03/13/2020 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- A Georgia State Trooper (right) walks the empty hallways of the Georgia State Capitol building during the 29th day of the Georgia Legislative session, Friday, March 13, 2020. Out of caution and in relation to the coronavirus, the Georgia General General Assembly suspended the legislative session until further notice. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

The Jolt: What to watch as Georgia lawmakers end a coronavirus hiatus

They’re baaaack: Lawmakers return for Part Two of the Georgia legislative session on Monday with plenty on their to-do list.

A state budget gutted by the coronavirus-related recession. Demands for criminal justice changes amid a movement against police brutality. An election wracked by embarrassing problems at the polls. A pandemic that isn’t going anywhere.

As our AJC colleague James Salzer notes, it could be possibly the oddest legislative session on record when the three-month break ends on Monday.

Here are a few issue to keep an eye on:

The budget: Georgia’s spending plan is the sole must-pass measure that lawmakers have to pass during the final 11 days of the session. And they must contend with 11% budget cuts that would slash spending by $2.6 billion that could lead to furloughed teachers, fewer law enforcement officers and a court backlog.

Criminal justice: House and Senate leaders insist there’s fresh momentum behind stalled hate-crimes legislation that imposes stiffer penalties on crimes motivated by bias. Democrats say the legislation should be the vanguard of a broader overhaul that also includes a repeal of stand-your-ground laws and a ban on the police use of chokeholds. 

Election changes: After a bungled primary, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger wants new powers to intervene when county election offices aren’t performing up to snuff – and to require counties to pay for that help. Democrats want more systemic changes to the rules -- and block a pending measure they fear could sow confusion.

Pandemic: Business groups are dialing up the pressure on state lawmakers to advance legislation that would shield companies from legal liability if workers or customers contract COVID-19.

Mischief: As Salzer wrote, fewer bills may be approved in the last 11 days of the 2020 session than typically pass in the final two hours of more traditional sessions. But the frenzy could also lead to more legislative mischief as the budget and other high-profile debates soak up all the attention. 

Masks: “Yes, masks are required in House committee meetings and on House floor. 2) No, I'm not kidding,” tweeted Kaleb McMichen, an aide to Speaker David Ralston, this morning. The Senate has no such requirement. But both chambers are taking steps to avoid ward off the disease -- steps that could turn minutes-long votes into longer processes. 

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“Gene King and Stacey Abrams have a lot in common.” 

That headlined a flyer sent by allies of House Speaker David Ralston to help defeat Gene King in the GOP primary for a state House seat held by Democratic House Minority Leader Bob Trammell.

Why the attention? Trammell is one of the top Republican targets in the state, and the GOP establishment is putting its marbles behind David Jenkins, the military veteran who easily won the nomination.

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Here’s another sign that a hate-crimes law could get some new traction in the Georgia Senate. State Sen. Bill Cowsert predicted his chamber will pass the measure, though it will differ from the version earlier approved by the House.

From Oconee County Observations:

Cowsert said he supports passage of a bill, and he thinks the bill that the Senate will produce “will be much more comprehensive” than the House Bill now before the Senate for consideration.

On a similar note, about 500 executives from some of Georgia’s biggest companies have now signed onto a letter organized by the Metro Atlanta Chamber urging the passage of a “comprehensive” hate-crimes law.

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In endorsement news:

  • Five former presidential candidates -- U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand and Michael Bennet -- have each backed Rev. Raphael Warnock’s bid to oust Sen. Kelly Loeffler. 

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CIVIL RIGHTS ICON RETURNS || March 1, 2020, Selma: A group of men hoist U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, on their shoulders so he can speak to the crowd of marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge during Selma's re-enactment of Bloody Sunday. (Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com)
Photo: Curtis Compton/Curtis Compton

The renewed focus on statues and monuments honoring people who perpetuated racist ideals, and whether they should continue to stand, has drawn attention to an effort to rename Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge after U.S. Rep. John Lewis.

Hollywood mogul Ava Duvernay, who directed the movie “Selma,” posted on social media about the supporting the Change.org petition: 

“I’ve just signed a petition about this bridge to dignity as seen in SELMA. It is named after a KKK grand wizard and confederate warlord. Edmund Pettus Bridge should be the John Lewis Bridge. Named for a hero. Not a murderer. Join this call. It’s past due.”

The bridge is the setting of the Bloody Sunday incident where Lewis and other civil rights leaders were beaten after attempting to hold a voting rights march across its threshold in 1965. The bridge, built in 1940 and named after the Alabama U.S. senator, is now a National Historic Landmark. The renaming effort gained steam after Lewis, one of the last living Civil Rights leaders, announced he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Like in Georgia, Alabama has a law that makes it difficult to remove or rename statues and markers on public property, meaning without a legislative change the bridge is unlikely to get a name change. 

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As speculation over who Joe Biden will pick as his vice president continues, Stacey Abrams doesn’t appear to be among those being vetted. At least, not yet.

“I have said many times that if called I will answer, but I have not received any calls,” Abrams told The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert last week.

Meanwhile, many Biden watchers had said Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ chances were improving as a potential pick. 

We wait to see whether that changes after the fallout from Friday’s police shooting of a black man as he tried to flee from arrest.

***

Our deepest sympathies: Bill Kokaly, a long-time aide to U.S. Rep. Doug Collins has died after an 18-month bout with cancer.

“His dedication to the 9th District will never be replaced,” Collins said. “To his family, we share your pain and hold you close in our prayers.”

Gov. Brian Kemp and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan were also among those who paid tribute to Kokaly, a beloved figure in his community.

***

Americans for Prosperity is purchasing $1 million in ads to defend four vulnerable U.S. senators, including Georgia’s David Perdue, The Hill reports. Perdue faces Democrat Jon Ossoff in the general election.

The libertarian political organization is funded by billionaire Charles Koch. It’s money will also support Republican senators John Cornyn of Texas, Steve Daines of Montana and Thom Tillis of North Carolina with ads focused on the senators’ work to reduce taxes and red tape.

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