Cobb GOP lawmakers on schools, crime, and court clerk changes

Jan. 7—MARIETTA — With the legislative session days away, four of Cobb County's Republican lawmakers dropped by the MDJ this week to offer a preview into what may come to pass at the Gold Dome this year.

State Reps. Devan Seabaugh, R-Marietta; Ginny Ehrhart, R-west Cobb; John Carson, R-northeast Cobb; and state Sen.-elect Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, joined for a wide-ranging discussion on what's in store.

That discussion included talk on crime, transit, education, and more.

'Divisive concepts'Schools were front and center in last year's legislative session, with GOP lawmakers honing in on the classroom as a cultural and political background. They included such controversial measures as bans on so-called "divisive concepts" being taught, and allowing the Georgia High School Association to bar transgender girls from competing in girls' sports.

Setzler said he stood by last year's legislation, dismissing the contention that the intent behind the bills was controversial at all.

"I'll allow allow the critics of (the transgender sports bill) to make the case why they think males playing in girls sports should be the norm. I'll allow them to make their case," he said. "How is it a divisive concept to say that males play against males, and females play against females? That's common sense. The framing of that, the premise that's a controversial bill only exists in the minds of (opponents)."

Setzler also referred to House Bill 1178, dubbed by lawmakers the "Parents' Bill of Rights," which enshrines parents' access to classroom instructional materials.

"From a transparency perspective, we had a bill last year that if a book was on the shelf of our high schools, or elementary schools, the public ought to be able to see it. That was fought viciously. I had people come to my office ... and say, we can't let the public see the books that are on the shelves in our high schools," he said.

Added Ehrhart, "The premise here (is) that it's somehow burdensome for the school districts to post this information or to make this information publicly available. The truth of the matter is, it reveals too much.

"It reveals that what you're talking about here is an educational approach based on social constructs, that have absolutely nothing to do with what our main objective should be, which is preparing our school children to take their place in a 21st century workforce," she said.

Carson predicted Democrats would try and turn back some of last year's bills, but doesn't expect those efforts to get very far.

"This goes back to the old adage that you know in media, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Well, the same goes for our schools," Carson said.

And Setzler took objection to the notion that a bill about "radical transparency" was really an effort at "book burning."

"Let's not focus on taking books off the shelf. Let's expose every book that's on the shelf to anybody who wants to see it, full stop. That's the direction Georgia took ... What Georgia did was to say, let's just turn the lights on every book, and when all the lights were simply turned on, and you saw the vicious opposition to that, it should tell a member of the public all they need to know."

Ehrhart, meanwhile, said she may reintroduce previous legislation which would make it a crime for doctors to aid in the gender transition of a child.

"There's been a lot of push for me to drop that bill again with a few tweaks and revisions. There's still time to do that. I know that there is a far greater appetite for that bill now than there was two years ago," Ehrhart said.

Learning loss and KSU

In the aftermath of the pandemic, a litany of metrics show Georgia students are suffering from significant learning loss. Student performance, simply put, has taken a major hit.

"I read a report just this morning that they're saying that the lifetime financial loss to these students that are ... graduating now — because of the education loss that you're talking about — it's somewhere in the neighborhood of $70,000," Ehrhart said. "That's a translation of what they lost, in terms of their education to their actual earning power as they enter into the workforce. It's real, and it's pervasive, and it's problematic," she added, suggesting federal relief funds should be deployed as quickly as possible.

Ehrhart continued, "I spoke to an educational expert this morning who said it's not just about returning our school systems to exactly where they were in March of 2020. We've got to do far more than that. We've got to make up for lost time, not just going back to where we were."

Carson said input on how to right the ship needs to come from the bottom up.

"I want to hear from educators — what do they need to get our kids back to where they need to be, with reading, and writing, and arithmetic? Not indoctrination, but real core skills. Just tell us what you need, whether it be parapros, whether it be more classroom time, whatever they need," he said. "...Give them the power to succeed, as opposed to a solution that comes from the second floor or third floor or fourth floor at the Capitol. Let's ask the teachers."

Marietta City Schools Superintendent Grant Rivera told lawmakers last month he wants Georgia to institute a statewide dyslexia screener.

Asked whether lawmakers would be supportive of that, Setzler said, "Our state passed — I think three years ago — we recognize dyslexia for the first time ever in public education and began to work on that ... I think the legislature's shown a willingness to do that in the past, and I think that will continue."

Carson, meanwhile, plans to support a $41.2 million ask from Kennesaw State University to fund construction of a new STEM research center and instructional building at KSU's Marietta campus. Funding would likely be placed in the 2023-24 budget.

"We have more work to do to get Kennesaw to where it needs to be ... Getting it down to kitchen table issues, some of these kids are taking classes till 10:30 at night, going to class at 7:30 in the morning. Why? Because there's not enough space," he said.

Carson added, "If you take a look at ... space per student, Kennesaw — even though it's one of the largest universities — it's by far the lowest."

Elections

Setzler said some changes may be incoming to update and amend Senate Bill 202, Republicans' controversial elections bill which passed in 2021. One area he highlighted was a program instituted in Cobb (dubbed "Last Call") which allowed voters to return their absentee ballots to libraries in the final days before Election Day.

"We're going to deputize librarians as election officials," Setzler said of the county's position. "So we may only have seven drop boxes in Cobb County, but every library has an election official. .... So we're going to break the bonds of this bill that's trying to achieve fairness, and we are going to allow every library a drop point, because the concept of fair and equal access that other counties recognized wasn't good enough for many metro counties.

"...If you study the statute, I think the counties were ingenious in exploiting that. The goal was fairness. The county is wanting to create an advantage for themselves, and they did it. I don't think that will happen again," Setzler said.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, meanwhile, has called for Georgia to end its practice of holding runoff elections when a candidate fails to secure more than 50% of the vote. Asked whether the legislature plans to support that, Setzler said, "Watch the process."

Transit and Transport

Seabaugh, who serves on the House Transportation Committee, said that body will have a number of tasks on its plate like supporting infrastructure for freight and logistics. He also cited measures to help build out electric vehicle infrastructure like charging stations.

"That will be, I think, a big discussion this session, and then the local maintenance and improvement grant funding, which is funded by the fuel tax," which was suspended for most of 2022, Seabaugh said. He expects a portion of the state's multi-billion dollar surplus to be used to close that budget hole.

"We need that (fuel tax), that's important to Cobb County," he added.

Cobb, meanwhile, is gearing up for a potential sales tax referendum in 2024 to fund mass transit expansion.

"I think it's worth discussing," said Seabaugh, but added, "I think I personally would have a hard time as a voter."

Carson echoed that sentiment.

"What I hear from constituents is, would it cost me any money with the 30-year sales tax? Yes, it would. Would it help my commute? Because even if there's buses, I'm still going to drive," Carson said. "That's what I hear from my precincts ... We need to be extremely careful about planning out 30-year projects for mass transit. I'm open to the conversation, but we need to be extremely careful."

Setzler was less charitable.

"The need is interconnectedness across the county. Transit is a profound waste of money in Cobb County as (Chairwoman Lisa) Cupid's proposing it — full stop. It is transportation nonsense. It's supported by a development community, perhaps, some that want to create a real estate play around it, but it doesn't serve the needs of Cobb's citizens. The face of need in Cobb County is not fixed guideway transit," he said.

Setzler later added, "What you see is, you see an activist Democratic Party — with Chairman Cupid as their mouthpiece — that wants a one penny sales tax because a one penny sales tax for transit is the progressive thing to do. And they haven't figured out what they want to spend it on, because there's no viable projects on which to spend it."

Tort reform

Georgia's business community has long lobbied for the legislature to curb the power of plaintiffs and juries to sue for hefty awards. Proponents of "tort reform" say curbing liabilities will help curb rising insurance premiums, while opponents say it shields businesses and insurance companies from legal responsibility.

Carson said he's been involved in "a number of conversations in regard to premises liability — the gross interpretation of who was at fault, and how much liability for which they are at fault.

"Those are ongoing conversations. I'd like us to do something there for sure," he added. "The trial lawyers have a voice down at the Capitol. But you know, so does ... the Cobb Chamber, the Georgia Chamber, and in our smaller business associations, because everybody's hurting from this whether they know it or not. Even if they're not sued, they're paying mortgage insurance premiums and what have you. People do deserve their time in court. I completely agree with that, but there's more work to be done there."

Crime

Legislators said they expect to see an increased emphasis on crime this session, which was a major talking point of Gov. Brian Kemp in his successful bid for reelection.

Ehrhart said one of Kemp's priorities will be "legislation that will further ... the power of the attorney general to prosecute gang-related crime in the state, in order to beef it up. And I think there's an incredible opportunity that we have in this next session. I suspect we'll be seeing legislation that will do that.

"I think it's very poignant when you realize that 50% of all crime in Georgia has a gang-related connection," she added. "That's very, very compelling. And if you think it's only happening in downtown, think again. There's been some suspected gaming activity in Oregon Park off of Dallas road, so it's getting closer and closer to home."

Ehrhart and Setzler both pointed to allegedly lax prosecutors as part of the problem.

"I've been a little bit of a vocal critic of some of the mentality towards crime prosecution right here in Cobb. We have some issues, we have some complacency I think, when it comes to prosecuting," Ehrhart said.

Said Setzler, "We have zero power to do anything as legislators unless the prosecutors bring prosecutions, unless prosecutors bring cases — and it's interesting. When you step back outside of Cobb County you take it nationally. Where's George Soros pushed a disproportionate amount of his money? It's electing prosecutors across the country.

"...Criminals wouldn't come into Cobb County in the past, because they knew Cobb County was going to bring the heat if they broke the law. They said well, we'll just pillage Clayton, Fulton and DeKalb counties, and they got away with it because they had prosecutors that let it happen. They brought cases, people got convicted there. But they knew that Cobb County would pursue those things aggressively on the investigation side, and then when they're caught, on the prosecution side," Setzler added.

He added that Republicans are weighing whether "we need to give the attorney general the ability to prosecute cases that are not being prosecuted today."

Carson alleged the two parties are operating on wildly different assumptions about crime.

"We are also dealing with a political divide, where we're about law and order and enforcement of those laws and that order. The other side says, well, if you give us affordable housing, you won't have this problem. If you give us equity, we won't have this problem. If you give us this, if you give us this, we won't have that problem. No — the laws are for everyone," he said.

"The prior sheriff's office — before the current one — personally told me that there is a gang presence in every single Cobb County high school," Carson added. "Your readers need to know, even if they buy an $800,000 house off of Paper Mill (Road), and your kids go to Walton ... or they bought a really nice house next to Pope, there is a gang presence in every single high school."

Passport fees

Late last year, it came to light that Cobb Superior Court Clerk Connie Taylor has been profiting immensely off her position through her office's collections of passport fees. Taylor, as previously reported, has received about $425,000 in supplemental income since taking office in 2020 (on top of her annual salary of about $170,000).

(Taylor is also facing a Georgia Bureau of Investigation probe connected to her fee receipts, opened after a whistleblower alleged she was ordered by Taylor to destroy records of the income.)

Most of the fee receipts are allowed under Georgia law, which permits court clerks performing federal work to personally retain any fees collected in the course of their duties.

Cobb's GOP lawmakers were quick to say they plan to close that loophole this session. Ehrhart said state Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, R-east Cobb, is working on a bill to at the least, limit the practice.

"It's so interesting, because in this case, this particular clerk was — it's not like she was processing these applications herself, right? She was utilizing county resources, county employees, county supplies to process these, and reaping the benefit of the fees," Ehrhart said. "This will not be the first time that a problem or an issue like this has sort of flown under the radar, and it takes a situation like this where someone really does take it too far, and abuse it, before people wake up and notice. I see this as being fixed," she said.

Kirkpatrick previously told the MDJ she's going to start from legislation that would eliminate the personal income for clerks entirely. The funds could either be directed to their offices or back to the county.

"The legislative sausage-making process is an adventure, and a lot can happen to things as they go through the process, but you've got to start somewhere," Kirkpatrick said. "...I do think that there will be a robust conversation about it, and whether it changes as it goes through committee, it probably will. Things always change as they go through committee. But I'm optimistic that we'll be able to make some progress on getting this issue fixed this year."

Pet projects

The MDJ asked each legislator what their pet projects will be for the upcoming session.

Ehrhart said she's working on "a little adoption legislation about some issues that came to my attention (from) a constituent. He's having some issues with adoption as relates to foreign adoptions."

She's also taking a look at school accreditation practices in Georgia (for more details on that, see Saturday's Around Town column).

Seabaugh plans to work on a number of transportation issues like building out Georgia's electric vehicle infrastructure and filling the budget hole created by the suspension of the state gas tax.

Other priorities, he said, will include attracting post-production business to support Georgia's film industry, beefing up the state's healthcare workforce, and continuing to roll out 2022's Mental Health Parity Act.

Setzler simply said "a number of issues, but smaller kind of housekeeping things that are real important to people."