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Thursday May 28th, 2020 3:37AM

Leaders disagree on when Georgia lawmakers should return

By The Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) — With Georgia's legislative session suspended because of fears of transmitting the new coronavirus, the two Republicans who must agree on when to return continue to eye different dates.

House Speaker David Ralston, in a letter to House members Friday, reiterated his preference for the General Assembly to return to the capitol on June 11, saying meeting then will give lawmakers access to the latest possible information on state revenue.

But Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan still wants senators and representatives to return May 14, the day after Gov. Brian Kemp's public health emergency is currently set to expire. He says state agencies and schools need to know as soon as possible how much money they will have to spend in the 2021 budget year, which begins July 1.

The 2020 session came to an abrupt halt on March 13 after lawmakers agreed to suspend it. Lawmakers met the next Monday for a one-day special session to affirm Gov. Brian Kemp's emergency order. Multiple lawmakers have been sickened with COVID-19, the respiratory illness that results from coronavirus infections, and some lawmakers may have caught it from each other in March.

The decision on when to return was left in the hands of Ralston and Duncan, who must agree on a date. Lawmakers are likely to dispense with much other business to grapple with figuring out how much less than the projected $28 billion in state revenue they will have to spend next year. The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute this week suggested state revenues could drop by $3 billion or more next year. It's unclear whether Georgia will get federal aid to make up part of the gap.

“We will not have April revenue numbers until the end of May,” Ralston wrote Friday in a letter to House members. “It is a given that substantial cuts will need to be made in the budget. I do not believe it is sound practice to make these difficult decisions without the best and most current information. In addition, the governor would need time to consider this data as he sets a revised revenue estimate.”

Ralston's restart date would also be two days after the rescheduled June 9 primary, meaning lawmakers who have primary opposition would have no chance to raise money before the vote. They're barred from taking contributions while in session.

But Duncan argues that lawmakers need to act sooner. K-12 school districts, for example, have to decide how many teachers to hire for next year.

“The state agencies and school districts are all relying on us to produce a budget so they can begin planning for FY 21,” Duncan Chief of Staff John Porter wrote in a text message to The Associated Press, referring to the 2021 fiscal year. “We owe it to the teachers and students of our states to not wait until the last minute. Plus, our chamber is ready to get back to work for the people — we can abide by the same safety guidelines we have asked Georgia's businesses to adhere to.”

Porter's statement hints that a resumed session may look much different than the typical day at the capitol, when hundreds of guests and lobbyists throng the hallways and galleries. Ralston has appointed a committee to look at different ways of working, and said Friday it should hold its first meeting soon.

Ralston also said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England, an Auburn Republican, would schedule subcommittee meetings to restart budget talks. On the Senate side, new Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery, a Vidalia Republican, will be stepping in for the late Jack Hill, the Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman who died April 6.

___

Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy

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