Adoption Bill Already In Peril?

Senator Jesse Stone

Yesterday the Senate Judiciary Committee met to take up the adoption bill, HB 159.  This Committee is chaired by the handmaiden of Senate Leadership always vigilant and helpful Senator Jesse Stone.  He began the committee meeting as he often does- in a quiet and respectful nature, explaining in detail the work that has gone into the legislation at hand.  In my experience this is his way of boring you to death before doling out the sucker punch of his substitutes.

If you recall, Chairman Stone offered the sub for Campus Carry in the 2014 session, which effectively gutted the bill.  He offered the sub for Campus Sexual Assault for the 2016 session, in both instances bringing good, common sense to Georgia’s otherwise extreme legislation.    It appeared yesterday this has become his legislative calling card.  He has painted himself in the colors of a moderate. In his initial run for office, I remember a longer standing politico in Augusta (Stone’s district’s nearest metropolitan area) pondering the milquetoast nature of the Chairman.  It is my personal belief that this is his means of a head fake. Stone gives you the idea that his humility is genuine and I can almost see him shrugging his shoulders as he tells one he is just grateful to be in the presence of other great leaders.

Don’t be ashamed if you were fooled.  I certainly was.

I have always seen Chairman Stone to be very secure and confident in his control of his committee meetings, yet Stone seemed somewhat rambling in his opening statements yesterday.  This was the first red flag. Continue reading “Adoption Bill Already In Peril?”

Legislative Day 1: A Day of Hope?

Today marks the beginning of the legislative session of the Georgia General Assembly.  The General Assembly has always convened in the winter months, giving a historic nod to Georgia’s agricultural economy.  For me, it seems also appropriate that it sits snugly in the lull between the end of the Christian seasons of Christmas and Easter.

A few weeks ago, I found myself invited to a holiday party of a friend that is located in the town named after Jesus’ birthplace.  On this evening, I attended what I have many times before in my hometown area: a live nativity scene.  The congregants of the Nativity Lutheran and Bethlehem First United Methodist Churches gathered to tell the story of Jesus in the manger, and naturally there was a crowd of the devout.

The experience this time was different and somehow more poignant to me in a year of so much conflict and anything goes. Continue reading “Legislative Day 1: A Day of Hope?”

The Quick and Already Dead

As reported by the AJC, Representative Regina Quick has decided to not run again for her seat, Georgia’s 117th House District, occupying parts of Barrow, Jackson, Clark, and Oconee counties.  Instead, predecessor Doug Mckillip and newcomer Houston Gaines will challenge one another in the Republican primary and local attorney, Deborah Gonzalez will run on the Democratic ticket.

Georgians may remember my post about HB 51, primarily sponsored by Dean of the House Republican Caucus and Appropriations Higher Education Subcommittee Chairman, Earl Ehrhart, this past session that Rep. Quick heavily defended.  As a female, Republican, attorney, and someone who has the ability to be both intelligent and respectful in committee hearings, Quick was truly the best thing HB 51 had going for it.  Yet the legislation was largely opposed by UGA students and ultimately was defeated in the General Assembly.  However, carrying water for the longest serving Republican member of the Georgia House has its benefits, (along with Quick’s own legal chops) and Georgia may yet see her awarded a judgeship.

“Your honor” has a certain ring to it, I am sure. Continue reading “The Quick and Already Dead”

When You Find Yourself in a Hole, Stop Digging

Dear Commissioner Hunter:

When you find yourself in a hole, please stop digging.

Some months back I penned a piece about my new home county becoming ground zero for the Post-Trump era.  Unfortunately I find the saga of Commissioner Tommy Hunter continues this morning as I read the Atlanta Journal & Constitution.  The AJC has brought to light the grating words of my commissioner’s attorney in a request for an evasion of an Ethics Panel.  The particularly troubling part is the misappropriation of terms referring to “political lynching”.  Lynching has a long and sordid history here, God help us, as my home rests in the same town that once was the home of the Grand Dragon of the KKK.  The spate of images the term lynching brings up does not lend any help to a man who referred to a Civil Rights icon as a “racist pig”.  Generally one wishes to avoid those images being associated with their name, but in the post-Trump era, now white, property-owning men are now the victims of racism.

Language is a strange and powerful thing, is it not? Continue reading “When You Find Yourself in a Hole, Stop Digging”

Brain Drain: The Southern Response to Ed and Business Atrophy

The challenge of brain drain has existed for years in areas around the nation.  The South is no different, although perhaps more exaggerated and slower to respond.  As I grew up in Social Circle, all I wanted to do was get the hell out of my small town and find a job, home, and surroundings that seemed to fit me more than from whence I came.  Many college-age kids and younger are the same.  This is not to say I do not deeply love Walton County (God’s country) and recognize the idyllic childhood I had there.  I grew up recognizing I was a square peg in a round hole, and I felt like an escape would provide the upward mobility I sought while not interfering with/ ruffling the feathers of those within the cultural climate I was reared.  The early recognition that I was a bit different forced me to reconcile that staying in my small town would mean a constant outsider feeling accompanied with a general uphill battle for any of my ideas and presence in certain circles.  So like a number of youth across the nation, I left and come back for family visits, events of friends who stayed behind and not much else.  I wait with baited breath for Walton County’s prosperity and commercial growth.  I sing its praises as often as I am able and I encourage as many to move there as possible, yet the struggle to be accepted as I am (more progressive, assertive, and business oriented) will always halt any dreams of returning.

But what if an entire generation chooses to leave their home towns?  What if few decide to come back?  What happens to the rural small towns they leave and how do those towns sustain themselves over time?  What happens when my generation reverses white flight and we all move back into urban areas?

You may have noticed it in your own town and among your own neighbors.  My generation has little patience for lack of amenities and we frankly do not comprehend how you work or live without reliable WiFi.  This isn’t unique to a certain area of the Southeast.  This is representative of a larger generational shift across the nation.  The opportunity to be something other than someone’s child has its own draw, and readily available choices of higher paying jobs is incredibly seductive.

In the last six months I have engaged in a leadership class called Georgia Forward.  Initially a nonprofit offshoot from Central Atlanta Progress, this organization partners with cities around Georgia to produce solutions to the local community’s challenges.  These challenges are identified by a steering committee of local officials (namely the local Chamber, from what I can tell), and are then posed in the form of questions to the group of fifty class members, a third of which are locals.

The area to which my class was partnered is Troup County.  Rich in textile history and manufacturing industry jobs, Troup County is an ideal location for Georgians to stake their claim and build their dreams.  Yet the cities of LaGrange, West Point, and Hogansville are finding it challenging to attract and retain young talent.  With little to no quality of place attributes (nightlife, retail establishments, civic organizations), I found myself both very familiar with and appallingly shocked as to why the residents could not recognize their own challenges.   The juxtaposition of those who enjoy the non-urban lifestyle that Troup County offers is in direct contrast to the preferences of those they wish to attract and retain.

This is not new, or foreign to me.  It is becoming so damn common across Georgia I often wish to beat my head against the wall in frustration.  I have seen this manifest in Macon, Augusta, Monroe, on recent visits to Americus, Albany, and certainly in my hometown of Social Circle.  There is a generational difference that contributes to the challenge, but also an ever-present racial one, and at its roots, economic.

I did not think of it as a generational problem across the nation until I recently finished the memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance.  The book was so incredibly gripping- painfully so at times.  The tome spoke such truth to the life I have known here where, albeit less violence and drugs as represented in Vance’s life, my own experience knows well the depth of family loyalty, the need for escaping one’s hometown, and the ties that forever bind us by the heartstrings to the challenges we try to leave behind. Continue reading “Brain Drain: The Southern Response to Ed and Business Atrophy”

Power As A Test of Character: Georgia’s Campus Sexual Assault Bill

 In every political system we have abuses of power, some more than others.  They are not uncommon, and as long as the abuses are not egregious they can often times be overlooked.  That does not make it right, yet one must pick their battles.  It should also be said that the very legislators who commit these may do so because they sincerely have good intents.  Sadly though, the general public is not always aware that some bills begin under these circumstances, and a bill’s origins often offer a more comprehensive view of the legislation.  I would like to shed some light on one such case.

In 2016, the AJC reported on Representative Earl Ehrhart (R-36, Powder Springs) intervening in an investigation at Georgia Tech where he threatened and then followed through on reduced funding for the research institution the next legislative session after the outcome of the school’s investigation.  You see, despite thirty-eight years in the Georgia General Assembly and being a past Rules Chairman under Speaker Richardson, Ehrhart is only a sub-committee Chairman.  That subcommittee happens to be the House Appropriations sub-committee on Higher Education.

That’s right- Rep. Ehrhart holds the purse strings for all the colleges and universities across the state.  Those same universities that are churning out the talent in our state to put it on Forbes’ List of the next tech meccas.

Follow me now? Continue reading “Power As A Test of Character: Georgia’s Campus Sexual Assault Bill”

Gwinnett, the New Ground Zero Post-Trump

Most people do not pay any attention to their local political scene.  They vote every four years in a Presidential election and they pat themselves on the back for check off that mental box of participation in the political process.  As of late though, the Gwinnett County Commission has become a more embroiled entity.  The good Lord KNOWS Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash is trying her hardest to smooth things over like every Southern woman has done for one foolish man or another in her circle.  But we all know there aren’t enough hand written notes IN THE WORLD that can smooth this one over!  This hits close to home for me because it literally IS my home now.  And it is of particular interest to me now that my last home (Atlanta) has become involved in Gwinnett County Commission dealings via a letter from Mayor Kasim Reed to Commissioner Tommy Hunter’s employer, United Consulting.  You can find the text of the letter and coverage by Adrianne Haney and Duffie Dixon of WXIA here. Continue reading “Gwinnett, the New Ground Zero Post-Trump”

EBD:  The Kiss of Death for a Child in Georgia

As an educator, I am always behind the times when it comes to my kids’ education.  I mean, I am in charge of 1800 of them, so when I get home, assisting with homework and, you know, talking to the little people about school, is a bit exhausting. I want to talk about other stuff, like being quizzed on football team names, or being trounced in a game of Uno by children in the single digit age range. What with dinner to be made,  baths to be taken, and all that, it’s kind of hard to keep up with what’s shaking in education from a parent’s perspective.

Flash forward (backward?) to an old article I recently read about The Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Supports ( GNETS), the alternative placement for little people who don’t make the cut in the traditional educational setting.  These are children who, for whatever reason, are missing out on some sort of behavioral more that the rest of the world of six year olds understand.  The majority of GNETS students are 3-10 years old.  Three years old! Who can be afraid of a kid who just recently got out of diapers?  The teachers.  The principal.  The school.  The county.  The state. Apparenlty, a squatty little kid who still has baby fat is a force not to be reckoned with.

So what does the school do?  The school slaps an Emotionally and Behaviorally Disordered (EBD) label on him and paperworks the kid right on out of traditional school,  shoving them into a setting that is frightening at best, and terrifying at worst.   Many of these children, predominantly Black and predominantly Male, are warehoused into a building or the hall of a building where they are restrained, secluded, and academically neglected.  Parents are pressured into believing that the school actually cares about the child and wants to help.  The nice lady at the eligibility team meeting states that “The Team” only wants what is best for the child.  So the school brings in a Behavioral Specialist, who makes more than the average teacher but does none of the leg work.  The “specialist” gives the teachers ten days of “specific data” to collect and waltzes off to the next meeting.

The teachers at this time can follow the data collection with 20 other little people in the room, or can, you know, do their best, and if Johnny pisses them off, they can fabricate the information fudge a little here or there to  make it look like Johnny truly is a menace to society ensure that Johnny gets the “help” he needs.   After all, there are 20 other cherubic little ones in the class, and some of them can’t read, so they really need help. Why waste time on a six year old who is bound for prison anyway? And the Behavioral Specialist?  S/he doesn’t check the fidelity of the data; doesn’t question the findings.   GNETS’ primary criteria for eligibility?  EBD.

Georgia, in all of its glory, is fighting vehemently to keep GNETS.  Georgia is throwing down the States Rights card so that Georgia can warehouse its students who have behavioral difficulties.  Georgia is going straight 1930s and throwing these children into the Millennial version of an institution.  “Don’t know how to handle them?  Put ‘em in GNETS! That’ll show those parents who don’t know how to raise them!”‘

So the parents, many of whom may not have the education to know what’s up, trust the school to do what is best for Johnny.  Two weeks after the EBD label and an IEP, Johnny is in the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Supports (GNETS).  Johnny is now, truly headed for prison because the school threw him away.  The school and the school system tossed him aside because he is difficult; he’s too challenging; he’s too angry; they don’t know what to do with him.

The school took a little boy, who once thought school was the best place ever, and placed him in a setting where the teachers are beaten down, worn out, and overworked.  They put him in a place where there is a 90% chance that he will never, ever, see a traditional classroom, participate in school sports, or be able to sit in circle time.

Here in Georgia, schools and school systems refuse to educate the teachers in the area of behavior.  What with all the impetus to raise test scores, and raise graduation rates (another smoke and mirrors for another time), locks some of the brightest students into a hellhole and throws away the key.  Besides, having too many conduct referrals affects CCRPI, now, doesn’t it?  Can’t have that on our school record.  Better to just get rid of the little buggers.

So what alternative do the parents have?  Many are unable to afford private school.  Some may not be able to home school due to financial restraints or because they are single parents.  So Johnny has to stay in an educational vacuum until he either drops out or gets schooled in prison.

Back in the day, I was an educator who vociferously defended the rights of many.  Now I’m a mom who needs for Georgia to assist the rights of a few who need attention.   Georgia has made great strides in the area of  including those who sturggle academically, yet it just can’t get its act together to help those who stuggle behaviorally.  Like the little ones who can’t read, there are little ones who can’t sit in a seat for hours, or who may get upset when they don’t understand something, or who may pay too much attention to what the teacher is saying and become anxious because they internalize more than others.  Or maybe, just maybe, the school gave up on them in kindergarten, and they know it.  Why not act like a tool?  No one cares any way.

It is imperative that the folks at the Dome look to these kids and help them just as much as the cherubic ones who may not do well academically.  No child deserves to be thrown away.  They’re children. They deserve more than a one way ticket to GNETS simply because they are behaviorally challenged.

Amendment One: Fail

I am tickled pink that Amendment One got a big, fat, red F. It failed, failed, I say! I’m sad the others passed, but that’s not the point of this piece.
This amendment crossed party lines in its proponents and its opponents.

The proponents appeared a bit paternalistic in their approach: “We know what is best for the poor black and brown children in Georgia, and their schools, their teachers, and their community members are simply sitting around on their asses, doing nothing but eating bon bons on taxpayer time.” Dealio even had the gall to go into a majority minority community and tell those folks in East Point that his was that of the great white hope, and if the OSD became reality, kids could graduate from high school, and then they could go to technical schools. He didn’t mention university, mind you.

The opponents seemed to be a bit more anarchist in their approach to defeat the amendment: “Get the government out of my school. I don’t trust you folks to pick your noses without making them bleed, let alone to educate my kid.” I could be wrong, but that was the vibe I got…

My take is a little different: We have this nebulous CCRPI metric, which changes every year. Last year, Schools can get points for graduation rates, test scores, teacher and parent surveys (Nice! Poke a mama bear, and that survey goes down the crapper). Fulton County has advisers set up to help the schools earn more points based on the ever changing scale. Advisers! It’s all a number game, folks. And it seems that the scale is changing so that more schools are failing…struggling…sorry Richard Woods (nice change in rhetoric after the fact, though).  So more schools got on the watch list as this amendment became more viable to the Opportunity School District. In fact, the amount of schools who were determined failing skyrocketed in 2016. One Hundred and forty two schools were added to the list of 2015’s 81. Almost a 200% increase in failing schools. DANG! Coincidence? Maybe. Probably not, though.

It was a grab for money and for power, and it failed, as it should have. I think the voters got this one right (I voted Libertarian, so I am exempt from any blame for TP in the WH).

Research like a reporter, Part 2: Who’s backing the constitutional amendments?

Elections day is less than a week away, and for many that’s not soon enough. However, down ballot of the Trump-Clinton circus are actually pretty impactful candidates and issues, including four constitutional amendments.

In brief, they are:

Amendment 1, Opportunity School District: This is a piece of legislation that allows the state to take control of chronically failing schools, as measured by the state’s annual College and Career Ready Performance Index or CCRPI. (Full disclosure: I wrote in opposition to this bill here).

Amendment 2, Safe Harbor Fund: Creates new taxes/fees which will be dedicated to funding support services for survivors of child sex trafficking. (I wrote about this amendment, as well, here).

Amendment 3, Judicial Qualifications Commission: Abolishes the current JQC and recreates a new commission that would be made up solely of political appointees. This body oversees ethics complaints against judges. (Oops, can’t hide my dislike of this sleazy measure).

Amendment 4, Fireworks: Like Amendment 2, this creates a new dedicated fund, in this case to support trauma care, firefighter training, and public safety services. (No, I have not written about this one. Why are fireworks such a big deal in this state?).

Check out the ballot guide from the YWCA of Greater Atlanta for good, in-depth analysis of the amendments.

What can you learn?

Pulling up the disclosures is a fairly quick process, you just need ten minutes. In this year’s batch of reports you can find out what measure(s) AT&T is backing, what Washington D.C. groups have donated to these amendment fights, what legislators are involved in these projects, and what measures the Walton family (of Wal-Mart fame) have put money behind.

Everyone likes to toss around this claim about the “other” side of a policy debate: special interest, out of state money! coming in to ruin real Georgia values! There are, indeed, small numbers of very wealthy people who can dump tons of money into political issues they care about, because we live in a nation that faces such severe income and wealth stratification that that’s possible. Lots of in-state groups solicit and benefit from out-of-state money; it’s not a surprising phenomenon. These donations can and should still be interrogated, but are quite common.

As in Part 1 of this series, financial disclosure reports reveal how different people and organizations are connected to each other. Are they people and organizations that share your values? How are political leaders connected to the funding of these amendments? This may require a little more googling to figure out exactly who is involved, as oftentimes intermediaries are making large donations to the groups campaigning for or against a constitutional amendment, but it’s definitely a rewarding process.

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As an example, let’s to go through the campaign report for Yes2SaveLives, Inc., which was involved in a 2010 campaign to support an amendment to raise funds for trauma care. This example does not use current campaign information.

Here is the document you will see when you pull up amendment campaign finance disclosures (link here). Note the Chairperson and Treasurer on the summary page. A quick google search reveals that Israel was the President and CEO of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. Joe Parker was the President of the Georgia Hospital Association. So GCC and GHA were heavily invested and likely leading this campaign (more confirmation of this later).

Googling the address or P.O. Box listed might also tell you information about affiliated business or organizational interests. Often, technically separate organizations, like the c(3) and c(4) arms of an organization, might share an office and thus an address.

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Next up is the summary of their fundraising and expenditures. This group fundraised over $3.1 million (line 6) from their inception in August to the date this was submitted, and they spent $2.3 million (line 12, not pictured) of that in the same time period. The $1.25 million figure in line 3 (wow this feels just like doing taxes!) is the number this report will break down into individual donors.

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And now…what people and organizations make up the $1.25 million in donations?

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Columbus Medical Center were both big donors. Additional confirmation that the GCC was heavily invested in this issue; not only was their President the Chairperson of Yes2SaveLives, but the GCC is “donating” office spaces and related services. As you scroll through the document, you’ll see the same holds true for GHA. The donors this filing period were 100 percent in-state medical institutions, so it’s clear they were very invested in this.

Interpretation if you opposed the measure: hospitals are spending big bucks to pass this special interest measure that will line their pockets; we should never raise taxes, especially not to benefit these corporate interests.

Interpretation if you supported the measure: deaths from traumatic injuries are 20 percent higher than the national average because of lack of access to care, and medical groups recognize the urgent need for a well-funded trauma care system in Georgia to prevent these unnecessary deaths.

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Not shown are loans and itemized expenditures. Still worth perusing, but often not as great a source of information.

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If you are interested and looking at these reports for the current campaigns for and against the various amendments, here’s how to do it:

(1) Go to ethics.ga.gov, which is the home of the Georgia Government Transparency and State Finance Commission, formerly known as the State Ethics Commission. Along the black bar at the top of the page, select “Search.”

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(2) Select “Campaign Reports” from the list.

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(3) Scroll down the the second box labeled “Non-Candidate Committee Search.” Select “Constitutional Amendment or Statewide Referendum,” type in the name of the organization you want to search and select “View Non-Candidate Committees.”

Amendment 1: Better Georgia Action, Inc.; Committee to Keep Georgia Schools Local, Inc.; Opportunity for All Georgia Students, Inc.

Amendment 2: SafeHarborYes

Amendment 3: Georgians for Judicial Integrity; Save the JQC-Vote No on 3

Amendment 4: None

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(4) Select “View” next to the name of the committee.

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(5) Select “Campaign Contribution Reports – EFiled (Click to Expand Information).”

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(6) Select “View Report.” Everyone should have their “15 days Before Date of Election” report filed by now.

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(7) Select “View Report in PDF,” to take a look at the entire report. (The other options are more excel friendly versions of the same information, broken into segments).

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Nerdy Details

Passing constitutional amendments is quite involved. First, both bodies of the Georgia General Assembly must pass the legislation with a two-thirds majority. Right now, Republicans only have a two-thirds majority in the State Senate (so Democrats only have to co-sign if some of the far right Republicans aren’t backing the party agenda). In the House of Representatives, Republicans do not have a two-thirds majority, so at least some Democrats must also vote for a constitutional amendment for it to pass. Then it goes before the Governor, who has the ability to veto it. Then it goes before voters, where it must pass by a simple majority.

Fun facts: the only thing the General Assembly is constitutionally mandated to do is pass a balanced budget each year, everything else is just gravy. Legislators are also constitutionally protected from arrest during the legislative session!

Comment with any questions or just to let me know what you dig up.