Georgia Rep. Roger Bruce, D-Atlanta, wears a face shield, gloves and mask while speaking in favor a bill after the General Assembly returned this month to complete the session it suspended in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

New normal or one-time thing? The legislative session that went viral

Lobbyist Mo Thrash has been a regular at the state Capitol for 49 years, so it takes a lot for a session to be weird enough to crack his top 10 list.

But as he waited Friday on the third floor of the Statehouse for the traditional sine die, Thrash didn’t hesitate to announce that the No. 1 ranking now belongs to the 2020 coronavirus-interrupted session, the longest in modern General Assembly history.

“By far this was the most unusual session ever,” Thrash said through a protective mask. “No doubt about it.”

Amid ongoing racial justice protests around the Capitol, social-distancing rules that had House members voting from three different locations and kept the public and many lobbyists at bay, nonstop coronavirus testing and a huge state law enforcement presence, the General Assembly ended the distinctly odd session Friday having met many of the goals leaders set when the session reconvened from the COVID-19 suspension on June 15.

The tense environment didn’t stop lawmakers from approving a new hate-crimes law after the killing of Black men and protests roiled the state and nation and made it a top priority, even for some Republicans who had balked at the idea previously.

It didn’t keep lawmakers from passing a pandemic-recession state budget that — while cutting spending 10% — wasn’t nearly as bad as some thought it might be a month ago.

And it didn’t stop the General Assembly from — in two short weeks — passing a host of other measures, from making store delivery of wine, beer and liquor to your door legal and responding to problems in assisted living facilities to designating the shoal bass the official Georgia state riverine sport fish.

Because what’s a state without an official riverine sports fish?

“To call this an unusual and abnormal time would be an understatement,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia.

Tillery was talking about the collapse in state tax collections brought on by the pandemic recession. In early March, the General Assembly was trying to figure out how big a raise to give teachers and state employees. By April, they were wondering how many state employees they would have to lay off and furlough.

But for every bit of upheaval — the pandemic shutdown and reopening, COVID-19 hot spots popping up and killing and infecting scores, a primary election that was moved and then thoroughly botched in some places, and a backlash to killings that brought new activism to fight racism — there was a sense at the Capitol of a body both responding to catastrophe and seeking normalcy.

While cutting basic education funding $950 million and trying to find new ways to raise revenue, protect businesses reopening during the pandemic and addressing long-standing issues such as police treatment of minorities, lawmakers also spent the usual time taking up such matters as whether to stagger the terms for members of the Seed Development Commission and dedicating a portion of Ga. 9 in Dawson County as Thunder Road.

All done less than five months before what will be an epic election and with few members of the public in attendance, although they were able to watch from House and Senate streams or on TVs inside the Capitol.

“A lot happens when you’re not there,” Thrash said. “That’s why I’m here.”

Hate crimes

The session began the second Monday of January and was suspended in mid-March because of the pandemic. By the time lawmakers returned after a three-month hiatus, racial justice had leaped to the forefront of issues in need of being addressed and the protests were a call to action for members of both parties.

The Senate opened with an odd dance between lawmakers — mostly Democrats but also Republicans such as Sen. P.K. Martin of Lawrenceville  — calling for hate-crimes and other racial justice legislation and members of the GOP getting up to thank and defend the police.

For more than a year, House Bill 426 — a hate-crimes bill sponsored by a Republican House member — sat in the Senate Judiciary Committee, with Chairman Jesse Stone, a Waynesboro Republican, saying he thought the legislation needed more scrutiny.

The bill called for stronger penalties for those who commit crimes against people based on characteristics such as their race, gender or sexual orientation.

“People have asked me repeatedly over the last few months why did we not take a vote on this bill in Judiciary,” Stone said. “The easy answer to that is, we didn’t have the votes. It took the events that are shaking our nation and the leadership of our lieutenant governor to help forge a consensus, particularly among my Republican brethren.”

After video of the death of Ahmaud Arbery — a Black man who was followed and shot to death in February by a white man in the Brunswick area — became national news in May, House Speaker David Ralston upped the pressure on the Senate to quickly pass the bill that had narrowly gotten through his chamber more than a year before.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who presides over the Senate, said he supported hate-crimes legislation but that the House version was too weak, so he crafted his own version.

Instead of passing that, the Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee opted to add police as a protected class of citizens — despite a 2017 law that already increased the penalty for people convicted of assaulting officers. The move infuriated Democrats in the Senate.

After negotiations, Senate Republicans reversed course, removed protections for police and tacked them onto another bill. In the end, after hours of sometimes emotional debate, most lawmakers from both parties supported the hate-crimes measure, and Gov. Brian Kemp signed it into law Friday.

“The night of the vote, I just slept well,” said Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, who was first elected in 1974. “I felt good to be a Georgian.”

Republicans also pushed through House Bill 838, which would impose penalties if someone is convicted of “bias motivated intimidation” of police and other “first responders.” Under the bill, a police officer could also sue someone who filed a false complaint against him or her. During debate on the measure, the sponsor, Rep. Bill Hitchens, R-Rincon, a former head of the Georgia State Patrol, told story after story of troopers being treated poorly by people over the years.

But state Rep. Bee Nguyen, an Atlanta Democrat, said the measure was “designed to intimidate and punish protesters.”

“The right to assembly and to free speech are fundamental to our democracy,” she said. “We don’t need a bill of rights for the police — especially not one that infringes on the rights of the people.”

Evaporating revenue

The session started with many lawmakers riled over Kemp’s call for most state agencies to cut spending so the state would be prepared in case of a predicted mild recession, and also so he’d have enough money to fulfill his campaign promise to raise teacher pay. Before the pandemic hit, the House passed a budget for the fiscal year that starts Wednesday that included pay raises for teachers and more than 100,000 state and university employees.

Then the economy was shut down and revenue — mostly from income and sales taxes, and used to pay salaries, build roads and bridges, educate students, police highways and provide health care to Georgians — plunged.

By May any talk of raises was long gone and budget writers were asking agencies to cut spending 14% — about $3.3 billion. Many agencies — including the state patrol and the public health department fighting the pandemic — said they’d be forced to make workers take two, three, sometimes five weeks off without pay to make ends meet.

To add to the depressing situation, the Senate’s longtime Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, one of the most well-liked and knowledgeable members of the General Assembly, died unexpectedly in April.

Agencies submitted their requested gloom and doom plans, but in the end, Kemp determined that the state would raise enough next year so they’d only have to cut 10%, and he threw in $250 million from the state’s savings account to bolster the budget.

Tillery, who took over for Hill, and House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, announced last week that they’d worked out a deal so that no employees would have to take furloughs. While basic school funding was cut, budget writers said school systems had built up hefty reserves and could use them and $450 million in federal CARES Act grants approved by Congress at the start of the pandemic to avoid major damage to their finances.

“In light of the drastic downturn in the economy and the drastic downturn in revenues, we’ve got a much better budget than anybody thought we’d have a month and a half ago,” Kemp said.

Democrats and some Republicans in the Senate pushed measures to raise or save revenue — such as a cigarette tax hike and eliminating or cutting back on special-interest tax breaks — but Ralston rejected them before they got very far.

During the first week of January lawmakers passed and Kemp signed into law a measure making it easier for the state to collect taxes on internet and app-based sales, a move they hope will bring in millions of dollars in taxes they say are already owed.

But Kemp, Tillery and England will spend the six months leading up to the 2021 session in January watching closely how much tax revenue comes in during the recession, and planning in case another round of spending cuts is needed.

New normal?

The two-week June session was a trial run of sorts for House and Senate leaders. To hold a live session, they did things they’d never done before. The path of the pandemic — whether coronavirus cases slow or spike before lawmakers reconvene in January, whether there is a vaccine by then — will determine whether this was the new normal or a one-time thing.

People entering the Capitol had their temperatures checked by scanners. Some entrances were shut down to funnel people into a few doors. Testing was plentiful. Most lobbyists wore masks, although a few conservatives disdained them.

Masks were mandated in the House chamber, although some Republicans chose to wear them like neck scarves and not cover their mouth or nose much of the time. Ralston reminded members of the rules several times. Masks were not mandated for senators, but most wore them regularly, except in committee meeting rooms, where many Republicans discarded them. The threat of COVID-19 didn’t stop some lawmakers and lobbyists from talking up close, whether wearing masks or not.

The House spread out members so some were at their desks in the chamber, some in the balcony, some in a House committee room. Votes were by roll call and could take 10 minutes or more, greatly slowing down the process. Debate was more limited in the House than usual, likely because of the lack of proximity.

Lobbyists complained about not being able to get into some meetings and, as usual, some bills were written and rewritten behind closed doors without the public knowing what was going on and quickly passed out of committees.

Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, who has been in the General Assembly for almost 30 years, wasn’t a fan. Powell was wearing a mask before most of his colleagues in March, and he wore gloves as well as a mask in the session reboot.

“I don’t think we’re close to the end” of the pandemic, Powell said. “People are going to have to start taking this stuff seriously.”

But he called the way the session took place “a pitiful state of affairs.”

“I believe in openness in the legislative process, and that means citizens being able to lobby us,” he said. “I ain’t seen any individual citizens. The public should be here while we’re dealing with their business.”

Powell is hoping next year’s session is close to normal for lawmakers. At least one House staffer tested positive for COVID-19 during the two-week restart. Five senators and at least two House members had it earlier this year. Powell noted that some colleagues didn’t consistently wear masks, and he wondered about what July holds.

“I’d like to see what the infection rate is after this session is over,” he said.

Even the ending of the COVID-19 session was different.

As time ticked down on the session Friday night, Ralston told lawmakers not to tear up copies of bills and amendments and throw them into the air when the final, sine die gavel came down, as is tradition.

He added, “There is not going to be anyone here to clean it up.”

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