Torn in two by COVID-19, General Assembly session enters its final days
By Tom Baxter
By midnight Friday, the greatly reduced denizens of the General Assembly will have thrown whatever there is to throw in the air at the end of a session as contracted as this one, and departed.
They’ll be going home in an election year to a state beginning to feel the effects of budget cuts so sweeping the legislators even cut their own pay.
“There will be less. There’s no sugar coating of that,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Blake Tillery said last week.
For a legislative session which was put on ice for three months, concluding under strict rules of distance, there’s a lot of suspense left in these last days. Some big issues, such as the hate crimes legislation and sports betting, haven’t been decided. But Tillery has already summed up the main political consequence of a session cut in two by the coronavirus. There will be less. Therefore there will be fewer accomplishments for incumbents to point to, and fewer promises that sound legitimate for challengers to make.
The winners, most likely, will be those quickest to understand how to navigate this new, sparser environment. You wouldn’t bet on it to pass, but the fact that there’s a surviving effort in the final days to enact sports betting without the inconvenience of a referendum shows an increased hunger for new revenue sources. With House Speaker David Ralston opposing any increase in the tobacco tax, it’s not certain even that can win passage this week. But by next year’s session, lawmakers are likely to be increasingly imaginative in their drive to create new revenue streams.
The headline debate in the closing days will be the battle over hate crimes legislation, an old issue brought back to the forefront after the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in February. Not to be critical of bipartisanship, but when a tragic event prompts everybody to agree that it’s finally time for something to be done about something, there is much that can go wrong.
That was evident Friday, when the Senate Judiciary Committee, where a hate crimes bill which passed in the House has been moldering for more than a year, sent the bill forward with an amendment adding police, firemen and EMS crews to the categories covered by the legislation. With that, the legislation started to seem more like a culture wars conversation starter than a viable bill. But just as quickly as the bill seemed to have derailed, it got back on track again on Monday when Sen. Bill Cowsert withdrew the amendment which included first responders. A path has been cleared, and the bill may at last be on the way to passage.
Of what’s left for the legislature to deal with, the Georgia Right to Farm Act of 2020 might be the bill that in the long run could have the biggest impact on the state — on how it smells, anyway. Actually an update to an older law, the bill would make it harder for the neighbors of chicken houses, hog farms and cattle ranches to bring nuisance suits. This is an issue which has pitted environmentalists and small farmers against the big agribusiness operations. Advocates of the bill say nuisance suits are a problem. Opponents dispute that and say the bill opens the door to the kind of problems reported around hog farms in North Carolina.
The last 11 days of the regular session were postponed in early March, as reported cases of COVID-19 were rising rapidly, with the plan to resume here in June when the cases would be falling and the possibility of transmitting the virus under the Golden Dome would be less. Unfortunately, that’s not what has happened.
The number of cases continued to rise until April 7, when the state hit a new high of 1598 cases reported in a single day. Then the curve turned downward, though much less steeply than it had risen, for the next month or so.
By June 11, when the legislators, in masks and through carefully regulated pathways through the Capitol, returned to reconvene, the so-called plateau on the trendline was moving sharply upward again. Last Saturday, the state marked a new high of 1800 new cases in a day.
Georgia doesn’t stand out as much on the national map because it’s surrounded by pandemic hot spots in Florida, Alabama, South Carolina and North Carolina. But it still is wrestling with the virus the legislature waited until summer to avoid.