The Georgia General Assembly will begin its next two-year term on Monday, Jan. 11, but before that Forsyth County’s legislative delegation, which features five returning and two newly-elected officials, took some time to answer questions from the community.
On Tuesday morning, the Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce hosted the group’s annual pre-legislative meeting, where several topics and proposed legislation for the upcoming session were discussed such as election changes, transportation and the impact of the pandemic on the state budget.
Usually, the event is held as an in-person breakfast, but, like many meetings in 2020, this year’s event was held via a Zoom call due to COVID-19 concerns.
Here are a few of the topics discussed at the event.
Plans for the newcomers
Along with the returning members of Forsyth County’s delegation — state Sens. Greg Dolezal and Steve Gooch and state Reps. Sheri Gilligan, Todd Jones and Wes Cantrell — new state Reps.-elect Will Wade, of District 9, and Lauren McDonald, of District 26, laid out some priorities during the event after being chosen by voters in the general election.
McDonald, who is owner of McDonald & Son Funeral Home and has served as coroner for Forsyth County since 2016 and previously from 2000-12, said he was already anticipating a busy session.
“I look forward to serving in District 26 and representing Forsyth County in the next session,” McDonald said. “It’s going to be a tough one. We’ve been warned … of everything that is going to be placed in front of us from, of course, the budget and the [COVID-19 issues] we’ve been dealing with and, now, election reform will probably be on the front burner for everyone in this Zoom meeting.”
McDonald will take over the seat held by Rep. Marc Morris, who had served since 2017 and announced last year would not be seeking a third term.
Wade, who will fill the District 9 seat previously held by Rep. Kevin Tanner, who was recently named as the sole finalist for Forsyth County Commissioner, said his predecessor left some big shoes to fill and commissioners “could not have picked a better candidate.”
“You know, I’ve got the arduous task of trying to follow after just a workhorse in the state House in Kevin Tanner, and I just want to echo the same congratulations to him his service to Dawson, Forsyth and Lumpkin counties over the last eight years,” Wade said. “I know what he’s done for Forsyth County in the state House, and I look forward to what he’s going to be doing as your next county manager.”
Proposed voting changes
Since the Nov. 3 general election, Georgia’s election process has been the subject of much debate and even lawsuits, and during the meeting, several of the lawmakers said there were already plans to make changes.
District 24 Rep. Sheri Gilligan said the state’s elections had been “a burning concern” for the members of the delegation, who “want to make sure that our elections are always free and fair, and there are so many allegations and speculations that we are not convinced our most recent one was as free and fair as it could have been.”
“One of the things we need to look at is back in 2005 when Georgia went to no-excuse absentee-by-mail, perhaps that’s something we need to scale back and look at and do we really want to continue a no-excuse knowing that we have at least three weeks of early voting in all of our elections so that people can, indeed, get to the polls in person. Even during this time of pandemic, we can get to the polls in person.”
District 27 state Sen. Greg Dolezal said after the election, he was “averaging one email a minute” over voters concerns with the elections and said of the 1.3 million votes cast by mail, only 2,000 were rejected due to signature matches.
“I have seen with my own eyes signatures that do not match, very clearly signatures that do no match where ballots have been sent out in the case where the signature did not match,” Dolezal said. “So, we absolutely have to … understand what we’re dealing with. We have to understand how many signatures should have been rejected, and that then just goes into a process of a provisional ballot being sent, and it does not deny the voter right to vote, but it does require the voter prove who they are.”
Dolezal said, among other proposals, he would also like to see rules put in place requiring local boards of election to give the number of outstanding votes as of election night to avoid having a fluctuating total of votes to be decided.
District 25 state Rep. Todd Jones echoed the comments from Gilligan and Dolezal and added that he would like to see an ID requirement for those voting by-mail, who would have to provide proof of either a paper or electronically uploaded ID.
Jones said he also supported asking for provisional ballots for three groups: those registering from Nov.4 through Dec. 7; those who have requested a permanent address change outside the state; and if a voter’s registration has a business address.
During the meeting, members of the delegation also addressed other issues expected to come up in this year’s session.
Among those issues were planning for the 2022 budget. Jones said while there had been an expectation that taxes would be reduced, that had not been the case.
“As we all know, we cut the budget by about 10% for the fiscal year with the expectation that the receipts were going to suffer due to COVID,” he said. “Knock on wood, that has actually been just the opposite. We have seen actually, receipts up.”
District 51 state Sen. Steve Gooch said “a couple hundred million dollars” of funding had been cut for the transportation budget due to COVID-19 concerns but he felt that money would be restored in next year’s session.
“We have seen a slowdown in traffic that’s probably picked up to about 95% of what we would consider normal, but I think going forward we’re going to have to wait and see what the congestion does.”
District 22 Wes Cantrell, who said this term would be his last due to self-imposed term limits, said he was interested in making term limits a rule for all legislators, wanted to see the terms for state senators be increased to four years to give more space between elections and favored raising the pay for members of the assembly from $17,000 to around $30,000.
“Maybe a little less popular topic, I’ve also drawn up a bill to raise legislator pay because I get what you pay for,” Cantrell said. “I think I’m in a little bit of a unique position to carry that legislation because it won’t go into effect until I’m gone, but I think the legislature is seriously underpaid.”