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State Rep. Barry Fleming talks about the recent legislative session, the new elections law, and other topics.

About 40 people gathered Wednesday morning at Augusta Tech to hear from state elected officials and a United States congressman as part of the Thomson-McDuffie Chamber of Commerce’s Post Legislative Breakfast.

State Rep. Barry Fleming and State Sen. Max Burns participated in person and U.S. Rep. Jody Hice and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp addressed the audience via video conferencing. State Rep. Mack Jackson was unable to attend. A member of U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock’s staff was part of the audience as well as a staff member representing Hice.

Topics covered included elections and voting, COVID-19, rural broadband, and the cancel culture.

State Rep. Fleming

“I appreciate all of y’all being here. It’s nice to start kind of getting back to normal, Fleming said.

He first explained how the general assembly had to make adjustments during COVID-19 and how he hopes next year’s session will return to normal.

“There’s 180 of us in the house and during COVID we had to sit in every other chair, which means half of the members of the house couldn’t even sit on the floor,” he said.

He explained about 50 members had to sit in the balcony and vote on iPads. Another 35 members were seated in a nearby room that once housed the Georgia Supreme Court.

“So we’re not even together as a group, which is kind of odd but it is the world we are living in and the world that business has been dealing with,” he added. “It is great to start thinking about getting a little bit back to normal.”

He pointed out that when he and Sen. Burns go to Atlanta each year the only thing they have to do every year is pass the state budget.

“Once again Georgia has passed a balanced budget again this year.”

He said Gov. Kemp should be applauded for how he led the state during the COVID challenges. Fleming said the impact of COVID on society will be studied for years.

“Keeping our society moving also kept our economy moving and also balanced the approach that we needed to keep people in their jobs,” Fleming said.

He turned to the bill dealing with voting, which he noted has received a lot of attention.

“The difference you will see right here in McDuffie County is that there will be at least one more day of early voting and also for the first time in Georgia law the possibility to vote on Sunday,” Fleming said. “We don’t have that in this area, but if the board of elections decides they want to allow people to vote on Sunday they’ll be able to do that now for the first time.”

Fleming continued talking election security as he brought up security paper and security features. He pulled $100 bill from his pocket to show the audience.

“There’s all kind of security features on here,” he said. “Now, the point where when you go and vote and you get printed out your ballot, it too can have these type of security features on it which makes it very difficult for anybody to try to do something nefarious because they have to have that same paper."

“In the future, those scanners will not recognize any paper that is not on the special security paper, Fleming said.

He said the general assembly also passed a COVID liability bill that protects businesses that have proper safety protocols. Thereby, if they are abiding by the protocols they can not be sued by someone who becomes sick.

They also passed several bills dealing with what the representative called “the criminal situation in our state.” He said crime has been soaring in Atlanta and a large part of that is because the Atlanta Police Department is largely understaffed.

He then turned to legislative steps to prevent any towns or counties from cutting funding to police.

“We passed a bill this year that says that cities and counties alike cannot defund their police departments. It is sad it came to that point,” Fleming said. “The city of Athens was within one vote of probably cutting a huge chunk out of the police department.”

He said the state now also has in place a law to make further penalties against street racing. As he moved onto another topic facing law enforcement, he discussed human trafficking.

“Human trafficking is a huge problem in Atlanta with the airport being here. Young girls basically (are) sold into sexual slavery and prostitution. A lot of that is coming from the problems we have at the border.”

He explained there have been criminal laws against human trafficking, but now a law has passed that allows those traffickers to be sued civilly. Also, he pointed out that the legislature passed a state tax cut for Georgians.

“We increased the withholdings that you can do on your tax returns so you can keep a little more money in your pocket,” said Fleming. “Once again that was only possible because our state stayed open during Covid, to a reasonable degree, and allowed us to have a good budget year where other states are really suffering because of the way they handled it.”

State Sen. Burns

“It’s an honor to serve the 23rd District. I am grateful for McDuffie County. I am grateful for the people here. They’ve been very kind, very supportive,” Burns said.

The freshman senator said his first year in the state legislature has been an exciting experience, in particular toward the end of the session. Then he compared the state legislature to congress and the way each functions.

“The only thing that congress does well is nothing at all. And, they do it slowly,” he said.

He said in Atlanta, the general assembly actually gets a lot done in a very short time. Burns asked for a show of hands of those who have received the COVID vaccination.

“Thank you for doing that. The only way we are going to get out of this is is to be fully immune to this virus,” he said. “And let me say we find out the hard way that sometimes vaccinations don’t protect you 100 percent, so we still have to continue to wear a mask and do those types of things.”

Burns said he wanted to echo what Fleming already said, stating that he was very proud of how Georgia has handled the pandemic.

“I want to congratulate the governor and commend him for his work in supporting our economy and in supporting our citizens,” Burns said.

He said Georgia is way ahead of neighboring states in vaccinating the most vulnerable among use. Burns said the over 65 group is more than 89 percent vaccinated. Those over 84 are 98 percent vaccinated, he said.

“We’re going to get though this. We’re much further along into it than I thought we might be at this time,” he said.

He said one of the most significant things that happened in Atlanta during the general assembly was the passing of a balanced budget. Burns said about two-thirds of states have balanced budget amendments and Georgia is one of them. He said the budget contained funding for a lot of very important things, saying he would touch on several of the key ones which he deemed as “winners.”

He pointed to $20 million in the supplemental budget this year for rural broadband and an additional $10 million in the FY22 budget. Plus, he said, there are some federal programs to aid with broadband.

“If you go to some areas of the 23rd District there is no reasonable access to the internet,” Burns said.

He also said education in Georgia was a winner.

“We funded 60 percent of the austerity cuts that were made due to Covid. That was some $560 million worth of funding. We’re not quite back, but we’re getting closer,” he said. “We’re trying to fully restore funding to education. We are very comfortable with where our state economy is right now, but the future is still uncertains. So we’re being cautious.”

Burns said there is also health care funding and $157 million in roads funding in the new state budget. Then he explained the size of the state budget.

“The state allocation is about $27.2 billion. The federal funds that come in to the state are about another $27 billion. So that means overall the state budget is somewhere the neighborhood of $49 plus billion. A big chunk of that is certainly is in education, in infrastructure, and in health care.”

He moved on to Senate Bill 202, the Elections Integrity Act of 2021. Burns chaired the senate ethics committee and Fleming chaired the house special committee on elections integrity.

“We worked very closely together. Their legislation, our legislation, was independent. We took two differs approaches,” he said.

Burns said in his committee there were 35 or 38 bills pertaining to elections and 18 passed out of the committee. The house committee passed 12, according to Burns.

“After that, we sent our bills to the house and they sent their bills to the senate and we began to work towards some agreement,” Burns said.

He said some people wanted to go one direction and others wanted to go another and he and Fleming both recognized that everyone would have to meet somewhere in the middle.

“We came to an agreement on what ultimately became SB 202,” said Burns.

That, he said, deals with preventing people from receiving multiple applications to vote absentee.

“I don’t know about you, but a lot of people got multiple applications. In Richmond County there 26,000 absentee ballots cast and there were other 9,000 duplicate applications requested. In Emanuel County it was almost one to one,” Burns said. “That became the vehicle for us to ultimately adopt legislation,” he added. “If you have concerns, read it,” he added. “Don’t go to talking heads on network TV to tell you what is there.”

He said the most important parts of the bill are about consistency. He said he requested three things — one, every legal vote counts; two, every vote count follows Georgia law; and three, restoring people’s confidence in voting law. He said part of the new law involves voter identification. It also provides oversight of local election boards and documentation of elections.

“We have some local election boards in Georgia that don’t follow the law. They choose to interpret it differently than what it really says so we have to have some oversight,” Burns added.

Drop boxes were not part of Georgia law before, but Burns points out now that they will be available in every county. He also said some counties had more voting hours than others.

“What we need is for everybody to have the same access to the ballot box,” he said.

Burns said he would also like to touch on the defunding the police movement and how state legislation prevents communities from doing so. Along the lines of law enforcement, Burns also said there is a problem with human trafficking in Georgia.

“The governor and the first lady, Marty Kemp, have made human trafficking a priority. We had a bold piece of legislation that attempts to begin to mitigate that problem. I would encourage you locally and regionally to recognize it and to address it appropriately,” Burns said.

The state senator said the department of natural resources has had issues with people putting industrial waste on land. Those substances contain fats, oil and grease, he said.

“If you’re going to put something on the soil it has to have a nutrient balance. It has to have some reason for putting it,” he said. “So we dealt with that.”

As a new person in the senate, Burns said he was surprised and how much is done in the final days of the session. He said in the senate, on the 29th they dealt with 60 or 70 bills.

“In the last two legislative days we dealt with between 80 and a 100 pieces of legislation,” he said.

Things the senate is still struggling with, according to Burns, are fees on cable companies and also some legislation that deals with transparency at the state level in relations to candidates as they work toward the election process and how much money they spend.

“That legislation lays on the table and can come up again next January,” he said.

U.S. Rep Jody Hice

“It’s a great honor to join you,” Hice said as he explained how he was joining remotely from his office in Washington, D.C. “Of course we’ve got a lot happening in Washington right now on multiple fronts. It’s amazing how rapidly things are moving right now — everything from seeing our nation go from energy independence to now we are watching the prices at the gas pumps go up, and up, and up every week. That kind of thing to me is inexcusable,” Hice said.

He said what is happening at the southern boarder is also inexcusable.

“It is heartbreaking to see what is happening on our southern border and for our current administration not to be addressing this is stunning to me,” he said.

Hice said there is pending legislation that he called “alarming” from the Equality Act to the Infrastructure Bill.

“We haven’t even had the ink dry on a $2 trillion bill that was just passed a couple of weeks ago and now we are being pushed for another $2.3 trillion for an infrastructure bill that frankly has very little to do with infrastructure and has more to do pushing a radical agenda and things like the green new deal, but doing so under the title of infrastructure,” Hice said. “It’s not only disturbing, I mean it’s just wrong in my opinion where much of the things that we are watching take place right now with virtually zero input from those of us in the minority right now. We’re just literally are watching legislation being bulldozed over us without any real say so.”

He said he didn’t mean to the bearer of bad news, but wanted to give an honest portrayal of what is happening.

“This cancel culture movement is very much alive here in Washington and as you are seeing it, it is very much alive in the state of Georgia,” he added.

The congressman said this country has always been a melting point of individuals and ideas and a country that cherishes the First Amendment.

“Now we have a cancel culture movement that basically says if you do not embrace the radical left wing agenda we are going to destroy you and cancel you from being able to operate in our American society,” Hice said.

He discussed sports and businesses trying to even cancel states like Georgia and Texas. Gov. Brian Kemp The governor said this has been a very challenging time for the state and the nation now that we are at the one-year anniversary of COVID-19 getting started.

“Literally millions of Americans were scared to death of losing everything. The weeks that followed were very tough, not only for myself but I know for many of you all as well,” Kemp said. “It was literally hour by hour I was hearing from Georgians in every corner of the state.”

He said he heard from business owners, restaurant and salon workers, other service industry workers, and many in the agri-business sector.

“A lot of their businesses had been in the community for generations and they were literally just terrified of what would come next and it was by no fault of their own. It was from a virus that we knew such little about,” he said.

He said he faced criticism from all sides when he decided to safely and methodically re-open the state after receiving advice from the state public health director.

“When I did that, I heard those voices of all those Georgians and as a small business owner myself during the great recession following the crash of 2008, their stories were very familiar not only to me but to my wife Marty,” he continued. “Georgians were struggling, as I mentioned, not because they failed or had bad products. They were just subject to a virus that was out of control and it was no fault of their own. I believed we needed to give them a fighting chance.”

Kemp said he believes that the decision of the balanced approach to both protect lives and protect people’s livelihood and paychecks is why the state is now in such good shape. He said Georgians together showed the resilience of the state.

“We’ve avoided cuts to our budget, we’ve maintained our AAA bond rating, and we’re the number one state in the country for business again and we have continued to bring historic levels of job growth and investment to all parts of the state, not just Atlanta.”

He said in the past fiscal year there was a 30 percent increase in economic development projects in rural Georgia and added that they just wrapped up a “fantastic” legislative session.

“We avoided state budget cuts. We added money back to our priorities like public safety, education, health care, and rural development,” he explained. “We also included $20 million this year and $10 million in each year that follows for the expansion of rural broadband.”

He also said that even amid the pandemic the state cut taxes on citizens plus made it easier to adopt a child out of foster care.

“I’m sure that you’ve heard, despite a lot of fake outrage from those with a political agenda and their friends in the national media, we passed the Elections Integrity Act,” Kemp said. “Again I want to thank Chairman Fleming and Chairman Burns for their work on this. It was a long process, well thought out, and this is a bill, that in my opinion make’s it easy to vote and hard to cheat.”

Kemp concluded by saying he believes in the resilience of Georgia’s citizens and encourage them to continue to follow the news on vaccinations.