Kemp’s call for special session raises skepticism among lawmakers

06/26/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) watches as Gov. Brian Kemp speaks to members of the House Chambers on Sine Die, day 40, of the legislative session in Atlanta, Friday, June 26, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
06/26/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) watches as Gov. Brian Kemp speaks to members of the House Chambers on Sine Die, day 40, of the legislative session in Atlanta, Friday, June 26, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Gov. Brian Kemp’s push for a special legislative session to fix a legal problem in a Hurricane Michael relief measure that even his office said was no “fatal flaw” triggered criticism from lawmakers and raised concerns about an ulterior motive for the summons.

The governor said in a five-paragraph statement late Wednesday that an incorrect tracking number in a tax break bill requires an immediate fix from the General Assembly, though he also pointedly added that he could direct lawmakers to also tackle “budgetary and oversight issues.”

It’s not clear when he’ll ask lawmakers to return, but lawmakers seized on the “oversight” suggestion to wonder whether Kemp could also revive a tiff with Atlanta over control of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

The governor and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms are in an escalating legal feud over the city’s mask mandate and other coronavirus restrictions, and Democrats see even the threat of legislation that would give the state more oversight over the busy airport as an attack on local control.

“Fixing the error could easily happen within an hour or so, and could easily happen on day one of the 2021 session in January,” said state Rep. Teri Anulewicz, D-Smyrna.

“Best I can tell,” she said, “the tracking error is a pretext for convening a special session to consider a likely laundry list of issues the governor wants to attempt while he’s sure his party still holds the majority.”

Kemp said he had little other choice but to scramble for a swift update of House Bill 105, which includes a tax break for federal payments for victims of the storm. He said the bill is “far too important to our state to leave room for a legal challenge on its legitimacy.”

Rick Ruskell, the General Assembly’s legislative counsel, said in an interview that he doesn’t believe a fix is needed.

“It had no impact on the bill that was duly passed by both legislative chambers. I don’t see any problem with the legislative process of the bill,” he said. “I’m confident that the bill as passed was clear.”

‘Critical oversight’

In a joint statement, House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan said they also don’t think the measure is legally problematic — and they threatened to use the special session to override his veto of a separate health care bill.

That measure, House Bill 991, would have created a new board to scrutinize state health care contractors, which the two legislative leaders said would bring “critical oversight to taxpayer dollars.”

They would need two-thirds approval in each chamber of the General Assembly to reverse the veto by Kemp, who said in a statement that it violated the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.

Some lawmakers chafed at the thought of returning to the Legislature during a pandemic, a process that will last at least a week and require safety protocol such as socially distanced voting, even if it only involved the hurricane relief bill.

Kemp’s office wouldn’t comment on whether he aims to bring up the airport legislation or other issues. But state law gives governors wide latitude to decide what issues lawmakers can take up in a special session.

Bottoms has made blocking state attempts to take control of busy Hartsfield-Jackson a top priority at the state Capitol, so much so that she helped shape language in the national Democratic Party platform that opposes “partisan power grabs” of public infrastructure projects.

And though Kemp has never publicly endorsed the effort, Republican officials say he could be more inclined to use a threat to the city’s control as a bargaining chip in settlement negotiations with Bottoms.

Democrats urge Kemp to focus his attention on more pressing problems — namely, an expansion of Medicaid that he and other Republican leaders say is too costly in the long run.

“The short- and long-term consequences of this failure continue to pile up,” House Minority Leader Bob Trammell said, mentioning the recent closure of a rural hospital, “a health care delivery system strained financially to the brink” and more than 500,000 Georgians who would be eligible for coverage under an expansion.

It wouldn’t be the first time a special session for Hurricane Michael relief was used for other purposes.

Then-Gov. Nathan Deal called the General Assembly back to Atlanta in 2018 to provide state support for the storm's victims. But lawmakers also tacked on a tax break on aviation fuel that benefited Delta Air Lines and other carriers.

“It’s Groundhog Day all over again,” quipped state Rep. Terry Rogers, R-Clarkesville. “I love history because it’s always repeating itself. And we must be building a lot of history this year because we just keep on repeating it over and over.”