Oconee County’s two representatives to the State House split their votes last week on a resolution that asks voters to decide on a state Constitutional amendment that would significantly increase the salaries for members of the General Assembly.
Houston Gaines, who currently represents Bogart Precinct, Marswood Hall Precinct, and the part of the Civic Center Precinct that was the East Oconee Precinct, voted against the resolution.
Marcus Wiedower, who represents the remainder of the county, voted in favor.
The resolution passed overwhelmingly–136 to 33–and now moves to the Senate for consideration. The amendment, if passed, will go before the voters in November.
A separate bill approved by the House 151 to 17 would increase the pension that members of the General Assembly receive. Gaines voted against that bill, and Wiedower voted in favor.
In Senate action last week, Bill Cowsert, who represents Oconee County in the state Senate, voted with the lopsided majority of 49 to 3 to ask voters to approve another Constitutional amendment that would lengthen the terms of senators from two to four years.
Gaines and Wiedower both voted last week in favor of House Bill 1464, which would put new restrictions on elections, and, the week earlier, in favor of House Bill 1358, which would remove requirement for a background check and license to carry a handgun in public.
Cowsert last week voted in favor of Senate Bill 171, which increases criminal penalties for protesters, makes it a felony to deface a monument or block a highway, and allows citizens to sue local governments if protests become violent.
The General Assembly is now more than three-quarters of the way through its 40-day session, with crossover day last week.
That is the day on which a bill must pass out of the chamber where it originated to be considered by the other chamber this session. Bills can be attached to others and still get consideration.
House Resolution 842 cleared the House last week and asks voters to amend the Constitution to increase the salary of Georgia senators and representatives so that it is equal to 60 percent of the median household income in Georgia.
The salary would increase automatically as the median income increases, making it unnecessary for the legislators to vote on their salaries in the future.
At present, legislators are paid $17,342, but that salary is set to increase by $5,000 as part of the Fiscal Year 2023 budget without the Constitutional amendment.
The median household income in Georgia in 2020 was $58,952, so the salary for legislators would be 60 percent of that, or $35,371. The figure would be updated each year.
In addition, legislators receive a per diem of $247 per day, or $9,880 for a 40-day legislative session. Many legislators receive per diems for more than the 40 days the legislature is in session because of committee and other work.
House Bill 824 would increase the pensions of legislators from $36 a month per year they serve in the General Assembly to $50.
Gaines And Wiedower Votes
Gaines voted against both House Resolution 842 calling for the Constitutional amendment and House Bill 824, increasing the pension legislators would receive.
Gaines was joined by 27 fellow Republicans and six Democrats in voting against the resolution
Spencer Frye, who represents the 118th House District, was one of the six Democrats voting against the resolution. Frye’s district falls entirely in Clarke County.
All 17 of the no votes on House Bill 824 were Republicans.
The House currently has 77 Democrats and 102 Republicans. One seat is vacant.
Gaines’ and Wiedower’s different votes on House Resolution 842 and House Bill 824 stand out.
The two legislators, in their public appearances and press statements, almost never take different positions.
Gaines and Wiedower have not issued any statements about their votes. Proponents said the pay increases are needed to attract legislators who are not independently wealthy and/or retired.
In his biographical sketch on the House of Representatives web site, Gaines says he works at Cannon Financial Institute, where he serves clients across the country in the financial industry.
In his 2022 Financial Disclosure Statement, Gaines said he is a “Client Advisor” at Cannon Financial Institute, which does “consulting and training for the financial services industry,” and a “director” at Carter Engineering, which does civil engineering consulting.
Cannon Financial Institute is located at 355 Oneta Street in Athens, according to its web site. Carter Engineering is at 3651Mars Hill Road in Oconee County.
The web site for Cannon Financial Institute lists four members of the “team,” and Gaines is not one of them. A search of the Cannon Financial Institute web site does turn up a reference to an audio “Episode” in which Gaines was a participant.
The Carter Engineering web site lists three partners as part of “Our Team.” Gaines is not one of them.
Gaines’ Financial Disclosure Statement
In his 2022 Financial Disclosure Statement, which covers 2021, Gaines lists his personal residence, valued at “More than $200,000" as his sole “Real Property.” That residence is at 228 Wilde Trail in Athens.
Gaines reports that the section on “Spouse’s Direct Ownership Interests In Real Property” “is not applicable.”
Gaines, who filed his 2021 report on Monday (March 21), lists investments in eight companies, including in Amazon, Google, and Microsoft.
Each investment is “more than 5 percent of the total interests in such business or investment” or “has a net fair market value of more than $5,000.”
In his biographical sketch on the House of Representatives Web site, Wiedower says he “works as a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Upchurch Realty, development coordinator for Hillpointe, LLC, and general contractor for Bulldawg Builders.”
Wiedower is not listed as a realtor on the web site of Caldwell Banker Upchurch Realty, but he is listed as an “Award Winning” agent in a full-page advertisement by Caldwell Banker Upchurch Realty in the March 17 edition of The Oconee Enterprise.
Hillpointe LLC is located at 8830 Macon Highway in Oconee County. Kelly Mahoney is listed as the registered agent. Mahoney is the developer of Athens Ridge student housing complex and The Falls of Oconee commercial complex.
Wiedower is listed as the CFO, CEO, and Secretary of Bulldawg Builders Inc., in the Secretary of State Corporate database. The address listed is 1151 Copperville Drive.
According to county tax records, Wiedower sold the property at 1151 Copperville Drive to KM Holdings LLC on Nov. 5 of 2021, for $500,000. Mahoney is listed as the registered agent for KM Holdings in the Secretary of State database.
Wiedower’s Financial Disclosure Statement
In his 2022 Financial Disclosure Statement, filed on Feb. 23 of this year for 2021, Wiedower lists his occupation as General Contractor with Bulldawg Builders.
He also reports he has more than a 5 percent ownership interest in Bulldawg Builders and Georgia Rentals XVIII LLC, both located at 1171 Copperville Drive, which also is listed as his residential address.
Wiedower is listed in the Secretary of State database as the registered agent of Georgia Rentals XVIII LLC, which has its address at 1151 Copperville Drive. Wiedower is listed as the organizer of Georgia Rentals XVIII LLC when it was formed in 2018.
Wiedower’s 2022 Financial Disclosure Statement lists three rental properties, two in Athens-Clarke County and one in Watkinsville, and each valued at between $100,000 and $200,000.
He lists an additional property for his wife, also in Watkinsville, and valued at between $100,000 and $200,000.
Wiedower lists the value of his home at 1171 Copperville Drive as more than $200,000. (The recently built home does not yet appear in the Oconee County electronic property records.)
He lists investment in an additional five companies in which he has “more than 5 percent of the total interests in such business or investment” or “has a net fair market value of more than $5,000.”
Included are American Funds, Path2College 529, and SEI Private Trust Company.
House Bill 1464
House Bill 1464, which both Gaines and Wiedower supported, passed the House in a 98 to 73 on March 15, with all of the yes votes cast by Republicans and all of the no votes cast by Democrats.
The bill prohibits local election offices from accepting donations from any source and gives the Georgia Bureau of Investigation original jurisdiction to investigate election fraud and election crimes.
The bill also allows for public inspection of paper ballots after an election by removing the requirement that they be sealed. Under current law, the ballots can be unsealed only by a judge’s order.
The bill repeats many of the requirements of Senate Bill 202, passed by the legislature last session, and also revises provisions related to the retention and preservation of ballots and other election documents.
As was the case with Senate Bill, much of the language of the bill deals with handling of absentee ballots.
The word “absentee ballot” occurs 74 times and “absentee ballots” occurs 52 times in the 39-page bill.
House Bill 1358
HB 1358 states that “Any lawful weapons carrier shall be authorized to carry a weapon...in every location in this state” not elsewhere prohibited, such as in secured areas of airports or government buildings.
The bill states that a “Lawful weapons carrier means any person who is licensed or eligible for a license” in the state and “who is not otherwise prohibited by law from possessing a weapon or long gun.”
The definition also includes “any resident of any other state who would otherwise be eligible to obtain a license” in Georgia “but for the residency requirement, and any person licensed to carry a weapon in any other state.”
Gaines and Wiedower joined the majority in the 94 to 57 vote on March 11, which also followed party lines.
The Senate passed parallel legislation, Senate Bill 319, referred to as constitutional carry legislation, on Feb. 28, with Oconee County Sen. Bill Cowsert voting with the 31 to 18 Republican majority.
Senate Bill 171
Senate Bill 171 passed with 31 to 18 on March 15, with one Democrat voting with the majority. No Republicans voted against the bill. Oconee Sen. Cowsert was in the Republican majority.
The bill states that “A person who knowingly participates in the assembly of seven or more persons and commits violence against a person within such assembly shall be guilty of a felony.”
Upon conviction, the violator shall be punished by an imprisonment for not less than one nor more than five years or a fine of not less than $1,000 nor more than $5,000 or both.
A person who “purposely or recklessly” obstructs “any highway or street in such a way as to render it impassable without unreasonable inconvenience or hazard and fails or refuses to remove the obstruction after he or she receives a reasonable official request or the order of a peace officer to do so” also is guilty of a felony with the same punishment.
The bill also makes it unlawful “to mutilate, deface, defile, or abuse contemptuously any publicly owned structure, monument, or cemetery located, erected, constructed, created, or maintained on real property” of an state agency.
“No officer or agency shall remove or conceal from display any such monument for the purpose of preventing the visible display of the same,” the bill reads.
The bill states that a “governing authority of a county or municipality that intentionally obstructs or interferes with the ability of a law enforcement agency of such county or municipality to provide reasonable law enforcement protection during a riot or unlawful assembly shall be civilly liable for any damages.”
Cowsert Financial Statement
Cowsert is an attorney in Athens and lists his occupation in his biographical sketch on the General Assembly web site as “founding partner of the Athens based law firm Cowsert & Heath.”
In his Financial Disclosure Statement for 2021, which he filed on Tuesday (March 22), Cowsert lists his ownership of the law firm as well as of Wildcat Investments LLC.
Cowsert lists his residence at 415 W. Rutherford Street, valued at more than $200,000, and 90 plus acres of undeveloped land on Lake Russell in Elbert County, also worth more than $200,000.
His wife also owns the residence in Athens and another residence on St. Simons Island, also worth more than $200,000.
Cowsert lists 80 business or investment entities, including Alibaba, Amazon, Apple, and Cisco Systems, Google, and Norfolk Southern.