The Georgia State Capitol and Liberty Plaza as viewed from the James H. “Sloppy” Floyd Building. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Georgia House panels can begin in-person meetings May 19

While Georgia legislative leadership continues to negotiate the date lawmakers will return to the Capitol, House Speaker David Ralston told his chamber’s members that panels could begin discussing bills in mid-May.

Lawmakers suspended the session March 13 in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

It is not yet clear when lawmakers will come back to Atlanta to complete the legislative session. Ralston is taking steps to resume work June 11, while Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and Senate leaders are pushing for a May 14 return. Ralston and Duncan must agree before the session can resume. 

“We plan to permit the resumption of in-person committee meetings at the Capitol on Tuesday, May 19,” Ralston said in a letter sent to House members Thursday. “Those meetings will be subject to the provisions of any applicable public health directives.”

Committees can only hear testimony and discuss legislation. Ralston said they cannot take any action on proposed bills until the session resumes. Under the plan outlined in Ralston’s letter, House staff members would return to the Capitol on May 18. 

The most pressing issue facing lawmakers is the state’s budget for the new fiscal year, which begins July 1. It will be vastly different than the version the House passed in March due to estimated billions of dollars in lost revenue to the state as a result of the pandemic. 

Ralston has said resuming the session in June will give state budget writers a clearer picture of how much revenue has been lost. State law requires the Legislature to pass a balanced budget before July 1.

Duncan’s chief of staff, John Porter, sent a letter to Senate members Thursday reiterating their desire to return to work May 14, given that Gov. Brian Kemp’s shelter-at-home order is expected to expire Thursday night.

“We think it’s a good signal to the state that we get back to work in this time of uncertainty,” Porter said in the letter. “Furthermore, our teachers and state agencies are desperately counting on us to get them a budget so they can start planning for the future.”

Porter acknowledged that, because Duncan and Ralston must reach an agreement, lawmakers may not return until June.

“Unfortunately for us, time is not on our side,” Porter wrote. “The House can simply withhold consent past our proposed May 14 start date and force us to agree to their June 11 date.”

Earlier this month, Ralston appointed a committee to make recommendations and establish protocols for how the chamber will operate when lawmakers return. Ralston has asked that committee to begin holding virtual meetings next week.

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