Week One: Georgia legislative session off to rocky start

Gov. Brian Kemp, center, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, left, and House Speaker David Ralston wear masks at the governor's State of the State address. The persistence of the coronavirus pandemic threatens to force a suspension of the legislative session for a second straight year. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Gov. Brian Kemp, center, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, left, and House Speaker David Ralston wear masks at the governor's State of the State address. The persistence of the coronavirus pandemic threatens to force a suspension of the legislative session for a second straight year. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

On the day Gov. Brian Kemp reported on the state of the state, Georgia confirmed that an additional 141 people died from COVID-19 — the third consecutive day of triple-digit deaths.

Outside the Georgia Capitol, where Kemp spoke, police carrying rifles stood guard amid warnings of armed protests by right-wing extremists in all 50 states. Temporary barricades surrounded the Capitol, and workers prepared to install more permanent 8-foot fencing.

The state of the state, the governor said Thursday, is “resilient.” The state of the General Assembly at the end of its first week is less certain.

The pandemic and the threat of violence have shadowed one of the strangest starts to a legislative session in recent memory. There’s already talk of suspending the session as the coronavirus pandemic rages. If that happens, it would be the second straight session disrupted by COVID-19.

“I know we’re all hoping 2021 will be more calm than 2020, although it’s not off to a great start,” Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, told constituents Thursday night at an online town hall meeting.

Nine people connected to the Senate — including senators, staff, aides and interns — have already tested positive for COVID-19. That includes Majority Leader Mike Dugan. The House has refused to update how many members tested positive this week, although House Speaker David Ralston said Monday that three or four House members had tested positive for the disease.

Even lawmakers who haven’t tested positive have been touched by the disease. The husband of Rep. Patty Bentley, D-Butler, is hospitalized in Savannah with COVID-19. In an interview, Bentley urged Georgians to “take extra precautions to protect yourself.”

Both chambers have required their members to be tested twice a week for COVID-19 and have taken other precautions to prevent the spread of the disease.

But there are signs some legislators aren’t taking the edict seriously. On Tuesday, Ralston announced 74 of his 180 members skipped the mandatory test on the first day of the session.

The speaker’s office wouldn’t say how many skipped a second test Thursday. Senate staff said 90% of the 56 senators took their test on Thursday, though some may have missed the testing because they didn’t attend the session that day, said Steve Tippins, chief of staff for Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, R-Gainesville.

Of the 600 people who took tests on Thursday, less than 1% received positive results, Tippins said.

Though masks are required on the House and Senate floors, their use is only “strongly encouraged” in the Capitol hallways. During Kemp’s address Thursday, many people milling around wore masks, but some didn’t.

The General Assembly will not be in session next week, and budget hearings will be available online.

John Porter, chief of staff for Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, said the mostly virtual budget hearings will help slow the spread of the virus and give those who’ve been sick or exposed to COVID-19 time to isolate and recover.

But a suspension of the legislative session is under discussion.

“We’ve had multiple conversations with Administrative Affairs (Committee) and with the lieutenant governor’s office about when or if we might have to shut down if there’s a surge in COVID numbers,” Tippins said. “We’re going to keep monitoring it as we go and hopefully stay ahead of the curve.”

As if the pandemic weren’t enough, lawmakers also must contend with threats of more violence in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The violence was fueled by President Donald Trump’s false allegation that widespread voting fraud in several states — including Georgia — cost him the election. State and federal investigators have found no evidence of widespread fraud.

But some Georgia Republican lawmakers gave credence to the claims, allowing the president’s attorneys to air them in streamed legislative hearings, calling for a special session to address voting fraud and urging Vice President Mike Pence to delay congressional certification of the presidential election.

This week, the Senate stripped some of those lawmakers of committee chairmanships. Kemp decried “conspiracy theories” in his State of the State address. And Ralston called the attack on the U.S. Capitol a “wake-up call.”

“We probably need to look a little harder at what the evidence is before we go chasing theories around,” the speaker said. “I think that people are ready to move on.”

But “moving on” isn’t likely. Republicans will consider a slew of changes to absentee voting — including the elimination of “no-excuse” absentee voting — to assuage their constituents’ fraud concerns.

Democrats want to expand absentee voting. And they blame Republicans for the violence.

“Their efforts to spread misinformation are backfiring and, in fact, are leading to violence,” Parent said at a Democratic press conference following Kemp’s address. “So now they’re left with one of their oldest and most trusted tools: voter suppression.”

The pandemic, the threats of violence and the lingering bitterness of the election have made for a tense start to the legislative session. But some lawmakers hope bipartisan cooperation is possible.

“There are standing pieces of legislation and business that have to be taken care of — like passing the budget and making sure our constituents’ needs are heard,” said freshman Sen. Jason Anavitarte, a Dallas Republican. “And that’s what we have to focus on.”

Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, who has spent 46 years in the General Assembly, echoed those sentiments.

“When the election is over, focus on governing,” Smyre said. “Now is the time to govern.”