January 21, 2022 12:00pm

Lawmakers should focus on crime and health care during session

Tax refunds rank last in importance

By Nancy Badertscher
Atlanta, GA Correspondent
 

Georgia’s community leaders want state lawmakers to make fixing health care and fighting crime – not giving tax breaks – the top priorities for this year’s 40-day General Assembly session.

Fewer than one in 10 said an election-year tax break – such as Gov. Brian Kemp is proposing – should be top on lawmakers’ agenda, according to a new Georgia Power Poll.

The survey was taken by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from Jan. 17 to Jan. 20, only days after Kemp revealed a budget plan calling for $1.6 billion in surplus state revenues to go to state-income taxpayers -- $250 for single filers, $500 for joint filers.

More than 130 business, community, and political leaders in Atlanta, Athens, Augusta, Columbus, Macon, and Savannah participated in the survey, which is not scientific and meant solely to provide insight into the thinking of influential leaders.

Survey respondents were asked to pick their top priority for the legislative session, with their choices being a tax cut, improvements to health care infrastructure, better resources for mental health, or a crackdown on crime.

Thirty-eight percent said addressing crime should be lawmakers’ No. 1 priority, while 30% said enhancing health care infrastructure should be the paramount issue of the session, and 14% said it should be improving resources in mental health. Only 8% listed a tax cut as their priority.

Columbus City Councilman Walker Garrett said local leaders need help fighting crime.

“We’ve given all available resources to our local law enforcement and need help at the state and federal levels to get crime under control,” he wrote in an email to Power Poll. “Our crime in Columbus is as high as it’s been since I was a child here.”

Randy Lewis, the managing director at Fitzpatrick & Lewis Public Relations in Atlanta, voiced similar concerns, saying: “Our greatest threat is civil disorder, public safety, and justice.

“We have allowed criminal elements to get a pass and as a result, no one is safe on the streets,” Lewis said. “It’s time for a crackdown that shows little mercy.”

Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said, “COVID has shined a light on the weaknesses and gaps in our public health system.

“Legislators should use some of the historic financial reserves to make strategic investments to improve our healthcare infrastructure so that we can meet Georgians’needs today and into the future,” Graham said.

A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, agreed.

“If anything, Covid has taught us that the State must pay more attention to public health care and mental illness,” Robinson said in an email to Power Poll. “With state coffers awash in cash, there is no better time than right now to begin that work.”

With record tax collections flowing into state coffers, Kemp, who is up for re-election this year, announced on Jan. 13 a series of voter-pleasing proposals to state lawmakers, including the tax refunds and increased spending for education, law enforcement, and health care.

His budget proposal calls for hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending for Medicaid, the health care plan for the poor and disabled.

Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, a regular participant in the monthly poll, said lawmakers must invest in K-12, career training and higher education, health care, and mental health services for every Georgian.

These are must-haves to ensure “a healthy economy into the future of the state… 20, 30, 40, and 50 years from now,” she said. “It is the fierce urgency.”

Community leaders also were asked about the state of U.S. democracy, after the recent anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, as well as the ongoing pandemic.

Fifty-eight percent said they believe that the strength and viability of both the national and state could be at serious risk, given the anger and divisiveness that exists. Another 30% see significant, but not insurmountable challenges, and 12% said they believe fears that the country is edging closer to a meltdown in civic life are overblown.

“If the General Assembly is serious about strengthening democracy and the election system in our state, it will pass legislation that addresses concerns of citizens and elected officials on both the right and the left,” said Paul R. Pierce, artistic director at the historic Springer Opera House Arts Association in downtown Columbus.

Nearly half (48%) of poll respondents said they’re convinced that upping the state’s COVID-19 vaccination rate is still the best way to reduce risk to its citizens in 2022.

The other 52% were equally divided on whether the virus is still a “substantial risk” or whether the nation may have the “upper hand” since omicron appears to be a less deadly variant.

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