Civil asset forfeiture – which is defined as law enforcement’s authority to seize private property on the suspicion of a crime — has landed on the Georgia State Capitol doorstep. This week the Georgia Public Policy Foundation called for a rewrite of the state’s asset forfeiture laws to protect citizens whose property was seized even though they are charged with no crime.
“This issue is more of a threat to private property in Georgia than any other issue,” said GPPF President Kelly McCutchen. “When you have an innocent owner who has done nothing wrong, hasn’t been convicted of a crime, has not been accused of a crime, and their own government seizes property without compensation, and they have to sue to get their property back, that should not occur in the United States of America and it should not occur in Georgia.”
The Foundation is joined by the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based public interest law firm that focuses on civil asset forfeiture laws. Last March the Institute sued Atlanta and Fulton County to force compliance with state laws that require civil asset seizures disclosure. The city and county relented and agreed to comply with a court order to submit past and future forfeiture reports.
Institute for Justice legislative counsel Lee McGrath joined McCutchen at the State Capitol, as did Southern Center for Human Rights Executive Director Sara Totonchi and NAACP Coffee County, Georgia chapter President Larry NeSmith. McGrath outlined the findings from the Institute’s March, 2011 study that reported on Georgia asset seizures over nearly 20 years.
“Georgia has some of the worst forfeiture laws in the country,” McGrath said. “You can lose your property without ever being accused of a crime, never mind being convicted.” Last year the Institute graded Georgia “D-,“ one of the four lowest grades in a 50-state national ranking.
“Worse, Georgia law enforcement agencies get to keep up to 100 percent of the proceeds of property they seize,” McGrath said. “We are here today to call on the Georgia state legislature to reform these laws, to respect property and to put into place restrictions on the power of law enforcement to seize property and to profit from forfeiture laws.”
The Institute’s March, 2011, Georgia report “Forfeiting Accountability” said: “Civil forfeiture is the power of law enforcement to seize cash, cars, homes and other property on the mere suspicion of criminal activity. Unlike criminal forfeiture, the owner need not be convicted to lose property. Indeed, a key problem with Georgia’s law is that it forces owners to prove their innocence to get their property back, effectively treating people caught up in forfeiture proceedings as guilty until proven innocent.”
The Foundation and Institute proposed a three-tier rewrite of Georgia asset forfeiture law. First, eliminate civil asset forfeiture and replace it with just criminal asset forfeiture. “No one convicted of a crime should keep the ill-gotten gains from that activity but the government should have the burden of convicting you first before you lose final title to your property,” McGrath said.
Second, cash proceeds from asset forfeiture sales should be transferred to the state general fund, rather than be retained inside the budgets of local law enforcement agencies.
Third, the legislature should ensure innocent owners will have their personal property returned to them in a short period of time. The Institute has documented numerous Georgia cases in which cash or real property was seized from individuals who had to file costly lawsuits to regain their property. The value of those seizures was a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars.
Proceeds from asset forfeiture sales are significant. The Institute 2011 report said, “The most recent statistics show that Georgia’s police and prosecutors share in more than $50 million in forfeiture proceeds a year. This is made up of forfeitures conducted under state law that were reported at $38 million and forfeitures conducted under federal law that average more than $14 million annually between 2000 and 2008.”
Sara Totonchi of the Southern Center for Human Rights said, “The overreach of our civil forfeiture laws invade the lives of Georgians who might just simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many of these individuals do not have the resources or the knowledge they need to regain what is rightfully theirs.”
Larry NeSmith of the NAACP Coffee County, Georgia chapter said, “Civil forfeiture procedures are so rigged in favor of the state that even innocent people weigh the costs and risks of trying to get back their property. The public overwhelmingly supports civil forfeiture reform. It is time for Georgia’s politicians to end the abuse of property rights by enacting sweeping reforms.”
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
Georgia is no longer among the Forbes Magazine top ten best states for doing business.
Forbes released its sixth annual Best States for Business and Careers rankings on Tuesday, a couple days before Thanksgiving. Georgia not only fell off the magazine’s top ten list — the state was eighth last year — but Georgia also slipped further behind three other southern states. Virginia and North Carolina again finished second and third and Texas improved from seventh to sixth.
This has apparently been some kind of economic bad luck week for Georgia.
The Forbes magazine demotion comes one day after Delta Air Lines said it will end direct service from Atlanta to several international cities next year – including Athens, Greece; Copenhagen, Denmark; Moscow; Prague, Czech Republic; Shanghai, China; and Tel Aviv, Israel.
Delta cited low demand among reasons for the decision. High fuel costs and an overall decline in international travel caused by the uncertain economy were likely contributors. Atlanta is scheduled to open a new international terminal next year. It’s never a good branding image when the world’s largest airline starts to cancel scheduled service from its hometown airport.
Forbes ranked all 50 states in six categories. Georgia suffered from a seemingly Jekyll and Hyde report card. On the positive ledger, the magazine ranked the state third nationally in regulatory environment, fourth in labor supply and seventh in growth prospects.
But Forbes ranked Georgia way down in three categories, 31st in business costs, 36th in quality of life, and 46th in economic climate. Ohio, Michigan, Rhode Island and Nevada were the only states judged by the magazine to have a worse economic climate. This cannot be good news for Georgia because the state continually markets itself as a great destination for doing business. It invests a lot of human and financial capital in the recruitment of national and international businesses.
Utah won the crown. Forbes wrote, “Utah repeats this year as Forbes Best State for Business and Careers in our sixth annual look at the business climates of the 50 states. No state can match the consistent performance of Utah. It is the only state that ranks among the top 15 states in each of the six main categories…”
Southern states generally placed in the middle or below on the 2011 Forbes’ best business report card. Tennessee placed 21st, Florida 24th, Kentucky 25th, South Carolina 28th, Arkansas 29th, Louisiana 30th and Alabama 37th. Mississippi placed 46th, continuing its performance near the bottom of nearly every list that measures anything.
Forbes used a photograph of the Coca Cola museum near Underground Atlanta to illustrate Georgia. That site closed several years ago when the world famous soft drink colossus opened its new World of Coca Cola attraction at Centennial Park near CNN Center and the Georgia Aquarium.
Forbes has not been kind lately to the Peach State. Last month the magazine ranked Atlanta as just the 44th best city nationally for working moms. That study evaluated earnings potential, cost of childcare, cost of living and several other factors.
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
Georgia is ready to put unemployed probationers to work picking and packing crops.
Governor Nathan Deal announced state agriculture, corrections and labor officials will combine efforts to identify unemployed probationers who can work on farms that are trying to harvest crops quickly, especially in South Georgia where blistering 100-degee heat accelerated the growing cycle.
Agriculture commissioner Gary Black said preliminary coordination began last week and small numbers of probationers “could be on the farm as early as this week. This is a free market suggestion,” Black said. “It won’t work for everybody and not every producer would want it, but what if it does work for some? We owe it to the producers and the taxpayers to take a look.”
State agriculture officials estimate Georgia farmers need about 11,000 manual laborers right now to replace missing migrant workers. Some blame the labor shortage on one of the nation’s strictest anti-illegal immigrant laws that was enacted this spring by the Legislature.
“The agriculture industry is the number one economic engine in Georgia and it is my sincere hope to find viable and law abiding solutions to the current problem our farmers face,” Deal said. The governor’s office estimated 2,000 probationers could work on southwest Georgia farms.
Agriculture commissioner Black said, “One way or another (these jobs) are going to be pretty hot. The jobs that were reported to us, they certainly represented harvesting and packing.” This year the state labor department has tracked 14,918 open agricultural jobs, but just 1,756 hires.
Agriculture is the state’s $69 billion per year cash cow (no apology for the pun!). Georgia ranks between first and tenth nationally in 22 products, including first in broiler chickens, peanuts and pecans, second in cotton and onions, third in peppers and cantaloupes, and fourth in peaches.
Sustaining that level of agricultural production requires thousands of seasonal workers, but many were apparently intimidated by Georgia House Bill 87. Arizona, Georgia and Alabama have enacted anti-illegal immigrant legislation as a rebuke to Washington’s failure to reform.
“Those who claim this bill will have a negative financial impact on Georgia completely ignore the billions of dollars Georgians have spent on our schools, our hospitals, our courtrooms and our jails because of people who are in our state illegally,” Deal said when he signed the legislation last month. “Illegal immigration is a complex and troublesome issue, and no state alone can fix it. We will continue to have a broken system until we have a federal solution. In the meantime, states must act to defend the taxpayers.”
The Georgia Agribusiness Council lobbied against House Bill 87, and the Council was quick to survey industry leaders when it appeared there would be a labor shortage. Council President Bryan Tolar told the Foundation that the industry needs 40,000-to-45,000 workers, “but not all at one time because crops mature at different points during the growing season.”
Georgia is approaching the end of the Vidalia onion and blueberry seasons. Blackberries, sweet corn, watermelon and cantaloupe are becoming mature now. Later this summer farmers will harvest bell peppers, cucumbers and squash. Then this fall, it will be peanuts and cotton.
The state also ranks seventh nationally in eggs and 25th in milk production. “Poultry will be fine,” Tolar said, largely because of automation. “Folks who process the birds aren’t seeing a mass exodus. The dairy industry is very concerned. Those are year-round jobs. The (dairy cow) has to be milked every day.”
Tolar said Georgia farms have plenty of experience with employees who crossed over the line into the corrections system. “It is not about your background. Are you able to work? Are you willing to do the work? Do you have the papers that say you are legally here to do the work?”
Nobody said this Tuesday, but if this new idea succeeds, Georgia might be onto something that could help ease misery being felt every day by the state’s one-quarter million long-term unemployed. A successful agriculture industry experiment could lead to other innovative ideas.
“We’ve got to seek creative solutions,” Black said about putting probationers to work on farms, “but the federal government has to act on streamlining a guest worker program that is applicable to all producers. That’s got to happen. We cannot let up on our call for federal officials to act.”
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
Moments after Nathan Deal became the 82nd Governor of Georgia on Monday afternoon he predicted a more limited government that perhaps chooses different missions by vowing, “We must justify every cent that government extracts from our society.”
Deal’s inaugural address was predictably short on program specifics. Those begin to come this week when the governor delivers his State of the State address and releases his first proposed budget, both on Wednesday. His address focused on statewide unemployment, corrections system reform, education, the HOPE scholarship, transportation, water and health care.
“The lingering pain of this great recession in which we are still engulfed has underscored the urgency of re-examining the role of government in our lives,” said Deal, who served nine terms in Congress. “The evolution of society has infringed on much of the elbow room that our ancestors enjoyed, and government has been asked to regulate our actions as we bump into each other in our frantic search for success.
“In times of economic prosperity we often ignore the costs and inconvenience of governmental paternalism. But in times such as these with more than one of every ten of our employable citizens out of work we must justify every cent that government extracts from our economy.”
Deal said one-in-13 Georgians is under correctional control, meaning in custody, on probation or on parole, and he said it costs $3 million per day to operate the Department of Corrections. “Yet every day criminals continue to inflict violence on our citizens and an alarming number of the perpetrators are juveniles,” the governor said.
“College students should be concerned about their grades, not whether they are going to be mugged on their way home from class. Visitors to our cities should be treated as welcome guests, and protected. Families should not live in fear of gang violence or drive-by shootings. But most of all, our dedicated law enforcement officers must not be target for criminals. Anyone who harms one of them harms us all.”
The former state legislator from Gainesville promised violent and repeat offenders that, “We will make you pay for your crimes. For other offenders who want to change their lives, we will provide the opportunity to do so with day reporting centers, drug, DUI and mental health courts, and expanded probation and treatment options.
“As a state we cannot afford to have so many of our citizens waste their lives because of addictions,” Deal said. “It is draining our state treasury and it is depleting our work force.”
Deal praised his predecessors and “dedicated teachers and educators” but he noted Georgia K-12 public education “has failed to make the progress that we need. This failure is a stain on our efforts to recruit businesses to our state and is a contributing factor to the frightening crime statistics that I previously mentioned. High dropout rates and low graduation percentages are incompatible with my vision for the future of the state of Georgia.”
Deal sought to assure families who wonder about the long-term future of the financially challenged HOPE scholarship program. “”I was not elected to make easy decisions but difficult ones,” Deal said. “In this legislative session we will save HOPE for future generations.”
Deal emphasized the Savannah and Brunswick ports are Georgia’s link to an ever expanding international trade community. “We will do our part to deepen the Savannah port in order to accommodate the larger vessels that will soon pass through the Panama Canal, but we must do more. Our rail capacity and cargo routes must be improved and expanded. We must not miss this opportunity to provide jobs for Georgians.”
The governor described Atlanta metro highway congestion as “a deterrent to job growth in the region. If we do not solve this problem soon we will lose the businesses who want to expand or locate in our state.”
Deal also inherits the Tri-State Water War. A federal court judge ruled Alabama, Florida and Georgia must reach agreement before July 2012 or Congress will impose a solution. All three states have new Republican governors, but that does not ensure agreement. All three states had Republican governors during Sonny Perdue’s eight years as Georgia governor.
Deal vowed the state will continue to negotiate but will also develop regional reservoirs. “We are blessed with abundant water resources and we must use them wisely.”
The new governor was blunt in his assessment of federal health care policy, widely known as Obamacare. “As governor I will resist the efforts of the federal government to mandate its solutions on our people, our businesses and our state government.”
The new governor assumed office three days after a special council issued the state’s most dramatic tax reform proposals in eighty years. Legislative approval would reduce personal and corporate income tax rates, and make significant changes to sales taxes on products and services, including collection of sales tax on groceries. He did not mention the tax proposals.
Fiscal issues will dominate every General Assembly conversation this session and dictate which priorities prevail. The next state budget faces an estimated $2 billion shortfall. Georgia will lose $1.2 billion in federal stimulus funds. It must also repay $425 million to the federal government because the state has been borrowing federal dollars to write unemployment checks.
Deal inherits an economy that is taking tentative steps to rebound from recession. Georgia’s 10.1% unemployment rate is still several percentage points higher than the national average. State government revenue that plunged over two fiscal years has begun to recover with seven consecutive monthly year-to-year increases, but improvement will not balance the budget.
Deal returned to his leaner, more focused model of government in concluding remarks. “State government should not be expected to provide for us what we can provide for ourselves,” he said. “Let us refocus state government on its core responsibilities and relieve our taxpayers of unnecessary programs. Let us be frugal and wise. Let us restore the confidence of our citizens in a government that is limited and efficient.”
The inaugural ceremony was held at the House chamber at the State Capitol. Overnight snow and ice that paralyzed Georgia caused cancellation of the planned outside ceremony, a morning church service and the Philips Arena evening gala in downtown Atlanta.
Deal was joined by his wife Sandra. Their daughter Katie sang “Georgia On My Mind.” Their son, Hall County Superior Court Judge Jason Deal, administered the 47-word oath of office. Dignitaries in the state House chamber included U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, Congressman Phil Gingrey and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.
Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
A citizens group that established its own Facebook page is clashing with city leaders in rural Washington, Georgia over a proposed multi-million dollar hotel that would be financed by selling municipal revenue bonds. The hotel would operate in direct competition to an existing small stock of hotel, historic inn and bed-and-breakfast businesses. City officials see their project as the catalyst that will cause other spending to happen in and around the community.
Washington city officials say millions of dollars in bond debt would be retired by revenue from the hotel – conference center. Opponents say the project will not break even, the city’s general fund will be stuck with the bill, and they believe that means taxpayers will get the short end.
Hundreds of citizens packed his court last week when Concerned People of Washington asked Superior Court Judge Harold Hinesley to stop or at least slow down the project. His ruling is possible this week. An appeal is almost certain as both sides seem determined to prevail.
If you’ve never been there, Washington is an idyllic town whose fine collection of historic homes seem made for postcards and movies. This is where Confederate President Jefferson Davis held the last Cabinet meeting before his capture by Union soldiers. This is where Georgia secessionist Robert Toombs made his home and it is equally rich in Revolutionary War history.
Despite its undeniable antebellum charm, modern Washington fights to survive. The tax base is small with barely 4,000 residents. Unemployment is 12% and new business finds the location debatable. Washington is 100 miles east of Atlanta, 40 miles southeast of Athens, 50 miles northwest of Augusta and 20 miles from the closest Interstate highway. Really, Washington is close to nothing. You have to want to be there.
Judy Anderson is executive director of the Washington-Wilkes Chamber of Commerce. “We are heavily dependent on tourists. If tourists are not here you are not getting the business you need because the local population is not large enough,” Anderson said. “It’s not that the locals do not support the businesses. That’s not what I am saying. There are not enough of them.”
Two years ago Washington city officials began to consider construction of a new hotel alongside the underused Pope Center about one mile outside town. Pope is a former rundown community center since renovated into a venue for small meetings and conferences. The problem with Pope is people; there are not enough of them to make the center a viable business entity.
“Every day there are conferences around the state, small-and-medium sized conferences,” said city attorney Barry Fleming. “There is a market. The question is, can Washington bring it here?”
The city wants to sell $8.1 million in bonds to fund hotel construction, transfer the Pope Center to Washington’s Urban Redevelopment Authority and pay for a new business marketing plan. Bond repayment would cost Washington some $17.7 million over 30 years.
City attorney Fleming conceded the existing Pope Center does not earn enough revenue to pay for itself, and he said studies indicate the problem is local lodging, or a lack thereof. He also conceded, “There is concern obviously that this is too big a project for the city to bite off.”
Fleming said several hotel management groups have inquired about Washington. The Pope Center hotel would be operated as a LaQuinta Inn. Washington currently has a Jameson Inn, the historic Fitzpatrick Hotel and a small number of other motels and bed-and-breakfast inns. City consultants predict the new hotel would have a 65% occupancy rate.
Atlanta attorney David Walbert was retained by Concerned People of Washington. Walbert said the city’s 65% predicted hotel occupancy rate is “an arbitrary assumption. Realistic ones get pretty ugly. To your question about revenue, it’s more a question of the whole project being justified by really wildly optimistic (predictions), the build it and they will come philosophy.” Walbert described the project as a possible “30-year lodestone around the community’s neck.”
Mike Todd is an Athens-based contractor who specializes in historic renovations. Todd and his wife Christy bought the 17-room Fitzpatrick Hotel nine years ago. Renovations to the 1898-era building cost $1.5 million before they opened in 2002 just as the last recession began to wane.
Todd said Fitzpatrick Hotel occupancy rates were never better than 35% during the past eight years. “The last couple years it’s been considerably lower,” he added. This summer they changed the business model. The Fitzpatrick is now open only on weekends, or by request.
Todd said he understands why Washington wants to try something bold, but he still needs to be convinced that a Pope Center hotel-conference combo is the best idea in a downturn economy.
“Washington is a dynamic little town,” Todd said. “People down there work hard. There are a lot of good things happening. But if you came to me and asked me to build that hotel, there would be no way I could consider it. The economics would not work for me.”
Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
Not surprisingly, business themes dominated the conversation when gubernatorial candidates Roy Barnes and Nathan Deal addressed a sold-out luncheon audience Wednesday at The Commerce Club in downtown Atlanta. This article will focus on discussion of the tri-state water wars. Later articles will discuss their comments on education, transportation and health care.
There was also a touch of humor Wednesday when moderator Jeff Hullinger asked the candidates how to help Georgia Bulldogs football coach Mark Richt. But more on that later.
Georgia, Alabama and Florida are at odds over water that flows through Georgia to the two other states. The issue has been in litigation for several years and in dispute for decades. Currently, the three states are under a federal court order to resolve their water war within two years or the issue will be settled in Congress. A federal judge has ruled that Atlanta cannot use Lake Lanier as its water supply and that is the central part of what this argument is all about.
Deal, who served nine terms as a Republican congressman, said Georgia’s water crisis is not likely to be favorably solved in Washington until governors in the three states demonstrate they can create the solution. With an eye on Florida participation in water talks, Deal said, “Quite frankly, I don’t think they have been very engaged in the process.”
Deal has proposed construction of four or perhaps five new reservoirs across north Georgia, dredging Lake Lanier which has lost about 18% capacity due to silt, new investment to repair aging water systems, continuation of new conservation measures and returning more treated water to river basins.
“In the short term Georgia needs to do everything we can,” Deal said. “The starting point was conservation legislation the General Assembly passed this year. If we’ve done these things and time runs out on us, and we have to go back to the court and ask for either an extension or an alternative ruling on the original issue, we’ve at least shown clean hands, we’ve done what we can do in the time frame we’ve been given. It is a multiple approach that we have to take.”
Barnes, the former Democratic governor who wants his old job back, said, “We don’t have anything to negotiate with. What are we going to give up? We’ve lost the case. This idea that, you know, all the governors are going to hold hands and sing kumbayah and its going to be settled, it’s fantasy. We have to show, before this matter is ever resolved, we have to show that we can solve it ourselves without having to beg Florida or Alabama.”
During his first administration that ended in January 2003 Barnes proposed creation and funding for 17 reservoirs positioned across north and west Georgia. That plan did not go forward under Governor Sonny Perdue. Barnes said aging water systems lose between 15% and 40% due to leaks. Rebuilding local water systems will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and process will be lengthy, many years. He believes it is partially, a state responsibility and Barnes says this project is too large for communities to go it alone.
Like Deal, Barnes proposed expansion of existing reservoirs. The former governor described himself as “intrigued” by underground water storage, similar to how Florida stores fresh water. He said expanding aquifers likely would not require the same federal approval process that is associated with new reservoir construction.
On a lighter note, moderator Jeff Hullinger closed the luncheon by asking both candidates if they had any advice for UGA football coach Mark Richt. Only Barnes answered, and with his own question: “Is Vince Dooley still alive?”
Mike Klein writes about contemporary issues as Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
Georgia is respected for fiscally conservative state budgets. But now money is tighter than since anyone can remember and there’s not much in the savings account. At least we’re not like California where the state government budget resembles economic swamp water.
Tommy Hills is Georgia state government’s chief financial officer. “I’ve told people I work with that this is not something that just next year is going to turn around,” Hills said recently at The Commerce Club in downtown Atlanta. “It’s going to be a culture for two or three years of having to continue to cut budgets of all the state departments each year, including the education community.” Read more »
This article was written for and published by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
Think about this image. You are traveling down one of Georgia’s splendid highways and suddenly a train carrying coal hurtles past in a near-blur. High speed rail discussion is usually about moving people. But how about moving coal and other cargo at high speeds? “Definitely we could and we should,” says Page Siplon, executive director at the Georgia Center of Innovation for Logistics.
Most folks don’t associate coal with Georgia, but they should. Rail cars haul more than 40 million tons of black gold across the state per year. That is 800% more tonnage than grain, the next closest product.
These are the kinds of ideas that keep Siplon busy. His focus is how to move products at time and price points that enable businesses to deliver their promised goods. His goal is to make certain Georgia does it better than not just other southern states, but every other state, especially those with ocean ports. Read more »
Some folks are showing their serious side about how Georgia state government might reinvent. One bill currently before the Georgia House arrived as pretty much a surprise move and would combine agencies that seem to have very little in common. Another House bill would launch a ten-month tax and revenue reform project, which if done correctly, is an opportunity to engage Georgians.
There also were good, fresh ideas in a recent Budget Task Force report commissioned by Casey Cagle, but the lieutenant governor did little to enthusiastically endorse his own study group when nearly four dozen best practices ideas were announced last week.
First: The outcry to make state government smaller could combine three very different agencies. Read more »
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