Virus forces Georgia Legislature to suspend session

Georgia Sen. P.K. Martin of Lawrenceville, right, and Steve Tippins, the chief of staff to Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller react Thursday as Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan suspends the Senate’s session due to the coronavirus. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Georgia Sen. P.K. Martin of Lawrenceville, right, and Steve Tippins, the chief of staff to Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller react Thursday as Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan suspends the Senate’s session due to the coronavirus. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Georgia legislative leaders took the unprecedented step Thursday of calling a temporary halt to the 2020 legislative session amid the growing coronavirus pandemic.

For the lawmakers, staffers and lobbyists who live in a politically charged, back-slapping, hand-shaking Capitol bubble three months at the beginning of each year, it was a reality check.

And many of them were relieved after slugging their way through days of lengthy agendas as the pandemic grew.

"We need to just sort of disperse a little bit to let it die down for all of us involved that are captured in this building," said Sen. Ed Harbison, 78, a Columbus Democrat who has been in the Legislature for 27 years. "You have to respect trying to do something rather than sit here and let yourself be assaulted by some disease and you don't know how you're going to be affected by it."

The House and Senate will be gaveled in Friday morning and then reconvene for the 30th legislative day “at a future date and time to be set” by the lieutenant governor and speaker of the House.

The Legislature meets for up to 40 legislative days, but it is unclear when lawmakers will return.

"This thing is going to end sometime soon," House Speaker David Ralston said as he announced the decision to his chamber. "When it does, we are going to be coming back."

He told colleagues that the House staff would be teleworking, starting Friday, and he urged lawmakers to go home and be with their families.

“Our hope and prayer is we are overreacting,” Ralston said, “but I’d rather do it this way than to underreact.

“Hopefully it won’t be long.”

Lawmakers were well into the day’s business — considering dozens of proposals on the last legislative day that a bill typically could be approved by at least one chamber and still have a chance of becoming law — when the announcement was made.

Earlier in the week, Ralston suspended the House’s student page program and stopped allowing guests in the chamber, and Senate leaders continued to operate under business as usual — other than encouraging the use of “elbow bumps” instead of handshakes.

Sensing that they may have to take a break, the House and Senate moved quickly early Thursday to give final approval to the midyear budget that will keep state government running through June 30.

The midyear plan includes $100 million that Gov. Brian Kemp requested Wednesday to help the state deal with the coronavirus outbreak. The governor took the unusual step of shifting the money from the state's reserves, which are typically used only in the case of a fiscal emergency. The last time a governor used such reserves was in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

Lawmakers also added $5 million into the midyear budget for rural hospitals, which they said may face special costs associated with the virus. Georgia officials have already reported coronavirus cases in rural Georgia.

The question is whether the budget the chambers passed will be balanced in a few months if the coronavirus significantly slows the economy. A slower economy means less tax revenue. The midyear budget is predicated on a small amount of growth, but even that may not occur. Under the Georgia Constitution, the state can’t spend more than it takes in.

"It's a real concern," said Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. "Our budget is not structurally balanced because we shifted money from the strategic reserve. And the revenue estimates may be off — perhaps considerably."

House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, said that impact should be short-term and that there should be "a fairly robust" economy after the threat fades or slows.

The General Assembly has to come back at some point because only one chamber, the House, has approved a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1. By law, the Legislature has to approve one.

But lawmakers also didn't want to completely call it quits for the year because there are still hundreds of bills they want to take up, everything from measures to slow the flood of surprise emergency medical bills patients receive to whether stores can deliver beer and wine to your door.

Rumors that Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan might end the session for the year had lobbyists concerned as they milled around outside the chambers Thursday morning. Months of work could have gone down the drain and they’d have to start all over, with a new Legislature, next year. Now it will just be put off until the General Assembly returns.

Some lawmakers worried about their inability to raise campaign money while the legislative session is suspended. Georgia law forbids state lawmakers from fundraising while they are in session, and the Republican and Democratic primaries are only a few months away.

"Those of us who have primary opposition, if the session is in, you can't raise money. That's the state law," Sen. David Lucas, a Macon Democrat, said to Duncan when he announced the suspension of the session. "So how do we deal with the election and the raising of money for our campaign?"

Duncan, who doesn’t face voters again until 2022, replied, “Senator, that’s not my concern right now.”