Thursday, December 23, 2010

Elections of the Future

Will probably continue to look like this.

Continuing with the news I have neglected to link to in this interim period, I want to draw attention to the Elections Advisory Council convened by Secretary of State Brian Kemp.
Baldwin County is lucky to have two representatives, state Representative Rusty Kidd (I-Milledgeville) and Baldwin County Probate Court Judge Todd Blackwell, on this council that is charged with creating cost efficiencies in the state's elections system and improving the system overall.
Georgia's elections system is a mixed bag of efforts to open the ballot box to as many people as possible and throwbacks to the partisan warfare of Georgia's one-party past and present. The Athens Banner Herald editorial board has this to say about some of the opportunities for improvement that they hope the council will consider.
In terms of guaranteeing ballot access, Georgians should watch how much time and effort Kemp and the panel spend in considering current state law for third-party candidates to get on the ballot.
Georgia is widely acknowledged to have one of the most strict ballot access laws in the country. Independent candidates - that is, candidates not running under a major party banner - must obtain the signatures of 5 percent of registered voters in their respective electoral district to get on the ballot when running for local offices, including seats in the state legislature and Congress. Independent candidates seeking statewide offices must obtain the signatures of 1 percent of the state's registered voters.
In some of the state's metropolitan areas, and, obviously, in any statewide race, the signature requirements mean that prospective independent candidates must get thousands of people to sign their petitions to seek office. In those cases, it's fair to see the ballot access laws as a de facto means of keeping third-party candidates off of ballots.
I'm sure Rep. Kidd, who has used that ballot petition in the last two years to send a message to opponents about the number of voters who will be showing up to support him, will have plenty of ideas to share about how we can open the statehouse to Georgians who don't necessarily fit the Republican/Democratic dynamic.
Judge Blackwell's inclusion is a welcome surprise as I've spent much time in his office talking about the ins and outs of election law. He is a great logical thinker, who can objectively explore the many facets of an issue. And most importantly, he knows what he doesn't know and retains the curiosity to explore it.
The image above comes from a photo story I submitted after shadowing Blackwell on Election Day 2008.
To put myself out on a limb, I'd recommend that the council look into the amount of time allocated to early voting. The 45 days of early voting put a significant cost on county governments to employ poll workers for dubious results in bringing people to the polls. I'm not saying that the state should walk away from early voting altogether, but I doubt that the overall turnout numbers would be affected much if early voting was confined to the two weeks before the election.
Despite the obvious opportunities for fraud in the absentee ballot system, it remains as a release valve for engaged voters to cast their ballot despite their scheduling conflicts.
So I look forward to reading the findings of this group and, as others before me, commend Secretary of State Kemp for convening an inclusive commission to consider the future of Democracy's most solemn responsibilities.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Washington Ethics Group Names Deal to Top 10

Blake Aued of the Athens Banner-Herald would like to remind everyone that there was some shady stuff going on before Governor-elect Nathan Deal resigned his seat in Congress.
Why He Do That?
Read the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington's Top 10 Ethics Scandals 2010 report here.

Monday, December 20, 2010

You don't see these to often in the blogosphere

I've been a little late on everything recently, but I thought this was worth highlighting.
I especially like how they changed the identifying information from the first entry.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"If they want to get paid, they shouldn't commit crimes."

It seems like common sense. But somehow, state Senator Johnny Grant (R-Milledgeville) has created a stir over statements he made concerning a strike by inmates in several state prisons over conditions in the state prisons and the state's practice of not paying prisoners for their labor.

Commenting in his role as Senate State Institutions and Properties Chair, Grant told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that he's not about to change the state's practice of not paying the majority of prisoners who provide labor to Georgia counties and municipalities and who toil away in the Correctional Industries program.
"If they want to get paid, they shouldn't commit crimes," said state Sen. Johnny Grant, R-Milledgeville, chairman of the Senate Institutions and Property Committee, which oversees prisons.

Besides, he said, "If we started paying inmates, we'd also start charging them for room and board, as well. They ought to be careful what they ask for."

Georgia is no stranger to trouble in its penal system. Prison Historian Larry R. Findlay Sr. writes in "History of the Georgia Prison System" that Georgia's Department of Corrections has often been a venue for moral questions about the treatment of prisoners.

Governor John Milledge first lobbied the General Assembly to establish a penitentiary system "to soften the penal code in use at that time,"which drew heavily form the English system of penal law wherein "branding, pillory, and stocks, in addition to imprisonment and execution were used."

By 1820, the state's penitentiary system was in debt. The General Assembly abolished the system eleven years later in 1831, re-instating the punitive practices of the past and returning many prisoners to the counties they where they were convicted. But the state couldn't abdicate its responsibilities for long and the legislature re-established it the penitentiary system by the next year.

In 1866 the General Assembly laid the infrastructure to take its prison system from a money pit to a money maker.
In December 1866, the legislature passed an Act to regulate the management of the penitentiary and to provide for the inferior courts of each county to hire out offenders to contractors engaged in such repair work [for the penitentiary, itself, at the time]. No lease was to be made which did not relive the state of all expenses during the term of the lease, and no lease was to be made longer than five years. This is the Act that led to the Georgia chain gang.

By operating the Convict Lease System,in which male and female prisoners were leased to individuals or companies for hard labor details such as railroad construction, Georgia's Penitentiary emptied its prison buildings and began turning a profit.

As you can imagine, its hard to keep the state government from going hog wild with any program that it is making money on. Findlay writes that by 1870, there were no more convicts in the penitentiaries and the state discharged all corrections employees the next year. Six years later, the program had become so engrained into the system that the state was able to lease all its prisoners "to three companies for twenty years for a total of $500,000."

Now this is a privatization plan that many legislators will wish they had access to as budget negotiations begin this session.

But public opinion was turning against the Convict Lease System, and Findlay describes 1890 as the beginning of a decade marked by "public outcries over brutalities suffered by the convicts under the lease program." Newspapers including the Macon Telegraph, Atlanta Georgian and the Columbus Enquirer-Sun rallied the people against the system of leasing convicts to private companies.

The legislature ended the Convict Lease System in 1908 by passing an act "to provide that misdemeanor convicts could work on public roads under state or county supervision. In no case, were they to be placed under the control of private parties. Female convicts were sentenced to the female prison instead of the chain gang."

More than 100 years later, the Atlanta Journal Constitution and New York Times are reporting a complex network of prisoner groups that are "not known to cooperate," organized via contraband cell phones, word-of-mouth and the help of family members and prisoner advocates.

These prisoners' story is an interesting study in networking and promotion. No one can doubt that they undertook this large task of organizing these disparate factions because they are upset about the conditions in the prisons. Those same kind of conditions that led the federal government to intervene in the administration of Georgia State Prison in Reidsville in the 1970s and '80s when 52 prisoners at filed a class action lawsuit over the issues of overcrowding, racial segregation, violence and intimidation on behalf of the guards

No one can doubt that the effects of the economic recession have been particularly harsh on those Georgians who have been shoe-horned into a smaller and smaller DOC footprint.

The Times reports that these strikes began in earnest when the department banned cigarettes earlier this year. And the organizers say they will be ready to unleash another wave of protests, which may not be as peaceful, if their demands are not met.

I hope that prison and state officials will work diligently to find some kind of compromise with the men and women in their charge. Georgia's prison guards' jobs are hard enough, we don't need to be putting them directly into a hostile situation after we've asked them to sacrifice so much already. Access to better healthcare and more educational opportunities are something that can expand jobs for Georgians who don't need to go to jail to find a job. But I don't believe there are many Georgians who are going to get behind a plan to begin paying inmates.

We've come a long way since the beginning of the penitentiary system in Milledgeville, but we haven't come that far yet.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Need for Improvement: Mental Health Ombudsman's Year One Report

Former AJC writer and current Georgia Health News CEOAndy Miller brings us the story that's being missed amidst all the press coverage of the settlement agreement between the US Department of Justice and the State of Georgia concerning the treatment of persons in its mental health system. An interim report summarizing Georgia's Disability Services Ombudsman Jewel Norman's first year on the job cites the need to improve clients' access to timely care and concern over the continually growing role of Law Enforcement in the lives of many Georgians who are living with mental illness. Miller writes that despite the high profile of the settlement between Georgia and the Feds, there are many issues that need addressing in the state's network of mental health service providers:
A little-noticed state report says an independent review team found poor medical care in the deaths of 23 patients at Georgia’s mental hospitals during the past fiscal year.

The report, from Georgia’s disabilities services ombudsman, also shows that the state’s mental health system remains plagued by other major problems, despite more than a year of scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Justice. Many patients still sit for hours in general hospitals’ emergency rooms, waiting for mental health treatment. And jails across the state still house a high percentage of people with psychiatric illnesses, the report adds.

Still, the state ombudsman who produced the report, Jewel Norman, said she sees improvement in the seven state-run psychiatric hospitals.

The report, itself, addresses the critical issue that there are not adequate resources throughout the state to assist people when they are experiencing a mental health emergency:
Georgia law requires the sheriff’s department of each county to transport mentally ill persons who are a danger to themselves or others to an emergency receiving facility. State policy requires medical clearance before any state hospital or Community Services Board Crisis Stabilization Program (CSP) can accept such a transfer. Most of the time the closest destination to achieve the required medical clearance is a general hospital emergency room (ER)...

In a late spring meeting of the Psychiatric Council of the Georgia Hospital Association, the Ombudsman discovered that many people with mental illness were experiencing excessive periods of waiting in the emergency rooms after medical clearance...

The average wait time for these patients, many of whom were experiencing an acute episode of their illness, was 36 hours... The average time for those persons exceeding the 36-hour mean time was 64 hours or 2.67 days.

These long wait times do more than put Georgians living with mental illness at risk, they have a multiplier effect on society as they tie up vital law enforcement, emergency medical services and hospital resources while these placements are being made. And then there is the worst-case scenario--an unfortunate societal situation that happens far too often in Georgia and elsewhere around the world--in which mental health consumers are adjudicated and incarcerated until a suitable placement can be made in a state forensic unit .
Preliminary data suggests that the corrections system, both local jails and our state prisons have become major providers of mental health services. For example, the Chatham County Sheriff provides data that, on any given day, he has between 200 and 250 people with mental illness in his jail. The Augusta Chronicle, in a July 11, 2010 article reported by Sandy Hodson, stated, “184 men and women who have been deemed mentally incapable of standing trial are locked in jails for weeks and months because there isn’t enough room in the state’s seven mental health hospitals [Forensic Units].” "That's what jails have turned into -- mental hospitals," said Richmond County Sheriff's Maj. Gene Johnson, who oversees the county's overcrowded jail. The Georgia Department of Corrections reports that 15.6 percent of the inmate population is receiving mental health services.

The settlement agreement with the federal government is forcing Georgia to make revolutionary changes to the way people receive treatment in the state's mental health system. In order to realize those anticipated outcomes, Georgia will have to conquer some of the most challenging sets of circumstances seen in the history of the treatment of mental illness. The Justice Department is requiring Georgia to allot the resources necessary to meet the federal government's benchmark of providing care in the most integrated setting appropriate to an individuals’ needs, but it will take the dedication of the Governor-elect, the entire General Assembly, many departments of state government and the people of the State of Georgia to decisively bring an end to this sad chapter in the state's history.

Friday, December 10, 2010

House Party Jumpers Already Moving Up the Ladder

AJC's Election's Central is reporting that Governor-elect Nathan Deal's House Floor leaders will include newly-minted Valdosta Republican Amy Carter.

**It looks like the General Assembly's Webmasters have been hard at work updating the legislature's website as Carter's bio reflects her recent decision to caucus with the Republican Party.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Rusty: I'm just Me

As the tally in the balance of power continues to correct itself in the run up to the 2011 session, Baldwin County’s Caucus of One says the 2010 election, and its aftermath, have changed little in Georgia politics.
“It doesn’t matter if I’m a Republican or a Democrat, if I can’t produce, people will elect someone else,” the state House’s loan Independent Rusty Kidd (Milledgeville) said about his campaigning season. “’It doesn’t matter what you call yourself, as long as you can bring something home for me.’”
Talking on the day news broke that Minority Caucus Chair Doug McKillip (Athens) was the sixth Democratic Representative to quit the party and caucus with Republicans, Kidd said legislators are joining the majority on the other side of the aisle to remain relevant in the modern era.
“Politics are going to be controlled by the Republicans, so [these Democrats] feel they need to be Republicans to play the game,” he said. “Republicans don’t just own the bat and the ball, they own the whole club.”
But Kidd says his years under the Gold Dome, both as a lobbyist and a one-year incumbent returning for his first full term in office, have afforded him the ability to transcend the partisan jockeying and be a vote to win or lose on any piece of legislation.
“I’ve been building good relationships with Republicans and Democrats for 20 years,” he said. “They just look at me as Rusty, I’m not cast out by the R or the D behind my name.”

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A holistic approach to government

"I personally moved to a diet based heavily on fruits and vegetables on the advice of my doctor and have seen firsthand how proper diet can lower cholesterol, which has been a serious problem in my family for generations."

State Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock) to the AJC about the decision that led him to seek work as a lobbyist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Democratic hemorrhaging continues under Gold Dome

AJC's Political Insider writes that state Rep. Doug McKillip, the House Democratic Caucus Chair from Athens, announced that he will now caucus with the Republicans.
As the Athens Banner-Herald's Blake Aued notes in the post, Republicans now enjoy a 114-66 advantage in the legislature's Lower Chamber, six votes away from the coveted Super Majority that will make House Republicans unstoppable.
“As an independent-minded Republican, I can accomplish a great deal for my constituents and my city,” [McKillip told the ABH].

Details Emerging on Tax Commission Strategy

“Republican rhetoric has a great opportunity to be put into practice,” Deal said. “We believe in smaller government and less spending. Guess what? We got lower revenue, there’s going to be smaller spending. And when you have less spending, you’re going to have smaller government. Those are the realities of the world in which we live.”

The Associated Press has the details of Governor-elect Nathan Deal's trip to speak to the Georgia Farm Bureau Convention at Jekyll Island and what he had to say about the soon-to-be-released findings of the General Assembly's special Tax Commission. And let me tell you, he's not talking about tax increases.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Rep. Tony Sellier

Former Telegrapher and Lucid Idiocy blogger Travis Fain is reporting that state Rep. Tony Sellier (R-Fort Valley) died last night.

Senate Appropriations Chair Allocates time to local business leaders

The Georgia Senate’s Chief Budget Writer told area business leaders to prepare for another hardscrabble session under the Gold Dome in 2011.
State Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Jack Hill (R-Reidsville) told an audience at Georgia College & State University’s monthly Executive Forum that rising revenues may not be enough to subdue a double whammy of dwindling shortfall reserves and disappearing stimulus dollars in the state’s 2012 budget.
Reading notes from a presentation he delivered last week to incoming freshman in the General Assembly’s Upper Chamber, Hill said state budget writers will be faced with the same challenges as last session, but fewer options once the state deplete its revenue shortfall reserve and allocates its last federal stimulus dollar to pay the $17 billion it will take to run the State of Georg ia through Fiscal Year 2011.
“Our spending has gone down,” Hill said. “But not as much as our revenues have gone down.”
Despite US Census Bureau statistics that show Georgia’s population growing 20 percent over the last decade, Hill said legislators will struggle to fund state government at FY2005 levels at a time when the state employs 2.3 percent fewer people than it did in 2000.
Growth in local school systems, the Board of Regents, the Technical College System of Georgia and the state’s Medicaid obligations may exceed revenue growth, Hill said.
In light of that potential reality, Hill said Governor Perdue is asking state agencies to submit the same worst, worster and worstest budget scenarios this year as pessimists predict a possible $1.3 billion deficit in FY2012.
Hill advised the audience to think earnestly about the hard choices elected officials will have to make this coming year and help their legislators decide on paths that will help Georgia meet its long term goals.
The former Senate Higher Education Committee Chair talked about the one-sided view of lottery-funded HOPE scholarships for students attending public state universities and asked the audience to think twice before defunding what might possibly be one of the “best things the state has ever done.”
In keeping with the dire predictions Hill provided the audience, he made no grand promises for the legislature’s Tax Commission, which is tasked with re-imagining Georgia’s outdated tax code saying he was not sure legislators could muster the political fortitude to pass meaningful reform, such as reinstituting the state’s penny sales tax on groceries.
But on an upbeat, Hill had great things to say about state Senator Johnny Grant (R-Milledgeville). Grant, who was seated in the audience reacted to Hill’s platitudes by jokingly asking him if he would like the check now or later.