Georgia legislators set to return to a much-different session

Jim Potvin, center, the executive director of the Employees’ Retirement System, and L. C. “Buster” Evans, the executive director of the Teachers Retirement System, go over notes as they wait to be called to speak to Senate budget writers. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Jim Potvin, center, the executive director of the Employees’ Retirement System, and L. C. “Buster” Evans, the executive director of the Teachers Retirement System, go over notes as they wait to be called to speak to Senate budget writers. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

The Georgia General Assembly returns to the Capitol on Monday to finish possibly the oddest legislative session on record.

Lawmakers started the year with hopes of passing hundreds of bills, giving pay raises to 200,000 teachers and state employees, and cutting the income tax. Just the kind of political goodies welcome to any incumbent seeking re-election in November.

Instead, legislators are coming back to a disinfected Statehouse after a three-month break caused by the coronavirus pandemic and now face the prospect of approving little beyond a recession-wracked budget that will cut state services and could force tens of thousands of staffers — from state troopers to educators — to take days off without pay.

With many legislators masked up and social distancing the norm, debates and votes could take hours rather than minutes. 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.

"The budget is going to take up so much oxygen in the room, those 11 days will go by quickly," said House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. "It's going to be a much slower and more cumbersome process."

While lawmakers must, by law, pass a spending plan before the start of the next fiscal year — July 1 — there will be a push for plenty of other measures as well, including hate-crimes legislation stalled in the Senate, proposals to shield companies from legal liability if workers or customers contract COVID-19, bills to make assisted living communities safer, and yet another bid to increase gaming in Georgia.

All of it will occur amid the backdrop of the three-month fight to control the pandemic, the recession and the record unemployment it produced, the shooting of black jogger Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County by a white man and death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, the weeks of protests against police brutality and racial injustice that followed, and a bungled primary ahead of a highly charged election in November.

A different kind of session

Legislative sessions begin the second Monday of each year and typically end in late March or early April. It’s rare that they last beyond the week of the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, in part because many legislators like to attend.

This session lawmakers went in knowing Gov. Brian Kemp wanted spending cuts to prepare for a possible downturn in the economy and have enough money for his top priority, a pay raise for teachers.

Lawmakers spent two months passing legislation and debating those cuts. In mid-March, the House passed its second cut in two years to the income-tax rate and a $28 billion budget that included pay raises for teachers, state workers and university employees. But the Senate didn’t take them up before the pandemic forced a shutdown after lawmakers ratified emergency powers for Kemp on March 16.

At least six lawmakers have tested positive for COVID-19.

Officials recognized the shuttering of many businesses to stem the spread of the virus would wreck the state budget, which relies heavily on income and sales tax collections to help fund schools, public health programs, state police, corrections, business regulation, highways and much more. Revenue collections quickly plummeted. As of the end of May the state was almost $860 million behind for this fiscal year  — which ends June 30 — and Kemp projected a $2.6 billion drop in revenue for fiscal 2021 as the recession lingers.

Georgia budget writers joined colleagues in other states in asking Congress for aid to help fill budget gaps, without success so far. Congress did, however, supply money to help pay to fight the pandemic, which Kemp made his priority in part to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed.

The governor mostly avoided talking about the financial damage to state coffers until early June, when he projected the shortfall.

“COVID-19 has undermined our economic growth, stability and prosperity,” Kemp said. “We know that the economic impact of this global pandemic has squeezed state revenues, just like the wallets of hardworking Georgians across the state.”

Meanwhile, House and Senate leaders couldn’t agree on when they would come back. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan wanted to return in May, a few weeks after Kemp began reopening Georgia’s economy. Ralston favored June 11, two days after the Georgia primary, which had been moved because of the pandemic.

They eventually settled on Monday, and by then they'd talked for more than a month about what the return would look like.

During typical sessions, the third floor of the Capitol is jammed with lawmakers, staff, lobbyists and visitors. Some days it’s hard to move in the crowd. Lawmakers spend more than an hour each day with a morning sermon and prayer, introducing the volunteer doctor who mans the Capitol aid station, random speechifying, and greeting visiting ball teams, beauty queens, school groups, sororities and sundry honorees before getting down to business.

The rooms where key committees meet are typically packed as well, mostly with lobbyists and journalists. As in the case of the Capitol’s third floor, epidemiologists would rate them ideal places to spread diseases such as COVID-19.

When the session resumes, lawmakers will be spread out, with some in the chamber in their seats, and many not. Lawmakers presenting bills will be speaking to partially empty chambers. Most senators will watch the presentation of bills on a stream from their office or elsewhere outside the chamber and be brought in to vote, according to Senate leaders. The House will spread out in the chamber and public galleries, and there will be a roll call of members when they have to vote on bills.

The General Assembly — and the lobby corps — includes many people 65 and over, one of the groups most at risk of getting seriously ill if infected, and many if not most are expected to be wearing masks. But some Republican senators eschewed them during budget meetings in recent weeks. There will also be temperature scanners at building entrances.

What goes on in the chamber and during committee meetings will be streamed to anyone who wants to watch. But the Senate said that during the session it wouldn’t stream most subcommittee meetings, which are often where lobbyists testify about what they’d like to see the General Assembly pass or not pass. The House announced last week that it will stream such subcommittee meetings.

Hundreds of bills

When the General Assembly suspended its session in March, it left hundreds of bills awaiting final action. Because the process will slow down and at least some legislation might seem frivolous during a health crisis and protests against racial injustice — such as Senate Bill 396 to designate the pecan as the state nut — most measures will have to wait until next year.

"We're definitely not going to have a regular session where every member gets what they can get," said Rep. Brett Harrell, R-Snellville, who pushed both the likely now-dead cut to the income tax and a measure that would allow stores to deliver beer and wine to homes.

The bill that’s gotten the most attention in recent weeks — by far — is hate-crimes legislation that has passed the House but stalled in the Senate.

The measure would allow stiffer sentences for anyone convicted of targeting a victim based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability or physical disability.

Democrats have long sought passage of the law, and Ralston backed it long before the recent protestsSome of Georgia's most powerful companies have urged lawmakers to approve it during the restarted session.

But some powerful Senate leaders have raised objections, including Jesse Stone, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, the Senate's president, wants changes to the House measure that he says would strengthen it. That means even if a version is approved by the Senate, it would have to return to the House for another vote, and it barely got enough support to pass the last time.

Georgia is one of four states in the nation without such a measure after a previous law was declared unconstitutional in 2004.

Democrats also want lawmakers to repeal the state’s citizen’s arrest statute, which prosecutors initially cited in the death of Arbery to justify the decision not to charge the white father-and-son duo filmed in the fatal confrontation. They were later charged.

House Minority Leader Robert Trammell, D-Luthersville, has also called on lawmakers to overhaul the state's stand-your-ground law to prevent residents from citing the statute when they "chase someone down and kill them." And he said the state should encourage civilian review boards for police departments to review hiring, use of force and other complaints.

Kemp is backing final passage of legislation that passed the House earlier this year to change requirements for assisted living communities and large personal care homes. The measure came after an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found nearly 700 cases where residents suffered from neglect or abuse in such facilities across the state.

Lawmakers could also take up legislation related to the pandemic — such as the legal liability measure — and gambling lobbyists are working overtime hoping to persuade the General Assembly to pass casino and sports betting measures.

Pandemic recession budget

The one thing lawmakers must do is pass a budget to fund k-12 schools, universities and state agencies.

With the economic slowdown expected to last for months if not years, budget writers initially asked agencies for plans to cut 14% from their budgets. Kemp reduced that to 11%, but it still leaves the possibility of furloughed teachers and shorter school years in some districts, fewer state patrolmen on the road and doctors trained, a clogged court system and fewer drug treatment and mental health services.

More than 1,000 filled jobs would be eliminated, and tens of thousands would be furloughed.

When agency directors talked about their desire to save employees from layoffs or furloughs, they occasionally got pushback from GOP senators during recent hearings.

"I am not sure the function of government is to preserve jobs," said Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, chairman of a budget subcommittee. "Public service is the primary function of government and delivering services to the people of Georgia.

“Downturns in the economy aren’t always bad because it really makes you prioritize.”

But there are other spending reductions, such as grants to the Morehouse School of Medicine and Mercer University’s medical school and maternal mortality programs, that cut deep for lawmakers who have long promoted them.

"Morehouse has turned out excellent physicians for unserved and underserved communities," said Sen. Valencia Seay, D-Riverdale, who added that black women have a much greater risk of dying in childbirth than whites in Georgia and that a disproportionate number of African Americans have died from the coronavirus.

“We can’t keep cutting the funds that are helping to turn out those willing and capable of providing what everybody deserves, and that’s access to health care,” Seay said. “When are we going to make a change?”

There had been talk leading up to the session about ways to raise state revenue, including increasing Georgia’s relatively low tobacco taxes, to mitigate the cuts.

But Ralston, who became House speaker during the Great Recession a decade ago, doesn’t expect it to go beyond talk. The General Assembly, run by Republicans then as now, avoided increasing taxes during the Great Recession by making deep cuts in spending to balance budgets. While Democrats and some think tanks say state job cuts and furloughs will only prolong the coronavirus recession, Ralston said there is little support among Republicans to raise cigarette taxes or any other tax.

“An economic recession is not the time to ask people to give the state more money,” Ralston said. “I get that this downturn is worse than what we faced a decade ago. But I think there is a model for coming back that does not involve a tax increase.”

Key dates in the 2020 General Assembly session:

Jan. 13 — Session starts.

Jan. 16 — Gov. Brian Kemp proposes budget with $2,000 teacher pay raise.

Feb. 28 — Kemp appoints coronavirus task force.

March 10 — House passes 2021 budget with pay raises for teachers and state employees, and it approves income tax cut.

March 11 — Kemp asks lawmakers to put $100 million worth of emergency funds into 2020 midyear budget to fight coronavirus pandemic.

March 12 — Lawmakers pass midyear budget with emergency funding, vote to suspend session starting the next day.

March 14 — Governor declares a public health emergency.

March 16 — Lawmakers return to the Capitol to ratify governor’s declaration.

March 18 — Senators are informed that Sen. Brandon Beach has tested positive for the coronavirus, one of at least six lawmakers to eventually test positive.

March 19 — The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports business shutdown and recession caused by the pandemic could wreck state finances.

April 16 — House speaker appoints committee to begin considering how lawmakers will reopen the session.

April 20 — Kemp announces the beginning of the reopening of Georgia’s economy.

May 1 — House and Senate budget leaders ask state agencies to come up with plans to cut spending 14% because of a decline in state tax revenue expected during the recession.

June 2 — After more than a month of haggling over the date, House and Senate leaders agree to have the General Assembly return June 15.

June 2 — Kemp says state revenue will drop 11% in fiscal 2021, meaning billions in spending cuts.