all that we can to ensure that ballots can’t be tampered with and elections take place without a cloud of uncertainty. As the nation that is the beacon of hope for all that the democratic process represents, it’s important that we get this right, not only for our citizens, but in the eyes of the watching world.

A few days ago, the Secure, Accessible & Fair Elections (SAFE) Commission recommended a new voting system with touchscreens and printers. The commission brought several voting machines to the floor of the House of Representatives, so we could see the options first-hand and make an informed decision about which option is best. The machine that is recommended is similar to the ones currently in use, in that a voter would touch the screen to cast their vote, but then the machine would print out the voter’s results and the voter could then read over it to make sure they didn’t make a mistake while voting. Once the voter is certain their vote is accurate, they will then feed the paper copy into an optical scanner where the paper copy is stored into a locked bin at the bottom of the voting machine. If the voter made a mistake while voting, they would take the printed copy to the poll worker and be able to re-cast their vote. Once the voter has checked their ballot to make sure it reflects their accurate vote, the printed ballot is fed into a bin that can only be opened by a poll worker and is a permanent, physical record in the event of a re-count.

I served more than 40 years in law enforcement and as a young state trooper, I worked at a poll on election night and saw where there were problems with paper ballots when a person’s name couldn’t be read or a vote wasn’t filled in just right, causing confusion. I’m convinced this is the best solution because of the printed ballot that’s secured within the voting machine.

This new voting machine is being considered in the House under House Bill 316 and the Senate has already passed a similar version of the bill. I’m convinced that a paper record of an electronically cast vote is the best way we can secure our elections. It’s my hope that this bill will pass our legislature and these voting machines will be in place for our elections in November. We must do everything we can to reassure the citizens of Georgia that their vote matters, our elections are safeguarded, and we still have the best democratic system in the world.

Rep. Bill Hitchens is a Republican who represents District 161, which includes Pooler, Port Wentworth and Rincon. He is in his fourth term in the Georgia House of Representatives.

Rep. Carl Gilliard column: Leaders stand united against drilling, seismic testing

All too often when people hear about our government, the first thing that comes to mind is dissention, posturing, and a great divide between our political parties. But in recent weeks, state legislators on both sides of the aisle came together in a united front on the issue of offshore drilling, with strong support from Gov. Brian Kemp.

We stood together at the Georgia Capitol, legislators representing both coastal and inland Georgia, from all walks of life and sometimes differing political views, joined together on this important issue. During this show of support, we sent a message to Washington: we do not want offshore drilling in Georgia. We will not risk our beautiful, vibrant coastline with its saltmarshes that lead to a thriving ocean, a coastline that supports more than 20,000 jobs and contributes more than a billion dollars to the economy. This issue is clearly a priority for our state.

Emboldened with the belief that our waterways are worth keeping safe from potential drilling accidents like the one that devastated more than 600 miles of the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, on Jan. 28 I introduced House Resolution 48, The Resolution to Oppose Offshore Oil & Gas Exploration, which discourages seismic testing and oil and gas drilling off Georgia’s coast. The bill has been assigned to the House Natural Resources and the Environment Committee and I believe this is one of our defining moments as we strive to protect Georgia’s environment and the thousands of jobs that come from our waterways.

I believe we should be just as opposed to seismic testing and other energy exploration. Experts say sound waves used to find oil have such negative effects on fish and other marine mammals that they can become displaced from their habitats or even injured.

I’m urging every citizen of Georgia to call your legislator and ask them to stand with Georgia against offshore drilling and seismic testing. Standing against offshore drilling means you stand with the many businesses and people who work in jobs supported by our coastline. You’re standing with the restaurants that serve our delicious local seafood, the dolphin tour operator, the fisherman and the hotel owner on Tybee Island, among many others. To stand against offshore drilling means you stand against the possibility of an accident that can dump millions of barrels of oil into our life-giving wetlands. Standing against offshore drilling means you care not only about the natural beauty of our coastline but all the benefits that we reap from it. The 2010 BP oil spill affected beaches and wetlands from Texas all the way to Florida, and these communities are still feeling devastating economic and environmental consequences today.

I urge you to stand with a bipartisan group of legislators who value our environment and the economic benefits that we enjoy from it. Join us by opposing offshore drilling and make your voice known today. Please support HR 48 and together we can move Georgia forward.

Rep. Carl Gilliard is a Democrat who represents District 162, which includes Garden City. He is in his third term in the Georgia House of Representatives.

Rep. Mickey Stephens column: Support push for infrastructure improvements at Savannah State

It seems like yesterday, but it was quite a few years ago when I was a student at Savannah State University, eager to learn, make new friends, and become involved in campus activities. I was proud to be part of Savannah State’s rich history then, and I’m proud to be an alumnus now. SSU is the oldest historically black public college in the state of Georgia and the oldest institution of higher learning in Savannah. The campus has become even more beautiful over time, the oak trees mature and majestic, the architecture historic and graceful, and the students just as enthusiastic about their future now as we were then.

Savannah State has become known for its groundbreaking research. SSU sent cutting-edge genetic material from campus laboratories to the International Space Station in 2014. In 2016, Savannah State earned two patents: one allows for the collection and harvest of organic material necessary for long-distance space travel, the other is a new chemical that may be used for treating Alzheimer’s, ALS and dementia.

Savannah State can also boast as being the first university in Georgia to offer a bachelor’s degree in homeland security and emergency management and the second in the state to offer a bachelor’s degree in forensic science.

But with this long history, distinction, and tradition comes the need for important upgrades to safeguard future learning and success. Savannah State was founded in 1890, and some of the canals and drainage pipes on campus are nearly 100 years old. In order to protect infrastructure, SSU is proposing a $4.1 million upgrade to enhance drainage and safeguard electrical lines, converting existing overhead power lines to underground electrical systems. These improvements will provide a safer environment for students, faculty, and visitors, repair eroded banks and protect building foundations. With continued commitment to protecting our natural resources, these proposed improvements will also ensure storm water reaches local waterways without pollution, something we can all applaud.

This legislative session, I’ll work with the Chatham delegation to advocate for appropriations in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget to fund these essential improvements. In addition, I’ll communicate the necessity of these projects with our legislative leaders, including Gov. Kemp, to foster their support.

As a former educator, I also consider Beach Institute an important learning institution and historic gem in our community. As the first official school for African-American students in Savannah, Beach Institute currently serves as the cultural center for African-American arts, history and historic preservation. Built in the late 1860s, the building is in dire need of repairs and renovations to ensure it remains a beacon of learning for years to come.

I’ll give my full support to an appropriations request of $1.7 million dollars for the necessary improvements and will work with my colleagues to ensure this expenditure is included in the state’s FY 2020 budget. In addition, the King-Tisdell Cottage, considered an arm of the Beach Institute cultural arts center, is also in need of vital repairs, and I will strongly support the foundation’s $150,000 appropriations request so that this important site is preserved for generations to come.

We live in a city with a wide range of educational opportunities, steeped in history with an eye on the future. These are just two areas of learning distinction that should receive state funding. I’ll strongly support their budget requests and encourage my colleagues in the Georgia General Assembly to do the same.

Rep. Mickey Stephens is a Democrat who represents District 165, which includes portions of Savannah’s east side and south side. He is in his sixth term in the Georgia House of Representatives.

Rep. Ron Stephens column: Road projects to alleviate ‘major headaches’ in Richmond Hill

District 164 (Savannah), Republican

Our community is well aware of the economic engine that is the Georgia Ports Authority. But what most people don’t know is that for the better part of 20 years, our roads and highways that feed into the port never made the governor’s priority list.

That changed two years ago, when I joined with leaders from Bryan County to meet with then-Gov. Nathan Deal and plead the case for road improvements throughout Richmond Hill, which are a key ingredient for our thriving port system. It was after this meeting that Richmond Hill’s infrastructure was quickly moved to the top of the priority list as the governor saw the vital link between improved infrastructure and economic growth.

In addition to being positioned as an artery that flows trucks and rail cars into the port, Richmond Hill is steeped in history, natural beauty, and is known as a great place to raise a family. Studies show the steady population growth will continue over the next several years, as more people discover this gem of a community.

The Port of Savannah is predicting a steady increase in growth as well, with container vessels having grown to mammoth size and greatly increasing container capacity. To support these giant vessels, state officials are expressing support for a new bridge with a higher bridge span, while harbor deepening is underway. Within the next decade, port officials expect Savannah’s capacity for handling containers to increase from 5.5 million units annually to 8 million.

With the support of Georgia Department of Transportation Board Chairman Ann Purcell and DOT Planning Director Jay Roberts, I’m pleased to report there is a plan in place for infrastructure improvements. The DOT is currently working on projects at the Interstate 95/U.S. 17 interchange and the I–95/Georgia 144 interchange with improvements underway at the loop ramp and lanes in the area. These projects are anticipated to spur immediate development and change travel patterns in the region.

If you’ve driven through Richmond Hill during rush hour recently, you know that Georgia 144 is a major artery — and contributes to major headaches — at peak times. This important highway connects the southern end of Bryan County to I–95 and U.S. 17 and is used by truckers, tourists, commuters, and visitors alike. The gridlock will soon be alleviated, though, as Georgia 144 is planned to be widened by Georgia DOT from the terminus of the existing four-lane section south to Belfast River Road. This project has been designed, right–of–way acquisition is ongoing, and it is scheduled for some time next year. In addition, a new interchange on I-95 is scheduled to be constructed at Belfast Keller Road. The project is currently in the design stages and will be built within the next five years.

As we experience growth, these projects are steps in the right direction for a better Georgia that has the infrastructure in place to enhance our economic development and improve the lives of those who travel our highways. I was pleased to collaborate with Bryan County leaders to help make this a reality and look forward to seeing the benefits for our great community.

Rep. Ron Stephens is a Republican who represents District 164, which includes southwestern Chatham County and parts of Bryan and Liberty counties. He is in his 12th term in the Georgia House of Representatives.

Rep. J. Craig Gordon column: Healthcare reform goes beyond insurance coverage issues

This legislative session, the Georgia General Assembly will deliberate about a wide variety of issues, but I believe one of the most pressing needs of our state is healthcare. In addition to serving in the legislature, I oversee a home healthcare company with locations in Savannah, Macon, Albany and Columbus which allows me to see firsthand the great shortage of healthcare providers across our state, particularly in rural areas.

As a member of the Health and Human Services Committee in the State House, I have the opportunity to review healthcare legislation as it is first presented and contribute to the debate regarding its practicality and efficacy. I was greatly encouraged that the committee voted unanimously this past Wednesday in favor of House Bill 928 which, if passed, will extend the HOPE scholarship time limit after receiving a high school diploma or GED from seven to 15 years. Conditions for the HOPE scholarship have been in place for about seven years, with the time limit set by legislators as a way of cutting costs after the 2008 recession. As one of the bill’s strong supporters, I recognize this extension as a way of helping to fill the need for more physicians and nurses.

The demand is so prevalent that a recent report by The National Center for Health Workforce Analysis reveals our state is moving toward having the sixth-highest gap nationwide between the number of nurses available and the number that will be needed by 2030. And the shortage of physicians is just as dire, especially in rural areas, with some counties having no doctor whatsoever.

As college debt continues to be a major concern for many Georgians, this bill will help young professionals who had to postpone their education for various reasons, and eliminate, or at least alleviate, that burdensome debt. We’re still in the early stages of the session, but I believe HB 928 is one of the most beneficial pieces of legislation coming out of the 2019 General Assembly that could have a positive effect on our state for generations to come.

Continuing with the subject of healthcare, I strongly support House Bill 17 that bans smoking in cars while a child under the age of 13 is present. Second-hand smoke is dangerous to the health of children, containing more than 4,000 chemicals of which 50 are related to cancer. Second-hand smoke is also attributed to developmental delays in children and upper respiratory issues that often lead to hospital visits. I believe that this is common sense legislation that protects our children and shows that our state cares about their health and their future.

To lower healthcare costs for women, I’ve co-sponsored House Bill 8, which would eliminate taxes on feminine menstrual products. Products such as insulin syringes and hearing aids are already tax-free and it only seems fair that feminine products, considered a medical necessity by many, should be tax-free also. It is my hope that my colleagues will agree with me and pass this bill.

The legislation I’ve outlined are all positive steps toward helping Georgians live healthier lives without burdensome costs. It’s a privilege to work with my colleagues in the Georgia General Assembly and to represent our great community under the gold dome.

Rep. J. Craig Gordon is a Democrat who represents District 163, which includes part of downtown and much of Savannah’s westside. He is in his seventh term in the Georgia House of Representatives.

Editorial: Georgia House Speaker Ralston must fix his schedule

Ask Georgia political insiders the name of our state’s most important leader right now, and they won’t mention our new governor or lieutenant governor or any of our elected officials in Washington, D.C.

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston is the state’s most powerful and influential politician at the moment. He’s led the House since 2010 and is respected across party lines for his pragmatism. Until Gov. Brian Kemp settles in and the scabs from November’s midterm elections flake away, Ralston speaks with the greatest authority.

Given his position and responsibility, Ralston must move immediately to address an issue that undermines his credibility.

Two weeks ago today, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an investigative report focused on Ralston’s law practice. Like all Georgia General Assembly members, Ralston is a citizen lawmaker, not a professional politician.

As House Speaker, he makes nearly $100,000, significantly more than the $17,342 paid to other members. Ralston, though, continues to work as a defense attorney back home in Blue Ridge, in the North Georgia mountains.

The newspaper investigation shows many of the Blue Ridge area’s biggest troublemakers have Ralston on retainer — and not necessarily because he’s a courtroom star. State law allows legislators to declare that court dates interfere with lawmaking duties and delay hearings, and Ralston exercises this power frequently, according to the report.

Defendants know this and also understand that delays weaken prosecutors’ cases against them. Frustrated victims move on. Witnesses forget details. Investigators move away from the area. Prosecutors become more amenable to plea deals.

The investigation cites many statistics and specifics, but here’s a summary: Ralston filed 57 requests for continuances involving 21 cases over a two-year period. Of the 93 days he begged off, 76 of those did not conflict with legislative sessions.

Granted, the speaker’s duties extend beyond presiding over the House chamber. Every legislator will tell you serving in the legislature is equivalent to a full-time job, even as the session generally lasts only three months a year. The speaker’s role is even more intensive.

But Ralston the lawyer has an ethical responsibility not just to his clients but to the judicial system. One of the tenets of the process is the right to a speedy trial — see Amendment VI of the U.S. Constitution. And while this law is meant to protect defendants, it also applies to victims.

Ralston’s scheduling practices would appear to victimize the victims.

Slow reaction

Ralston’s response to the revelations is evolving.

He declined an interview with the Atlanta newspaper prior to the story being published. Since the news went public, he’s attacked the media and invoked references to how Justice Brett Kavanaugh was treated during his Supreme Court nomination hearings.

Never mind that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was able to document Ralston’s delay requests through the state’s open records laws. Or that Ralston declined to share his work calendars with reporters or respond to inquiries about his whereabouts on missed court dates.

It took a mini-uprising within the House Republican ranks to shake Ralston. Ten GOP House members, including a committee chairman, signed a resolution calling on Ralston to resign. The Speaker reacted Monday by announcing the creation of a bipartisan panel to review the legislative leave law that has allowed him to stretch out so many trials.

He also pledged to take on no new defendants until his delayed cases are adjudicated.

A call for changes

Count this editorial board among those opposed to Ralston stepping down.

He’s much too important to the legislative process, particularly right now, midway through the 2019 term and nine days out from crossover day, the point in every session after which the House focuses on bills that have already passed the Senate.

But Ralston must change his habits away from the Georgia Capitol. Those accused of serious crimes — child molestation, assault, domestic abuse, drunk driving — are taking advantage of his position to escape justice.

Ralston can remedy the situation by devoting more time to his practice or by taking on what is known in legal circles as a “second chair,” an attorney who assists the lead attorney. This assistant often handles preliminary hearings and proceedings.

Editorial: Strengthening homeschool requirements meant to protect children, not punish parents

Homeschooling is a perfectly valid alternative to educating children in a traditional school setting.

Few would argue that, and those who do have a warped sense of what liberty means in a country founded upon it.

However, the freedom to raise and teach your child as you see fit does not absolve you from the responsibility of educating youth. That makes oversight, be it of a large public school district, small private school or a homeschool, not just necessary but imperative.

Accountability is at the crux of education, as well as the biggest student takeaway from the school experience. Pupils are presented with material and expected to learn it. Success is measured in the form of tests, grades and ultimately diplomas. Same goes for the schools, where performance is monitored by state and local officials.

Why homeschool parents would shun such oversight and accountability is hard to comprehend. Yet, as state lawmakers consider strengthening Georgia’s reporting requirements for homeschools, some in the homeschool community are protesting like an elementary schooler unhappy with the quality of the lunchroom pizza.

Georgia’s standards are equal parts laughable and horrifying. Once a year, a parent need only report to the state the child’s name, age and address. The state also mandates mom or dad write an annual progress report, although submitting the document is not required.

And you thought keeping food cold — plug in refrigerator, place item inside, close door — was easy.

The absence of oversight is troubling from an educational standpoint; learning to read and write, and add and subtract, prepares children for life. Even more worrisome is the opportunity the lax standards provide for those rare parents who homeschool their children specifically to hide abuse and neglect.

That danger alone should be enough to convince homeschool parents to embrace new accountability standards.

Tragedy prompts concerns

Present scrutiny of Georgia’s homeschool reporting requirements does stem from the deaths of two Effingham County homeschooled children.

Elwyn Crocker pulled his children, Elwyn Jr. and Mary, from public school after being investigated for child abuse by Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services, or DFCS. When the kids’ bodies were found behind the family home in December, we learned Elwyn Jr. had vanished from public view in 2016 and Mary hadn’t been seen since last October.

The alleged murders stoked the community’s emotions in the aftermath. The public has criticized DFCS for its failure to monitor the Crocker situation, particularly given a 2017 report from a concerned neighbor. Other Effingham community members, including neighbors and law enforcement, felt guilt over the deaths.

The public discussion soon turned to preventing similar incidents in the future, and that made homeschooling requirements an issue. Tighten the standards to protect children. Something as simple as periodic visits to schools or law enforcement offices — or a home visit from a school or law enforcement official — would suffice.

Such a mandate is not unreasonable. Not in the least bit.

As Effingham County Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie said, “I’m not trying to get into your business. We need to make sure everyone’s safe … Had we had checks and balances, we would have known (Elwyn Jr. ) was gone. Something needs to be done. ”

Legislative action necessary

This editorial board agrees with McDuffie and supports efforts by state legislators to explore the homeschool reporting issue. Three influential state lawmakers represent Effingham County — House Majority Leader Jon Burns (R-District 159), Rep. Bill Hitchens (R-District 161) and Sen. Jack Hill (R-District 4), the chair of the Senate Appropriations committee.

As Hitchens told a large group of Savannah-area government officials and business leaders at last month’s Savannah-Chatham Day at the Georgia Capitol, “When kids get pulled from school like (the Crockers), it needs to trigger something with somebody to follow up.”

Such steps are not intended to infringe on parents’ rights to raise and educate their children. This is not the start of a movement to outlaw homeschooling. Homeschool parents are not presumed guilty until proven innocent.

Strengthening standards is about looking out for the welfare of children. The overwhelming majority, probably 99.9 percent, of homeschool parents are doing an excellent job and are beyond reproach.

But if greater oversight saves one child from abuse — or death — then it is worthwhile. Those who find that offensive need to go back to school and learn more about accountability.

Editorial: Legislature takes holistic look at voting system

Georgia’s voting system reform efforts will go beyond the ballot.

State legislators held committee hearings this week on House Bill 316, which will ultimately lead to the replacement of our outdated touch-screen voting machines. Much of the debate focused on how Georgians will cast votes — via a new touch-screen device or a hand-marked paper ticket.

But just as encouraging as the ballot discourse was the inclusion of several other important voting system updates in the bill. Those improvements include changes to how the Secretary of State’s office purges voter rolls and how county election officials close or relocate voting precincts and handle absentee ballots.

The bill also calls for Georgia to enroll in a multi-state voter registration database, known as the Electronic Registration Information Center or ERIC, to help identify voters who move out of state or die between elections. ERIC is a state-funded nonprofit organization founded with assistance from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

These initiatives address many of the issues that turned the November 2018 election into a bare-knuckle brawl regarding voter suppression — a dispute that attracted national attention.

Georgia saw a record number of voters cast midterm ballots, but the top-of-the-ticket race between then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams, a staunch voting rights activist, exposed many shortcomings and irregularities in the voting system.

This editorial board called on the Georgia General Assembly to consider widespread reforms on issues, such as voter registration, voter rolls, precincts and election oversight immediately following the midterm. Many of the changes were simple and straightforward and aimed at cleaning up the system with a pragmatic, rather than a partisan, eye.

House Bill 316 does just that. The bill is a work in progress, and we applaud legislators for including these provisions in the initial draft and encourage them to retain and perhaps expand on them as the bill moves forward.

Political ‘sweeteners’

The package that will eventually reach Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature won’t read like the bill as it exists today.

The voting system provisions are likely to remain intact, however, as they act as concessions by the majority party, the Republicans, to gain support from Democratic lawmakers on the broader initiative. To use legislative slang, the sidebar updates are “sweeteners” meant to ease passage of the touch-screen ballot-marking machines favored by the GOP leadership.

All the sweeteners were cherry-picked from bills authored, sponsored and filed earlier this session by Democratic lawmakers. Leaders from both parties, including Speaker pro tem Jan Jones (R-Milton), House Majority Leader Jon Burns (R-Newington) and House Minority Leader Bob Trammell (D-Luthersville), signed off on the larger bill.

HB 316′s author, Rep. Barry Fleming (R-Harlem), opened this week’s committee hearings by saying, “The bill before you is somewhat a bipartisan effort.”

So expect the sweeteners to stay.

Common-sense measures

Politics aside, the proposed changes significantly improve the system.

The purge process updates will have a statewide impact. Under the current statute, registered voters who fail to cast ballots in two consecutive federal elections can be dropped from the rolls. Voters who regularly skip midterm elections — of which there are many — can be purged should they miss just one presidential election.

HB 316 would extend the grace period from two elections, or three years, to three elections and five years.

As for precinct changes, local governments would be required to give 30-day public notice ahead of shuttering or moving polling locations and would be prohibited from doing so within 60 days of a primary or general election.

This move would prevent situations like the one Randolph County voters faced last year. County officials closed seven of Randolph’s nine precincts last fall, citing Americans with Disabilities Act compliance issues with the shut polling locations.

Another point of focus is the handling of absentee ballots and Georgia’s so-called “exact match” standard. Exact match requires that voter registration data, including signatures, on file match the info presented at the polls.

For those who vote in person, any irregularity can be easily addressed at the precinct. But absentee ballots with matching issues can be rejected. One county, Gwinnett in Atlanta’s suburbs, rejected 10 percent of absentee ballots.

Under HB 316, mismatches would trigger the automatic mailing of a provisional ballot to the voter, a record that would be counted once the voter’s ID is verified.

These common-sense measures will strengthen the integrity of the state’s voting system. We encourage all Georgians to encourage their legislators to adopt these changes.