March 16, 2020 - Atlanta - Minority leader Steve Henson (from left), D - Stone Mountain, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, and Majority leader Mike Dugan, R - Carrollton, confer before the vote. Georgia lawmakers gathered in an extraordinary special session on Monday and voted to grant Gov. Brian Kemp sweeping new powers to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. It's the first time in state history a governor has declared a public health emergency, and Kemp cast it as essential to deploy all available resources to contain a disease that's sickened dozens of Georgians and has killed one. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/robert.andres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/robert.andres@ajc.com

Kemp extends emergency powers to mid-May to combat coronavirus

Gov. Brian Kemp said Wednesday he would extend Georgia’s public health emergency through May 13, granting him more time to use extraordinary powers to suspend laws and impose other restrictions to contain the coronavirus pandemic. 

The governor announced the decision in tandem with House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who both said they would not request a special legislative session tentatively scheduled for next week. 

“We are in the throngs of this outbreak pandemic, and we need to extend the public health emergency so we have all the resources and tools that we’re going to need as a state government to continue to respond like we have been,” Kemp told WDUN on Wednesday. 

The extension prolongs the governor’s authority to take “direct” control of civil staffers, restrict travel, limit public gatherings and institute a range of other measures to combat the disease. 

It also evokes memories of the initial vote about three weeks ago, when wary lawmakers ventured into the Georgia Capitol for an uneasy special session that was expected to last an hour but wound up taking roughly eight. 

Now, with the governor deciding to extend those powers unilaterally, that March 16 rendezvous at the Gold Dome takes on greater importance. And a compromise after negotiations stalled that day spares legislators of an uncomfortable return to the Capitol.

The initial version of the legislation in the House would have set up a second special session to extend Kemp’s public health declaration, which is set to expire Monday. The Senate left the decision on renewing the powers strictly up to the governor. 

One of the loudest voices of dissent in the House was state Rep. Bert Reeves, a Marietta Republican who questioned if the “outbreak is as devastating and bad as it potentially could be” why lawmakers should return to the Capitol for a vote. 

“This is something that’s in the law,” said House Majority Leader Jon Burns. “It’s prudent for us to do this today to ratify the governor’s call and we will do the same 30 days from now.” 

After hours of back-and-forth, a deal was struck: Lawmakers agreed to give Kemp the authority to renew the declaration unilaterally in April if the General Assembly couldn’t reconvene because the coronavirus crisis made such meetings impossible.

Since then, a parade of developments has rendered a Gold Dome reunion in the next week unthinkable. 

The entire legislative branch was forced to self-isolate after a senator at the session revealed he tested positive for the disease. Escalating restrictions followed, capped by last week’s shelter in place order.

Kemp wound up extending the public health emergency on his own ahead of a Wednesday briefing. And legislative leaders have no plans to return to ratify the order. House lawmakers will be formally notified Wednesday they won’t have to return. 

“While we have difficult days ahead, we continue to coordinate with both local and federal partners in responding to needs as they arise,” said House Speaker David Ralston. “As Georgians, we will persevere and emerge stronger on the other side.”

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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