LISTEN: On the Thursday, March 21 edition of Georgia Today: State lawmakers want drug dealers to face murder charges in overdose cases; Georgia ended its pandemic era-moratorium on executions last night; and it could now be more difficult for some local employees to form a union in their workplace. 

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Orlando Montoya: Hello and welcome to the Georgia Today podcast from GPB News. Today is Thursday, March 21, I'm Orlando Montoya. On today's episode, Georgia ended its pandemic era moratorium on executions last night. State lawmakers want drug dealers to face murder charges in overdose cases, and it now could be more difficult for some local employees to form a union in their workplace. These stories and more are coming up on this edition of Georgia Today.

A small group of death penalty opponents gathered outside Georgia Diagnostic Prison in Jackson to protest the execution of Willie Pye on Wednesday, March 20, 2024.

A small group of death penalty opponents gathered outside Georgia Diagnostic Prison in Jackson to protest the execution of Willie Pye on Wednesday, March 20, 2024.

Credit: Grant Blankenship / GPB News

Story 1:

Orlando Montoya: Georgia ended its pandemic-era moratoriums on executions last night. Willie James Pye was put to death by lethal injection for the 1993 murder of Alicia Yarborough. GPB's Grant Blankenship has more.

Grant Blankenship: Pye died at 11:03 p.m., some four hours after the planned start of his execution. The delay came as Pye's attorneys failed to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to issue a stay as a journalist with the Paper of Record in Spalding County, where Alicia Yarborough was killed, it fell to Karen Gunnels to witness an execution for the first time.

Karen Gunnels: I felt like maybe it was owed to the family and to the county for someone local to cover it. And it was — it was peaceful. If that makes any kind of sense.

Grant Blankenship: Other witnesses echoed Gunnels, describing Pye's death by lethal injection as solemn and quick. For GPB News, I'm Grant Blankenship in Jackson.


Story 2:

Orlando Montoya: An effort by Democrats and some Republicans to fully expand Medicaid in Georgia was shot down today by the narrowest of margins. A committee of state senators rejected the plan in a 7 to 7 tie vote. As the legislature winds down its 2024 session, a number of closely watched bills are still on the move. GPB's Sarah Kallis reports, one making it harder for some Georgia workers to unionize is now expected to become law.

Sarah Kallis: The House gave final passage to Senate Bill 362. The legislation gives economic incentives to companies that limit labor unions and require that unionization votes happen via secret ballot. Rep. Will Wade, a Republican who supports the bill, says it protects workers' privacy.

Will Wade: This is a pro-worker bill because it's protecting their privacy as an employee to how they wish to vote.

Sarah Kallis: Rep. Jasmine Clark, a Democrat, opposed it.

Jasmine Clark: This bill epitomizes government overreach by punishing businesses for doing things the way they want to do it.

SB 362 passed along a party-line vote and now heads to the governor's desk. For GPB News, I'm Sarah Kallis at the state Capitol.



Credit: DEA

Story 3:

Orlando Montoya: As the fentanyl crisis grows, Georgia lawmakers have set their eyes on holding someone accountable. They're advancing a bill that would make it easier to charge drug dealers with murder if their supply causes an overdose. Some worry that could come with new costs and even dangers for drug users. GPB's Sofi Gratas has more.

Sofi Gratas: Back in November, five drug overdose deaths, one after another over three days, marked a record in Macon. The victims included a 33-year-old man, two brothers and a 44-year-old woman. Bibb County Coroner Leon Jones brought forward a warning during an opioid town hall two months later in January.

Leon Jones: We have a crisis here in Macon.

Sofi Gratas: In a church auditorium facing community members of an East Macon neighborhood. He pulled out folders dated by year.

Leon Jones: Sixty-six overdoses in three years. 66. I keep the stats. And I'm waiting on toxicology on two more, which more than likely is going to be fentanyl.

Sofi Gratas: Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are credited for the third wave of the opioid epidemic, which has been far more deadly than the waves of heroin or prescription pain pills. Public health workers in Georgia have been raising the alarm, pushing for access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone in government buildings and schools and hosting trainings locally. Now, state lawmakers have passed a bill that will make criminalizing fentanyl dealers easier.

James Burchett: If you're manufacturing or selling drugs that have fentanyl in it, we're coming for you. That's what we're saying.

Sofi Gratas: That was Rep. James Burchett of Waycross at the last committee hearing for Senate Bill 465 earlier this month. The bill, also called Austin's Law, is not the first attempt at a stricter punishment for drug dealers. But it is the first to clear both chambers of the General Assembly. Gus Walter's 30-year-old son Austin, the namesake for the bill, died from fentanyl poisoning in 2021 after taking what he thought was Xanax.

Gus Walter: Please, let's put something in place to punish the people to the same extent that we feel punished.

Sofi Gratas: Prosecutors in Georgia have arrested and charged suppliers of tainted drugs for overdoses a handful of times. But in the over 1,000 cases of fentanyl overdoses in Georgia every year, those are the exceptions. That's because to charge felony murder, most cases require that prosecutors prove the person who supplied the drugs knew what they were selling. Pete Skandalackis with the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia, says Austin's Law removes that requirement.

Pete Skandalackis: All you have to worry about is can you prove the sale or the manufacture of a controlled substance.

Sofi Gratas: That the accused was the dealer.

Pete Skandalackis: And did that controlled substance have fentanyl in it.

Sofi Gratas: Whether the dealer knew that or not. Prison sentences could range from 10 to 30 years or life. Some, like medical anthropologist Jennifer Carroll, worry so-called drug-induced homicide laws make drug use more dangerous.

Jennifer Carroll: Because the risk of overdose comes not from drug exposure, but from the unpredictability of the drug supply.

Sofi Gratas: Or unpredictability in drug potency. In North Carolina, Carroll has seen dealers in a crackdown dilute their drugs' strength, which encourages users to buy more for the same high.

Jennifer Carroll: But for every dip you have down in potency, you're going to have a rise back.

Sofi Gratas: Up, like when the pressure from law enforcement slacks off, maybe.

Jennifer Carroll: And that rise back up creates a lots of opportunities for accident.

Sofi Gratas: — as users now unknowingly buy too much of a now stronger drug. On Wednesday, Senate Bill 465 passed. The House unanimously.

James Burchett: Passed!

Sofi Gratas: For many on the floor, the issue was personal.

Various speakers: In my district in the last month, I've had three overdoses of fentanyl. ...  He was murdered and and we lost a great individual  ... who had one slip. Went to sleep; never woke up.

Senator: We will not tolerate poison on our streets.

Sofi Gratas: The bill now heads to the governor's desk. For GPB News, I'm Sofi Gratas in Macon.



Story 4:

Orlando Montoya: State senators gave final passage yesterday to a bill providing $6,500 vouchers to fund private school tuition and home schooling. The measure passed along party lines 33 to 21 and now goes to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature. Atlanta state senator Democrat Elena Parent, opposed the bill. She says it doesn't give families enough money to afford private school tuition and distracts from other educational issues.

Elena Parent: $6,500 is a shiny object to distract from the failings of this building.

Orlando Montoya: Supporters say the bill gives families choice in education. It's expected to take effect in 2025. And lastly, from the Capitol, a state Senate committee significantly rewrote a bill that would have capped the state's lucrative film tax credit. The changes would exempt movies made at large Georgia studios, an industry win that's still several votes away from final passage.


Story 5:

Orlando Montoya: A new report from the Alzheimer's Association estimates 70% of family caregivers are stressed by coordinating care for someone with dementia. In Georgia, that's about 374,000 family caregivers. GPB's Ellen Eldridge has more.

Ellen Eldridge: The annual report highlights how people are impacted by diseases of dementia and how quickly the population is aging. Linda Davidson is the executive director of the Georgia chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. She says it's not just families, but business owners and policymakers who are seeing the need to better support caregivers because we're all aging.

Linda Davidson: To me, it's staggering to think that 1 in 3 senior — seniors die with Alzheimer's or another dementia. To me, that is huge. That's a large number when you consider that 1 in 3, they die with some sort of dementia.

Ellen Eldridge: Davidson says 1 in 5 women and 1 in 10 men will be diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. For GPB News, I'm Ellen Eldridge.


Story 6:

Orlando Montoya: The city manager of Albany is leaving his position after 20 years in local government and three years as the city's top administrator. Stephen Carter announced his resignation today after being offered the city manager's role in Portsmouth, Va.

A pizza
Credit: Capitol Beat

Story 7:

Orlando Montoya: And another leadership change in Georgia: The CEO of Atlanta-based pizza chain Papa John's is leaving the company to become CEO of New York-based burger chain Shake Shack. Rob Lynch has led Papa John's since 2019. He'll replace Shake Shack CEO Randy Garrity to become the burger chain's first outsider to lead the company in its 20-year history. Papa John's has 186 locations across Georgia, while Shake Shack has seven Georgia locations, all in metro Atlanta. 

And that's it for today's edition of Georgia Today. Visit our website, where you'll find many of the stories that you hear on this podcast and many that you won't — stories from NPR and stories from our partner publications across the state. As always, hit subscribe on this podcast so you always stay current with us in your feed and send us feedback. We'd love your comments at I'm Orlando Montoya. I'll talk to you tomorrow.


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