Raffensperger: Turn in absentee ballots

By Beau Evans
Staff Writer
Capitol Beat News Service

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger renewed calls Thursday for voters who have requested absentee ballots to send them in the mail or put them in a local drop-off box ahead of the June 9 primary election.
More than 600,000 Georgia voters have returned absentee ballots so far, marking roughly 40% of the 1.5 million voters who requested them since March when the coronavirus pandemic escalated in the state, Raffensperger said.
At a news conference Thursday, Raffensperger urged voters whose mail-in ballots are “sitting on your kitchen table” to make sure they are returned by 7 p.m. on June 9, after which ballots will not be counted.
Raffensperger called for as many people as possible to vote by mail rather than in person to lower the risk for spreading the virus among voters and poll workers, many of whom are older individuals more vulnerable to the virus’ health impacts. State election officials are also allowing counties to install drop-off boxes where voters can place their absentee ballots instead of mailing them.
“We need as many of you as possible to use this safe and easy voting tool,” Raffensperger. “The [coronavirus] threat is still a potential threat to orderly elections and in-person voting.”
As of Wednesday, Raffensperger said more than 100,000 Georgians have voted in person during the early-voting period, which began May 18. Many precincts have already seen long lines with people forced to keep their distance from each other while queued up to vote and spend time canceling absentee ballots they requested since they are voting in person.
A handful of elections officials and a voter contracted the virus recently in McDuffie and Appling counties, highlighting the high risk brought by ramped-up voting numbers on June 9. The virus has also complicated efforts by county elections officials to process an influx of absentee ballot applications and ballots that have arrived in recent weeks.
Fulton County’s elections director, Rick Barron, noted Wednesday his office was slow to turn around ballots after a staff member died from coronavirus in early April. Barron said his office has since caught up with the application backlog amid complaints from many voters who still had not received a ballot weeks after requesting one.
“It has not gone as quickly as we had hoped,” Barron said in a virtual news conference Wednesday. “But we finally did get caught up, and we can look forward to the future and having this process go smoother.”
Speaking Thursday, Raffensperger attributed the slow processing time in Fulton to “missteps” and asked voters who have not yet received their absentee ballots to “just be patient.”
“You’ll get your ballot shortly,” he said.
To speed up ballot processing, Raffensperger said his office has sent high-speed scanners to counties to help them reduce their absentee ballot turnaround times. The scanners are part of the state’s new $104 million voting machines that will see their first large-scale statewide test on the June 9 primary.
Amid the push for mail-in voting, Raffensperger also touted Georgia’s push to keep polling places open during the early-voting period. On Thursday, he claimed the state has “maintained more in-person voting options during this pandemic than any other state in the country combined.”
“We have cut through the political rhetoric, ignored the talking heads and put you the voter first,” Raffensperger said. “We have maintained your right to choose in this election.”

Huali Floors to Create 315 Jobs, Invest More than $27 Million in Murray County

Atlanta, GA – Governor Brian P. Kemp today announced that Huali Floors, a leading manufacturer of resilient flooring, will establish its first U.S. headquarters and manufacturing facility in Murray County. Huali Floors will create at least 315 new jobs and invest more than $27 million in an existing facility.

“We are excited to welcome Huali Floors to Murray County,” said Governor Kemp. “It’s a testament to Georgia’s logistics network and readily available workforce when an innovative company like Huali Floors chooses Georgia to establish their first U.S. manufacturing operation. I congratulate the hardworking Georgians in Murray County on this exciting news, and I am confident Huali will find success in the Peach State.”

Established in Taizhou, Jiangsu Province in 2002, Huali Floors is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of resilient flooring. Huali manufactures a variety of high-quality floor covering products, including luxury vinyl tiles, stone plastic composite, and wood plastic composite flooring.

“Our USA headquarters and manufacturing facility will further support our commitment in bringing world-class service and quality to our customers,” said Philip Yuan, president of Huali Group. “The strong flooring community that the Northwest Georgia area embodies was a determining factor in our commitment, and we want to be part of that spirit. We, Huali Floors, are very excited and proud to be able to call Murray County our USA home and become an active member, as we saw and felt the strength of the community through the project process. We look forward to growing here in Northwest Georgia and are committed to investing and supporting our new community.”

Huali Floors employs more than 2,000 full-time associates with revenues in excess of $360 million. Huali currently utilizes the Port of Savannah and plans to use the Appalachian Regional Port in Murray County. Jobs at the new facility will include administration, manufacturing, and research and development positions. Individuals interested in learning more about the project or employment opportunities can do so by visiting https://murraycountychamber.org/hfusa/.

“The experience of this project from day one has been exactly what a community wants,” said Steve Smith, chairman of the Murray County Industrial Development Authority. “The partnership between the state and our Industrial Development Authority Director, Illya Copeland, has been great. The people from Huali have the best people on the job to make this project a success. We are excited that they chose Murray County as their home in the United States.”

“The reason this project is successful is due to the partnership between our Industrial Development Authority and the Georgia Department of Economic Development,” said Greg Hogan, sole commissioner of Murray County. “From the first visit with Huali, there was a natural feel in the air that told me we would become home to their first U.S. facility. We welcome these wonderful people to our community and couldn’t be more proud of the work put in by the state and our local industrial development authority.”

Georgia was the No. 1 exporter among U.S. states for floor covering products in 2019, with a total export value of $485.4 million, and Northwest Georgia is home to a majority of the state’s floor covering industries. The new inland Appalachian Regional Port plays a key role in Georgia’s supply chain network.

“It speaks volumes that Huali Floors sees the benefit in the Port of Savannah and the connection to the Appalachian Regional Port, and plans to locate their very first U.S-based manufacturing facility 9.5 miles away from the terminal,” said Wesley Barrell, Georgia Ports Authority regional manager of strategic operations. “Huali’s projected volume will be handled with efficiency and precision, we look forward to a long-standing relationship both at the Appalachian Regional Port and the Port of Savannah.

Georgia Department of Economic Development (GDEcD) Regional Project Manager Taylor Kielty and Project Manager Sandra Yang represented the Global Commerce division in partnership with Georgia Quick Start, the Murray County Industrial Development Authority, Georgia EMC, Georgia Ports Authority, and Georgia Power.

“We are thrilled to hear that Huali Floors will be calling Georgia its U.S. home. By locating here, the company will not only benefit from our logistics infrastructure, including the Appalachian Regional Port, but also from becoming a part of our business community,” said GDEcD Commissioner Pat Wilson. “Winning this competitive project will have a big impact in Murray County and the state as Huali will continue to do business with industry leaders and attract new suppliers to the region. We want to thank all of our business development partners for bringing this investment to Northwest Georgia.”

About Huali Floors
Taizhou Huali New Materials Co. Ltd. was established on April 15, 2002. As of 2019, the company owns two production bases that cover an area of 4.6 million square feet, including 4.3 million square feet in building area. The total investment reaches $130 million. The current monthly production capacity is approximately 1,800 containers, and 2018 sales figures reached $360 million. There are more than 2,000 employees in the company, including 20 engineers. For additional information, visit: www.hualifloors.com/about.html.

Georgia suffers record joblessness

  • ATLANTA – The Georgia Department of Labor (GDOL) announced today an April preliminary unemployment rate of 11.9 percent. The number of unemployed increased from 342,601 to 581,820. April’s numbers represent the highest one-month recorded increase and also the highest total unemployment on record. Georgia’s April 2020 number of unemployed is more than 80,000 higher than the height of the Great Recession of 2009-2010.
  • “This is the highest unemployment rate on record, eclipsing the previous high of 10.6 percent that occurred in December 2010,” said Commissioner Mark Butler. “However, the cause of this high unemployment rate differs greatly from that of the previous record, and I have no doubt that we will recover just as quickly and get back to our record lows once again.”
  • Jobs were down 492,100 (-10.7 percent) over the month of April to 4,126,500, the lowest level since April 2014.  The leisure and hospitality sector, which includes the food services and drinking places and accommodation sectors, accounted for 206,700 of the job loss, 42 percent of the total.
  • Commissioner Butler said, “The surge in initial claims in accommodation and food services, retail trade, health care, manufacturing, and administrative and support services accounted for two-thirds of all initial claims processed.”
  • The GDOL announced it has issued over $3.1 billion in combined state and federal unemployment benefits in the past nine weeks.  Since the middle of March (week ending March 21, 2020), GDOL has processed 2,018,096 regular initial unemployment claims, more than the last five years combined (1.7 million).  Of these claims, 855,088 were valid as the claimant had earned enough reported wages to receive benefits. 651,000Georgians (86 percent of all those filing for unemployment) have already received their first payment. Of the remaining unpaid claims, many are still in the claims process awaiting eligibility determination. This also includes claims where duplicate claims have been filed, identification has been requested, excessive weekly earnings have been reported, or child support stops have been issued.  These claims require additional handling and the GDOL is working diligently to address many of these stops.
  • Last week, the GDOL issued over $55 million in Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) payments to individuals who are self-employed, gig workers, 1099 independent contractors, employees of churches, employees of non-profits, or those with limited work history who do not qualify for state unemployment benefits. 132,888 PUA applications were processed and were eligible for payment. Over 25,000 applications have been processed, but have still not requested a payment. Applicants must request a payment each week to be issued benefits.
  • GDOL processed 177,731 regular state UI claims last week, a decrease of 65,000 from the week prior.  These claims totaled $187,412,786 in benefits for the week and totaled $927,514,749 over the past nine weeks.Of the weekly total, 132,191 were employer filed claims, seventy five percent of all claims. The number of initial unemployment claims filed throughout the United States was 2.4 million last week, a decrease of 249,000 from the previous week’s revised level.
  •  In addition, the total federal funds issued for the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, or FPUC, totaled over $545 million last week.  Over the past nine weeks, the GDOL has issued over $2.1 billion in FPUC federal funds. FPUC provides an additional $600 weekly payment to any individual eligible for any of the unemployment compensation programs – state and federal.
  • As of last week, the Georgia Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund Balance was $1,795,322,812, down $752 million, or 30 percent, from the balance of $2,547,476,454 for week ending March 24.
  • At this time, the GDOL career centers are remaining closed to the public. All online services are still available as the staff continues to answer phones, return emails, and assist applicants. The GDOL will open offices to the public as soon as social distancing can be effectively implemented to protect both staff and customers.
  • The GDOL is also continuing to work with employers to get Georgians back to work.  Employers have been contacting the GDOL with job opportunities that are critical during this crisis – some in the workplace and others that can be done from home. Today, over 97,000 jobs are listed online at EmployGeorgia.com for Georgians to access. The GDOL offers online resources for finding a job, building a resume, and assisting with other reemployment needs.
  • Information on filing an unemployment claim, details on how employers can file partial claims, and resources for other reemployment assistance can be found on the agency’s webpage at dol.georgia.gov.

Missy Bailey starred for Murray County Lady Indians

Sometimes exceptional athletes burn out and want nothing to do with sports when their playing careers end. This was not the case for 1987 Murray County High School graduate Missy Bailey, a sharpshooting guard for the Lady Indians.

Sports have always been in her blood and continue to keep her inspired as recreation division manager for the Gainesville (Ga.) Recreation Department.

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Chatsworth makes safest cities top 10

Chatsworth is the ninth safest city in Georgia, according to SafeWise, a national firm specializing in home security. It is the sixth annual “safest cities” list from SafeWise, which analyzes crime statistics submitted through the National Incident-Based Reporting System, a crime data collection system administered by the FBI.

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Early voting starts for June 9 primary

By Beau Evans
Staff Writer
Capitol Beat News Service

Early voting for the June 9 primary in Georgia started Monday amid ongoing safety concerns stemming from the coronavirus pandemic coupled with close scrutiny over how the state’s new voting machines perform.
On the ballot are elections for federal, state and local offices plus the presidential preference primary, which has twice been delayed since its original March 24 date due to coronavirus. The general election will be held on Nov. 3. Runoffs, if needed, would be held on Aug. 11.
More than 40 sitting state lawmakers running for reelection in the General Assembly have drawn primary opponents. And several of the state’s 13 congressional seats are being hotly contested by Republican and Democratic candidates in metro Atlanta and North Georgia.
The three-week early voting period comes as county election officials roll out sanitizing and social-distancing measures aimed at reducing coronavirus risks in precincts, such as by cleaning ballot machines with sanitizing wipes and spreading out voters waiting in line.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said Monday local precincts are spacing voters six feet apart while in line and providing poll workers with masks and gloves. Voters are being urged but not required to wear masks, Raffensperger said.
Precincts are also giving voters stylus pens to make ballot selections on touchscreens that are wiped before and after each use, Raffensperger said. Hand sanitizer is also available at precincts.
Raffensperger said he feels confident precincts will be ready to receive larger crowds on June 9 for Election Day.
“They’ll make it happen,” Raffensperger said Monday. “It’ll be a victory. It might be a rough one, but at the end of the day it will be a victory. People that want to vote will be able to vote.”
Early voting for the June 9 primary also will mark one of the first statewide uses of the new $104 million voting machines, which involve touchscreens and scanners that record a paper print-out of a voter’s completed ballot. The old machines in use since 2002 have been scrapped over cybersecurity issues.
State officials hail the new machines as more secure than the old all-electronic machines, while many critics have continued pushing through federal lawsuits for entirely paper ballots.
Purchased last July from Dominion Voting Systems, the new machines were on a tight timeline to roll out ahead of the March 24 presidential preference primary and saw a handful of glitches during a six-county test run last November.
Raffensperger said the new machines “are working great” just as they did for a shortened early-voting period that took place ahead of the then-scheduled March 24 presidential preference primary.
Beyond the new machines, coronavirus has upended the normal voting process in Georgia in ways that have spurred a huge push for absentee ballots and litigation aimed at delaying in-person voting.
As of Monday, Raffensperger said county officials had collected about 300,000 absentee ballots out of the nearly 1.5 billion ballots requested statewide, a figure already dwarfing the roughly 223,000 mail-in ballots cast in the high-turnout 2018 gubernatorial election.
Last week, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit seeking to delay the primary again to the end of June and for officials to shelve the new touchscreens in favor of paper ballots. The suit argued the screens cannot be cleaned often enough to prevent coronavirus transmissions at precincts.
Meanwhile, dozens of state lawmakers seeking reelection to the General Assembly have been handcuffed by rules preventing them from campaign fundraising while the legislature remains suspended until later next month – even as their primary challengers have been allowed to raise cash.
The fundraising prohibition has not affected candidates for high-profile congressional races, particularly for both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats.
Roughly a half-dozen Democratic candidates vying for the seat held by U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a Republican, will be on the primary ballot. The primary pits several high-profile Democratic challengers including Sarah Riggs Amico, Jon Ossoff and Teresa Tomlinson.
Heated primary contests are also being held in the 6th, 7th, 11th and 13th congressional districts in metro Atlanta; the 9th Congressional District in Northeast Georgia; and the 14th Congressional District in Northwest Georgia.
The state’s other U.S. Senate contest for U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s seat will not be on the June 9 primary ballot since it is being held as a free-for-all open election between candidates of all parties on Nov. 3.

Judge OKs Georgia Primary Election date

ATLANTA – With a dismissal ordered on the evening of May 14, Federal Judge Timothy Batten brought a swift end to a lawsuit brought by activists who have repeatedly sued the State of Georgia. In the decision, Judge Batten stated, “Ultimately, ordering Defendants to adopt Plaintiffs’ laundry list of so-called ‘Pandemic Voting Safety Measures’ would require the Court to micromanage the State’s election process. The relief Plaintiffs seek bears little resemblance to the type of relief plaintiffs typically seek in election cases aimed to redress state wrongs.”

The activist plaintiffs, the Coalition for Good Governance, Rhonda Martin, Jeanne Dufort, Aileen Nakamura, B. Joy Wasson, and Elizabeth Throop, were seeking to interfere in the upcoming General Primary, move election dates, and change how Georgians vote. Worst of all they were seeking to disenfranchise overseas military voters.

“I am pleased that Judge Batten recognized these claims for what they are…policy preferences and political gamesmanship attempting to masquerade as constitutional claims,” said Secretary Raffensperger. “The dismissal of this lawsuit allows election officials in Georgia to concentrate on what matters most, which is ensuring that every Georgian can safely exercise their right to vote during these unprecedented times. I hope that the other groups who have asserted these same claims in other lawsuits will see the error of their ways, stop wasting taxpayer dollars, and drop their lawsuits.”

Judge Batten also made clear in his order that courts should not be involved in these questions. Stated in his order, “This is why courts should not second-guess coordinate branches of government on matters explicitly committed to them.”

Judge Batten’s order follows other recent court orders denying activist plaintiffs attempts to interfere with the June 9, 2020 primary, including lawsuits from the ACLU and the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights.

Furloughs, layoffs not yet clear for Georgia schools

By Beau Evans
Staff Writer
Capitol Beat News Service

Georgia education officials got their first look Thursday at budget cuts ahead for public schools and programs amid coronavirus but did not dive into specifics on whether staff furloughs or layoffs may be needed.
The Georgia Department of Education is facing across-the-board cuts of around $1.6 billion to all aspects of the agency, from state administrative offices in Atlanta to specialty programs like agricultural education to everyday basic classroom education.
Those cuts come as part of 14% spending reductions that all state agencies must propose to state lawmakers by May 20, as business closures and social distancing spurred by coronavirus look to put state revenues in a $3 billion to $4 billion hole.
The blow to some educational programs will be softened since the agency was already gearing up for 6% budget reductions Gov. Brian Kemp ordered last summer for the fiscal 2021 budget, officials said Thursday at a State Board of Education meeting.
To manage those previous cuts, education officials imposed a hiring freeze starting last October, restricted travel, clamped down on approving new vendor contracts and halted in-person staff training and professional development, among other measures.
But the previous cuts did not include the nearly $11.7 billion in funding the agency proposed to dole out for local school districts based on the number of students they enroll. Those funds take up by far the largest chunk of the state’s education spending and pay for bottom-line classroom programs and teacher salaries.
State officials expect to get more detailed rundowns next week from local school districts on how they plan to absorb the cuts. All aspects of their budgets – from personnel costs to contracts to facility rents and more – will be evaluated, officials said Thursday.
“These are incredibly challenging times and everybody’s got a lot of very, very important work to do the best we can for students, administrators and teachers throughout the state of Georgia,” said board Chairman Scott Sweeney.
Jason Downey, also a board member, said he has fielded calls from people worried about extended furloughs and shortened school weeks. He urged the board to communicate clearly with the public as decisions are made in the coming weeks on how the cuts will affect local schools.
“This is like [the 2008 recession] and in many ways could be much worse,” Downey said. “We just need to be sure that everyone is well informed.”

Trailers will be used at Northwest Elementary as building is repaired

Some Northwest Elementary school students will attend classes in trailers this fall as repairs are made to the tornado damaged school. Murray County School Superintendent Steve Loughridge told board of education members at a work session on Thursday that 8-10 trailers (at a rental cost of $350,000) could be utilized while work is completed. The cost of the trailers will be covered by the school’s insurer. Part of the building may be repaired in time to be used at the start of school, Loughridge said …

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Murray schools launch technology upgrade

Murray County school board members on Monday made a $1.9 million commitment to being better prepared for future situations like the COVID-19 pandemic. Board members voted unanimously to purchase 3,800 Chromebooks and 550 touchscreen devices (for young students), as part of a system-wide upgrade of the school system’s technological capabilities. Weaknesses in that system became evident this spring when the COVID-19 outbreak forced the school to utilize “distance learning” techniques …..

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