On the Wednesday February 28th edition of Georgia Today: The Mayor of Athens calls for immigration reform following last week's murder on the UGA campus; Relatives of incarcerated Georgians urge lawmakers to improve conditions at the state's deadly prison system; And could Georgia become the Silicon Valley of Agriculture? We'll talk to a Lawmaker trying to make it happen.

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Peter Biello: Welcome to the Georgia Today podcast from GPB News. Today is Wednesday, Feb. 28. I'm Peter Biello. On today's episode, the mayor of Athens calls for immigration reform following last week's murder on the UGA campus. Relatives of incarcerated Georgians urge lawmakers to improve conditions at the state's deadly prison system. And could Georgia become the Silicon Valley of agriculture? We'll talk to a lawmaker trying to make it happen. These stories and more are coming up on this edition of Georgia Today.


Story 1:

Peter Biello: Georgia Republicans are pushing new laws to crack down on undocumented immigrants after last week's murder of a nursing student on the University of Georgia campus in Athens. The man charged with the crime was in the country illegally. Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz is calling on federal lawmakers to help.

Kelly Girtz: This recent bipartisan group in the Senate has crafted a bill to make headway on this issue. While new legislation is perfect, this would be a step forward, and I urge Congress and the White House to act now.

Peter Biello: Girtz pushed back on GOP accusations that his community is a so-called "sanctuary city." He says the language does not appear in a 2019 resolution he passed saying all people, including the undocumented, should feel safe in the city. His news conference today was interrupted by demonstrators who called him a liar and demanded his resignation. A state House committee yesterday advanced a bill to require every eligible police and sheriff's department to help identify undocumented immigrants, arrest them and detain them for deportation.


Story 2:

Peter Biello: Meanwhile, the University of Georgia has approved more than $7 million to increase security on campus. The money will fund a 20% increase to the UGA Police Department budget, more security cameras and lighting upgrades, license plate readers and more security camera, blue light callback systems, among other things.

Story 3:

Peter Biello: Mental health issues like suicide and substance abuse disorders are on the rise, but it's getting harder to find places to be treated for these issues. In Forsyth County, north of Atlanta, there's been a plan to use Covid relief funding for mental health care. But now that plan is up in the air, to the frustration of many residents. GPB's Ellen Eldridge has more.

Ellen Eldridge: Walking into Matthew Pesce's living room feels like entering a therapist's office with soft music, scented candles and colorful bowls of candy within reach. Pesce is the chaplain for local Veterans of Foreign Wars posts, and he says he enjoys spending time with people in hospice care.

Matthew Pesce: The comfort it gives them knowing that somebody cares enough to come and see them.

Ellen Eldridge: But the 76-year-old Vietnam veteran is angry. He says as suicide rates continue to rise, mental health services are getting harder to find. Pesci has a Purple Heart and three bullet holes in his body. He says 20 years ago the Department of Veterans Affairs provided him with a psychiatrist and weekly visits with a psychologist. Now?

Matthew Pesce: The VA, in its magnificent glory, has offered us a social worker that I get to talk to once every three months.

Ellen Eldridge: It's not enough. Pesce says. He and his peers need someone nearby to talk to, and sometimes a place to go when you can't trust yourself with your own safety.

Matthew Pesce: Good afternoon. I'm Matthew Pesce.

Ellen Eldridge: That's what he told the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners earlier this month.

Matthew Pesce: Veteran suicide is the number one killer of veterans. It's also the number one killer of children.

Ellen Eldridge: He says he lost his son to suicide four years ago.

Matthew Pesce: I will never get over that. I still cry for him. And I will probably for the rest of my life.

Ellen Eldridge: Pesce told the commission this after they began discussing scrapping plans for a mental health crisis center. Commissioners proposed in 2021 to use federal COVID dollars to provide emergency services and ongoing behavioral health care. But when the construction estimate came back $12 million over budget, commissioners questioned whether local tax dollars should be used to close the gap. For 2.5 hours, the commission heard feedback from Pesce's and others like Susan Saccone.

Susan Saccone: I'm a little nervous.

Ellen Eldridge: The certified peer specialist has spent 15 years caring for her daughter, who has repeatedly attempted suicide.

Susan Saccone: My daughter is alive because of me, because I drove her to the facilities. I went and got her the help.

Ellen Eldridge: All outside of Forsyth County. Plus, Saccone says, once the crisis has passed, her daughter needs long term outpatient care to prevent another one.

Susan Saccone: For five weeks, we've had three social workers with our insurance company, working, trying to get her outpatient services. There are still none. None in Forsyth County.

Ellen Eldridge: A new study commissioned by the state suggests Georgia needs eight more behavioral health crisis centers in the next decade, including one in the Georgia region north of Atlanta, which includes Forsyth County. But building the new center in Forsyth County would cost lots of local money. When it opens in Atlanta in June, Fulton County's 15-bed crisis center will be the first in Georgia to be publicly funded. Fulton is using $15 million in federal COVID relief funds, and the state is kicking in another $6.7 million to build on Fulton County property, with a promise of $10 million a year for operation. Commissioner Laura Semanson contends Forsyth County doesn't have that kind of a budget set up.

Laura Semanson: It feels good to build a facility that would serve all of North Georgia, especially if we're using federal money. But we don't we don't even know that it's going to serve our citizens, and it is going to cost more money than has been provided. And the state has not come to the table yet.

Ellen Eldridge: Which means unless the Forsyth County Commission decides to spend some of its own money, Forsyth County voters will still be looking across county lines for mental health care. For GPB News, I'm Ellen Eldridge.


Story 4:

Peter Biello: February is Ovarian Cancer Detection month, and Georgia Tech researchers may have developed an extremely accurate new test to detect the disease using AI and machine learning. Ovarian cancer is often called a silent killer because the disease is typically asymptomatic until it's too late. John McDonald, one of the researchers and founding director of Georgia Tech's Integrated Cancer Research Center, says the new test has a 93% success rate and could be a game changer in diagnosing patients.

John McDonald: I think it would make a huge difference because if a report came back to the clinician and said your patient falls in a group. With other women with patterns, metabolic patterns, like your patient, there was 95% of those patients had ovarian cancer. If that information came back to your clinician, he would probably advise that you be sent for a CAT scan or some more detailed treatment procedure.

Peter Biello: The American Cancer Association estimates almost 13,000 women will die from ovarian cancer each year.


Story 5:

Peter Biello: A former law partner of Fulton County, Special Prosecutor Nathan Wade took to the stand again yesterday. Terrence Bradley was pressed on details about a relationship between Wade and Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis. Bradley repeatedly said he did not know or could not remember when Willis and Wade's relationship began. Attorneys confronted Bradley about a text message in which he said the relationship started when Willis was working as a municipal court judge before Willis hired Wade in 2021. Willis and Wade have both said that they shared travel expenses, with Willis reimbursing Wade with cash for some charges on his credit card when they were romantically involved.





Story 6:

Peter Biello: There are now almost 51,000 people incarcerated by the state of Georgia. That's the highest number in 15 years. Meanwhile, the number of Georgia correctional officers is at its lowest this century. Tomorrow, advocates for and family members of people in the state's prisons plan to visit the state Capitol to try and get lawmakers to understand how they say the civil rights of the people they love are being violated. GPB's Sofi Gratas and Grant Blankenship captured a similar effort a few weeks ago in this audio postcard.

Grant Blankenship: The real brief plan was to go to the Capitol, find legislators and tell them what's wrong.

Isaac Lester: So we want to thank everyone for coming out today to the Incarcerated Lives Matters rally. We don't have a lot of people, but it still strengthens in number. My name is Isaac. Isaac Lester.

Grant Blakenship: He holds a photo of his son.

Isaac Lester: My son's name is Isaac Lester.

Grant Blakenship: Junior?

Isaac Lester: Junior, yes. He passed away in prison. He was 29. He had an asthma attack. Yeah. He grew up with asthma. And then they knew that he had asthma. At the time, they only had, like, one medical staff through the whole prison.

Sofi Gratas: In fact, this year, the for-profit company providing health care for Georgia prisons will end their contract early, citing tens of millions of dollars in cost overruns.

Isaac Lester: So we're standing here today to let people know that the prison is understaffed. If the prison is understaffed, why is it in operation? Why is it still open if it's understaffed?

Kathy Kasper: My name is Kathy Kasper.

Sofi Gratas: Kathy's son's name is Rick Chase Kasper.

Kathy Kasper: He has been in, well, August it's six years. So he went to prison when he was 18 years old. He went to one of the Level 5, and that was Georgia State Prison. And there was a lot of violence, which he's been through a lot. I've been extorted for money. And also, he's been he's been beat with locks and, you know, more than once and with a stick on the back. And he was left in the shower and there was no officers at all. And, you know, there's never officers.

Grant Blankenship: The group moved inside the Capitol in search of legislators to talk to.

Laura Parnell: My name is Laura Parnell. I have two sons and a brother that's locked up. And I want to see change. My oldest son. This is his sixth time. It's drugs. My youngest son, it's his third time. It's drugs. But he got turned on to drugs his first time in. So I — I'd like to see reform, you know, rehab. I would like to see if it's possible for change, you know. Where these people come in, doin' three years, come out a different person, not a bigger criminal than as they went in.

Sofi Gratas: The Georgia Department of Corrections has a substance abuse recovery program where referrals are about double the number of available beds.

Susan McAree: Do I think any of these people in these positions care right now?

Sofi Gratas: This is Susan McAree.

Susan McAree: From the looks of our government. I don't see no care. Just — And most of them, they just look at it, "Aw, we just got another drug addict off the street." If somebody dies, "Oh it's just another drug addict gone. No big deal."

Grant Blankenship: The group got lucky: Made themselves the backdrop to a press conference in the rotunda about tax reform.

Speaker: It's a good day to be a Georgian, I think.

Grant Blakenship: But most of the group didn't know how to find the legislators — what they looked like, much less how to make them listen. Off to the side, I saw some lobbyists, so I thought I'd ask them, "what's the first thing you'd do?"

Lobbyist: Uh — Hire a lobbyist!

Grant Blankenship: Susan McAree.

Susan McAree: The system — the system's broken all the way around, and — Look around us. You can tell.

Grant Blankenship: For GPB News, I'm Grant Blankenship.

Sofi Gratas: And I'm Sofi Gratas at the Georgia state Capitol.


Story 7:

Peter Biello: State Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler announced yesterday that she will retire at the end of the year. Butler was first elected to the state Senate in 1998. In 2020, she was elected the first Black woman to lead the Senate Democratic Caucus. Butler spoke with GPB's Lawmakers last night about her place in history.

Gloria Butler: And that reminds me of something that my pastor said on Sunday: It's a blessing to be a blessing to others. It's been a blessing to be able to be in this position and make a difference.

Peter Biello: Butler represents parts of DeKalb and Gwinnett counties in suburban Atlanta.

Sports betting

Sports betting

Story 8:

Peter Biello: Georgians could get a chance in November to vote on authorizing sports gambling. GPB's Sarah Kallis reports.

Sarah Kallis: A resolution that proposes a constitutional amendment to legalize sports betting passed the state Senate.

Bill Cowsert: I think it's very clear in our Constitution that we need to do this, and I think it's there politically appropriate thing to do when you make this type of a major policy shift in your state to let the people vote, let them weigh in on it.

Sarah Kallis: Voters must approve the constitutional amendment on the ballot in order for it to become law. Sen. Bill Cowsert, who sponsored the bipartisan legislation, says it should be up to the people to decide. The resolution still must be approved by the House before it makes it to the ballot. Profits from sports betting would fund pre-K programs and the HOPE scholarship. For GPB News, I'm Sarah Kallis at the state Capitol.


Story 9:

Peter Biello: The Georgia House has approved a bill that critics say could discourage the building of new affordable housing. House Bill 1182 reduces the tax credit developers can receive for building affordable housing, unless the project meets a certain set of criteria, like serving a rural community or elderly residents. Its supporters say it saves the state money. But Athens state representative Democrat Spencer Frye, opposes the bill.

Spencer Frye: This is not the time to take the foot off the gas. This is the time to put the foot on the gas to the floor, put more doors in the market and build as much as we can to offer the citizens of this state the relief that they need.

Peter Biello: The measure passed and a mostly party-line vote, and now heads to the Senate for more debate.


Story 10:

Peter Biello: The state House also passed a bill calling for a temporary halt to sales tax exemptions George began using in 2018 to attract high-tech data centers. The measure would suspend the tax breaks for two years, while a new commission studies the impact of such businesses on the state's power grid. Georgia Power says 80% of the state's additional demand for electricity is coming from data centers. The bill's opponents say it would kill jobs. It passed 96 to 71 in the House and now moves to the Senate.



Story 11:

Peter Biello: An effort is underway to make Georgia the so-called Silicon Valley of agriculture, a so-called grand farm planned for the central Georgia city of Perry would, in partnership with UGA, be a proving ground for the newest farming technology that includes artificial intelligence, robotics and genetic research. For more on this, I spoke earlier today with Sen. Larry Walker, who was born and raised in Perry and has been an advocate for the Grand Farm.

Larry Walker: The idea came to me when I was at the AG Expo in Moultrie, Ga., and was looking at some research plots they had there, down there, and the conversation came up that they did not have the acreage or anything on a larger scale, that they needed to really prove out some of the things they were trying to do. And naturally, being from Perry and very familiar with the ag center we have there, being on the the AG overview committee, immediately thought about the 250 acres across the street from — from the Georgia National Fairgrounds, Niagara Center, and thought that would be a ideal place for it. And so I went to work with the governor's office and with the dean at the University of Georgia College of Ag Nick place. And the wheels started turning, and the governor committed to — to this idea and is excited about it and put the money in the budget to get it started.

Peter Biello: I want to ask you about a few specific examples of the kind of technology that might be deployed at this grand farm. One of them has to do with checking the genetics of peanuts to sort of optimize roasting flavor. Can you tell me a little more about this effort?

Larry Walker: Sure. So, peanuts are a real big cash crop for Georgia, and we're the number one peanut producer in the country. So we always want to deliver to the consumer, what their tastes are and what they want and what the demand is and so that Georgia peanuts can stay number one. So this is just a way to to do that using genetics and and that kind of thing. We also, of course, can modify seeds to make crops more drought resistant, more heat resistant. You have all kind of opportunities there.

Peter Biello: There are many parts of this that are interesting, and there's one that — that takes a look at, bovine reproductive health: scans that I guess help, farmers plan on the cattle that they have on their farm. There's another piece of this where there are robots that are going to roam around chicken coops, I guess, and pick up eggs that are not laid in the easy to grab places. So these robots essentially save some —some human labor and finding viable eggs that can be taken to market. It's just so fascinating. Fascinating things that might be happening here at Grant farm.

Larry Walker: Yeah. So I've seen a prototype of the egg robot that you're talking about, and it really looks sort of like a big Roomba, believe it or not. And chickens — this is something I learned and didn't know, but, you know, in a layer — chicken layer house, most of the chickens lay their eggs in a nest like they're supposed to, but some will lay their egg on the floor of the chicken house. And once one chicken does that, then the other chickens will start laying their eggs on the floor of the chicken house, which is not what you want because the eggs will get damaged and it's hard to collect them and all that. So this robot can see the eggs and it'll go and pick them up and so that they can be put in the nest. But primarily it's to keep the other chickens from continuing to lay eggs on the floor of the chicken house. It's pretty fascinating and also a little bit comical to watch.

Peter Biello: There's a $3 million investment now, likely a $15 million investment over a number of years. What's the return on investment for Georgia's economy expected to be?

Larry Walker: Well, this is, as I said earlier, the biggest industry in Georgia is ag. And I view this as the survival of a lot of our family farms is that we've got to get this technology to market and, and have them use it to be efficient and to be able to really survive financially. All their input costs have gone up dramatically with the inflation we've had. They have labor shortages. They have a lot of challenges just with — plus commodity prices not being what they should be, weather, etc. We've got to give them all the tools they need to be able to survive so we can continue to be the number one industry in Georgia.

Peter Biello: Well, Sen. Walker, thank you so much for speaking with me about this. Really appreciate it.

Larry Walker: I appreciate you taking the time. I'm excited about this and can't wait to have you down to see it.

Story 12:

Peter Biello: A Georgia nonprofit has organized a series of litter cleanups of coastal Glynn County salt marshes for the month of March. Keep Golden Isles Beautiful has dubbed their volunteer cleanups Marsh Madness. Lea King Bedyna is the director of Keep Golden Isles Beautiful. She says removing trash helps protect the marsh so it can protect us.

Lea King Bedyna: We have several thousand miles and acres of estuarine coastline, and the salt marsh provides such great value and function for coastal residents between storm protection and the breeding ground of the nurse of the ocean.

Peter Biello: She says volunteers have taken more than 51 tons of trash from the marsh in the last 10 years: everything from sofas to bottles and cans to a kitchen stove. Once the litter is pulled out of the marsh, government partners will properly dispose of it.


Story 13:

Peter Biello: Fast food giant Zaxby's is bringing back milkshakes seven years after discontinuing them, but they're only available in one city: Macon. The company is teaming up with Visit Macon for what it's calling milkshake tourism. The shakes come in four flavors: vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, and birthday cake. Customers report also finding them in Warner Robins, Dublin and Perry. Zaxby's calls it a, quote, "market test," but it is unclear if the company plans to reintroduce milkshakes nationwide.

Peter Biello: And that is it for this edition of Georgia Today. If you want to learn more about any of these stories, visit GPB.org/news. And now is a great time to subscribe to this podcast. That way, we'll be back in your podcast feed tomorrow afternoon with all the latest headlines from Georgia. And if you've got feedback or a story idea, reach out to us by email. The address is GeorgiaToday@GPB.org. I'm Peter Biello. Thanks again for listening. We'll see you tomorrow.


For more on these stories and more, go to GPB.org/news