General Assembly prepares for another pandemic session Monday

Members of the Georgia House of Representatives wear masks in June, when the 2020 legislative session resumed after being suspended in March as a caution against COVID-19. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Members of the Georgia House of Representatives wear masks in June, when the 2020 legislative session resumed after being suspended in March as a caution against COVID-19. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Georgia lawmakers return to the state Capitol on Monday for their second COVID-19 session in seven months amid a still-deadly pandemic, an uncertain budget picture and partisan rancor left over from President Donald Trump’s failed reelection bid.

The 2021 session will begin with the swearing in of a new General Assembly, but things might look a lot like they did during the legislative restart in June, when lawmakers (mostly) wore masks and socially distanced, and the public was urged to largely stay away for health reasons.

One change will likely be more police at the Statehouse in response to Wednesday’s storming of the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters.

The 2020 session was suspended in March because of the coronavirus outbreak — only to finish just before the end of the fiscal year in June. With COVID-19 cases skyrocketing over the winter, it’s unclear whether the 2021 session will run straight through or lawmakers will be forced to suspend again.

“I think it’s going to depend on the (COVID) rate,” said House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. “We may have to make decisions kind of on the fly if the rate spikes here.

“But we have to get our work done.”

Lawmakers and their employees will be required to be tested for COVID twice a week during the session. Testing was available in June as well, after several senators caught the virus in March.

State senators and representatives and legislative employees also will be required to wear masks, something Ralston demanded in the state House in June. Most lobbyists have also been consistent about masks, but many of the Capitol police officers who protect lawmakers at the Statehouse don’t wear them.

At least six lawmakers tested positive for COVID-19 in its first few weeks in Georgia, with one senator facing criticism from colleagues because he attended a vote with symptoms of the virus while awaiting test results.

Typically, sessions run from the second Monday of January until late March or early April. Lawmakers like to finish by school spring break or the Masters golf tournament, which this year is scheduled to begin April 5.

But with the pandemic raging and vaccines not yet widely available, going straight through from January to April will take some work, plus good luck.

Wayne Garner, a former Georgia Senate leader who lobbies at the Capitol and was hospitalized in the fall with COVID-19, said the Legislature should probably take some time off to wait until more people get vaccinated against the virus.

“I don’t see anything out there for them to do that is of enough value to risk the health of the General Assembly,” Garner said. “There is nothing that is that important.”

The one thing lawmakers are required by law to do is pass a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins June 30. The $26 billion budget pays for schools, health care, roads, business regulations, the Georgia State Patrol, prisons and a host of other things.

Lawmakers cut $2.2 billion in spending in June — including $950 million in basic k-12 school funding — because they thought revenue collections would tank during the COVID recession. That hasn’t happened, at least not yet, so Gov. Brian Kemp on Thursday will announce a budget plan for the upcoming year — which begins July 1 — that avoids further budget cuts and likely increases school and health care spending.

Legislative budget writers are still concerned collections will dip during the first half of 2021 as the economy recovers, so there is no guarantee what they will pass in the separate midyear budget that runs through June 30. It is a switch from past years, when lawmakers are typically more concerned about handicapping the next fiscal year, rather than the one they are in.

“We will be closely watching the state budget,” said Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain. “While we expect the state to experience growth once we are out of the pandemic woods, our more immediate concern is the state’s 2021 supplemental budget where we could see shortfalls. It will be our role to ensure any reductions do not disproportionately impact working families.”

Ralston asked House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, to move quickly on the midyear budget so state agencies will have enough money if lawmakers have to suspend the session due to COVID.

The hottest debate of the session will be over voting changes after Democrat Joe Biden defeated Trump in the November presidential election and the Republican immediately started crying “fraud” and spouting conspiracies about how he was robbed in Georgia.

State Republican Chairman David Shafer and many Republican lawmakers repeated the president’s claims, and there is expected to be a major push to limit absentee voting and ballot drop boxes, and keep the secretary of state’s office or outside groups from sending out absentee ballot application.

Democrats are bracing for a wave of bills from the Republican majority that would make it harder to vote in the name of preventing potential electoral fraud. There’s no credible evidence of widespread absentee ballot fraud in Georgia’s general election, according to the Republican secretary of state, but that hasn’t stopped Trump backers from repeating his talking points over and over.

The popularity of absentee voting exploded last year amid the coronavirus pandemic, rising from the voting method typically used by about 5% of voters to 26% in the 2020 presidential election.

More Republicans than Democrats voted absentee as recently as the 2018 primary, when voting by mail was often used by older Georgians. In November’s election, almost twice as many Democrats as Republicans returned absentee ballots after Trump ridiculed their use.

One of the proposals, backed by the Senate Majority Caucus and Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, would end at-will absentee voting. Under a state law passed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly in 2005, any registered voter is allowed to cast an absentee ballot.

“It makes no sense when we have three weeks of in-person early voting available. It opens the door to potential illegal voting,” Raffensperger told a House committee last month “From a logistical challenge, it’s a tremendous burden on our counties” that run elections.

Butler said Democrats will fight the changes, which Republicans are labeling “reform.”

“Our goal will be to stop those efforts that attempt to take our state backward,” she said.

Once again, lawmakers will debate whether to expand gambling in Georgia, with the biggest push likely coming from supporters of sports betting. That effort is backed by Atlanta’s professional sports teams, who have put a lot of money into lobbying at the Capitol the past few sessions.

Supporters say an expansion of gambling — through sports betting, casinos or horse racing parks — could bring thousands of jobs and pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the Georgia Lottery-funded HOPE scholarship. Conservative groups and religious organizations oppose expanding any form of gambling because they find it immoral and an addictive habit that breeds crime. Opponents also say the projections of an economic windfall are greatly exaggerated.

Lawmakers are also expected to pursue more changes to criminal justice practices — such as repeal of the state’s citizen’s arrest law or enforcement of existing prohibitions against “no-knock warrants.”

Citizen’s arrest — placed on Georgia’s books in the 1800s — gained attention last year when a prosecutor cited the law as a reason not to charge three white men who followed a Black man, Ahmaud Arbery, near Brunswick before one shot and killed him.

Citizen’s arrest allows anyone who believes he or she has witnessed a crime to arrest the person suspected of the crime if it “is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge.”

Georgia lawmakers are also considering making clarifications to the state’s ban on “no-knock warrants” — which spare law enforcement officers from having to announce themselves when they perform a search warrant. Current state law does not allow — or acknowledge — no-knock warrants, but police cite case law to obtain them for searches.

No matter what happens over the next few months, the session will take place with lawmakers knowing it will be only the first of two in 2021.

Every 10 years lawmakers have a special session to redraw political boundaries for General Assembly and congressional districts, based on the census. That special session is expected to be called for this fall.

As politically charged as this year’s regular session will be after Trump’s endless fraud charges and two extra months of campaigning because of the Jan. 5 U.S. Senate runoffs, the fall session will be even more personal: Lawmakers will be drawing up maps that decide who their constituents are.

Republicans will draw favorable districts to maintain their majority in the House and Senate, often by adding white voters to marginal GOP districts to improve their chances. Democrats, meanwhile, will just try to hang on to the gains they’ve made in the past few elections, something that will be difficult in 2022 after the majority gets through redrawing the map.

The process is politically charged, just like voting changes Republicans will push during the regular session starting Monday that will dominate a good part of the next few months. But Ralston said voting changes “will not be all we do this session.”

“Georgians expect more from their General Assembly than that,” he said, “and they deserve more than that.”

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