ATLANTA (AP) — How different did the Georgia General Assembly become when lawmakers returned in June amid the COVID-19 pandemic? Well, House lawmakers skipped the joyous tradition of tossing papers in the air when they finally adjourned Friday night as they tried to limit janitors' exposure to the virus.
That's just one small example of how new and much more pressing problems crowded in on typical legislative rhythms.
Gov. Brian Kemp had been highlighting his opposition to gangs and human trafficking and his advocacy for teacher pay raises and protecting patients from unexpected medical bills before lawmakers hightailed it out of town in March. House Speaker David Ralston had been maneuvering toward an additional cut to Georgia's top income tax rate and had crafted a package of other initiatives that was meant to give his suburban Atlanta members a chance to run as moderates against Democratic challengers.
When members of the General Assembly gathered again June, some of plans were already in ruin because of nosediving state tax revenues. Protesters were marching to the Capitol to demand that action on racial injustice and voting problems. Much of the original legislation still passed, but the spotlight was on other things.
“It’s like you’re driving down the highway and you stop," said Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, a Gainesville Republican. "And you just sit there and we waited, and then we finally got back in the car, and we gave it the gas and went wide open again.”
This second act quickly rose to a climax over efforts to push a bill imposing further penalties on hate crimes through the Senate.
“I think the common denominator, between the two — the pre COVID-break and the resumed session — is that what’s happening in the General Assembly is reflective of the fact that Georgia is a highly competitive political environment,” said House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, a Luthersville Democrat.
Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan proposed his own hate-crimes measure. But even as liberal critics lampooned it for trying to protect categories like culture, Duncan's own Republican caucus shelved his plan and instead moved to try to create hate-crimes protections for police.
That move threatened to melt down the session, with multiple Senate Democrats speaking in public in tears. Duncan gets credit for helping smooth things out. Senators split the new protections for police into a different bill. Its passage was bitter medicine for Democrats, underlining key differences on how the two parties view the role of police in society.
Still, both sides hailed the agreement on a hate-crimes bill as a triumph of bipartisanship.
“If we take the lessons of what we learned this past two weeks, we will be a better Georgia General Assembly,” said Senate Minority Whip Harold Jones II, an Augusta Democrat, “I honestly believe that.”
The fallout from a primary election disrupted by long lines and troubles with Georgia's new voting machines devolved into a cold war between Ralston and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger over the latter's decision to mail absentee ballots to all of Georgia's active voters. Ralston's efforts to clip Raffensperger's wings came to naught, with Democrats highlighting them to argue that Republicans systematically seek to exclude voters.
Kemp played one key role, agreeing to let lawmakers spend $250 million from the state's savings account to blunt the worst of the budget cuts. But 10% reductions are still steep, even if the state manages to avoid furloughing employees. Democrats argued that Georgia should raise tobacco taxes or eliminate tax breaks, but Republicans were deaf to those pleas.
“It didn’t seem like there was a whole lot of willingness to talk about the future," said Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, a Stone Mountain Democrat. "You know we’ve been underfunding state government for a long time.”
Lawmakers exit the Gold Dome firmly pointed toward the November elections. Democrats hope to gain the 16 seats needed to flip the House, which would give them control of part of Georgia's government for the first time since 2004. Ralston's efforts this year, such as expanding Medicaid coverage for new mothers to six months after the birth of a child, have been clearly aimed at averting that.
“The Republicans in the House are interested in bipartisan solutions to the issues that matter to Georgians,” Ralston said. “I think we can run on maternal mortality. That’s a serious problem here in Georgia, we address that in a very aggressive way."
That might have been enough before the COVID-19 intermission. But in the new world of steep budget cuts and Democrats energized over voting problems and racial injustice, it may not be enough now.
Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.