Protests and tough choices greet Georgia lawmakers for 2020 session

House Speaker David Ralston eulogizes Georgia House Rules Chairman Jay Powell, who died in November during a retreat of Republican legislative leaders. Bob Andres /

House Speaker David Ralston eulogizes Georgia House Rules Chairman Jay Powell, who died in November during a retreat of Republican legislative leaders. Bob Andres /

Rain, protests and power outages punctuated the first day of this year’s Georgia legislative session as lawmakers returned to Atlanta for tough choices on budget cuts, taxes and gambling.

The Capitol was buzzing as legislators and lobbyists filled the halls to tackle some of the many issues left on their plates when session adjourned last year — and to find a way to answer Gov. Brian Kemp’s call to cut state spending.

Legislative leaders in the Senate rolled out their list of priorities, which includes improving access to the internet in rural parts of the state, curbing the state's high rate of maternal mortality and bringing in more money through internet sales taxes. On the House side, representatives emphasized the possibility of asking voters to expand gambling beyond the Georgia Lottery.

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The different messages from the Senate and House showed an early divide on gambling.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan said gambling isn't a priority, a contrast to House Speaker David Ralston's willingness to put a gambling question on the ballot for voters to decide.

"What we're focused on are the things that will have the greatest impact over the greatest number of Georgians in the shortest amount of time," said Dugan, a Republican from Carrollton.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan also said he didn’t see a strong desire from senators to pass legislation that would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment that could allow casinos, horse racing or sports betting in Georgia — or all three.

Duncan said instead he hoped the session would address issues such as ensuring price transparency in medical billing and improving the foster care system.

“We can do a better job of supporting foster kids and the families that support them,” he said.

Lawmakers took time to honor the loss of colleagues in each chamber. House Rules Chairman Jay Powell died during a legislative retreat in November, and state Sen. Greg Kirk died last month, about six months after announcing he had bile duct cancer.

During a floor speech in memory of Powell, Ralston called out legislators who label themselves as being “principled.” Ralston said they should behave more like Powell, a close ally and a Republican from Camilla.

"There are some coming into the political process and they self-advertise themselves as being principled. And sometimes it helps that they do that because otherwise you might not know," said Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge. "Jay listened to and followed that inner voice of conscience, and the political consequences could be damned."

In the upper chamber, the secretary of the Senate called out each lawmaker’s name, pausing when he reached Kirk, an Americus Republican who was the chairman of the State and Local Governmental Operations Committee.

In addition, state Sen. Bill Heath, a Bremen Republican, announced that he would not seek re-election this year. He was first elected to the House in 2002 and the Senate in 2004.

“There is more to life than politics. I’m convinced of that,” Heath said.

The day wasn’t without drama.

Six protesters were escorted from the Senate gallery after chanting "declare a climate emergency" and charged with unlawful assembly, police said. Senate rules prohibit outbursts while the chamber is in session.

Environmentalists for months have held protests on and near the Capitol grounds, urging state government to address climate change.

Then shortly after 11 a.m., just as the chambers were wrapping up the day’s business, the Capitol and a few surrounding buildings went dark — causing many in the halls and chambers to joke about whether the outage was a good or bad omen.

"It doesn't really matter. Half the time we walk around here in the dark anyways," said state Rep. Terry Rogers, a Clarkesville Republican.

The outage lasted only a few minutes.

Legislation to close holes in the state budget already started moving forward Monday. Kemp has called on lawmakers to reduce spending by 4% this year and 6% next year because tax collections have lagged since the state cut the top income tax rate from 6% to 5.75% in 2018.

Lawmakers are nearing an agreement on a proposal to close a loophole that allows many online retailers to avoid paying sales taxes, said Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Hufstetler, a Republican from Rome. That kind of measure could add hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue to the state.

“Georgia doesn’t have a revenue problem as much as a collection problem,” Hufstetler said.

Throughout the Capitol, advocacy groups cornered lawmakers to urge them to support causes such as gun control and civil rights.

As legislators walked into the House and Senate chambers, they received copies of the U.S. Constitution from volunteers and staff for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. The organization urged lawmakers to preserve the rights of women, racial minorities and the LGBTQ community.

“It’s a reminder to stay faithful to the people who put you in office because they want you to be faithful to the Constitution,” said Chris Bruce, a lobbyist for the ACLU.


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