ATLANTA – By the time the 2020 General Assembly gaveled to a close Friday night, lawmakers had dealt with two issues they couldn’t have dreamed of when they came to the Capitol in January.
A hate crimes bill was alive in the legislature at the beginning of the session, having passed in the Georgia House of Representatives last year. Legislative budget writers came in knowing they would have to make some spending cuts to offset sluggish tax revenues last year.
But both issues took on a far greater sense of urgency because of circumstances no one under the Gold Dome had anticipated at the start of the session.
The hate-crimes bill was stalled in the state Senate until the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man who was gunned down during a pursuit by two white men near Brunswick in February, an incident that didn’t come to public attention until a video of the incident surfaced in April.
Balancing the budget became a much heavier lift in March when Gov. Brian Kemp issued a shelter-in-place order to discourage the spread of COVID-19. Businesses across Georgia closed their doors and laid off workers, and the state’s economy spiraled into a deep recession.
Mixed in with the uncertainty of the global pandemic was a suspension of the legislative session in mid-March. The legislature didn’t return to Atlanta until three months later for a home stretch that saw the General Assembly in session on 11 of 12 days, with only Father’s Day off for lawmakers to catch their breaths.
“It was a challenging session,” House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said minutes after the final gavel fell Friday night. “So many things happened during the suspended time. When we left here, we didn’t know how long we’d be gone.”
When the legislature did return, it was to an atmosphere of street protests over the deaths of Arbery and two black men who died at the hands of white police officers: George Floyd in Minneapolis and Rayshard Brooks just down the street in Atlanta,
With that as a backdrop, lawmakers spent much of the resumed session negotiating passage of a landmark hate-crimes bill.
Under legislation Gov. Brian Kemp signed Friday, prison time could be meted out for those who terrorize or physically harm others based on their race, color, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, sex, gender, or whether they have a physical or mental disability.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, was hustled though both chambers in the General Assembly last Wednesday, prompting the legislature’s longest serving member, Rep. Calvin Smyre, to call it his best piece of work.
“I’ve had a lot, a lot, a lot of moments in my career,” said Smyre, D-Columbus, who co-sponsored the bill. “But today is my finest.”
But passage of the bill didn’t come without some serious bumps along the way. Senate Republican leaders, wary of protesters homing in on law enforcement as the focus of their anger, moved to include police officers and other first responders as protected classes alongside race and gender.
Last-minute negotiating led Senate lawmakers to strike a compromise that kept the first-responder protections in place but moved them to a separate bill that also passed out of the General Assembly.
Lawmakers also reached across the aisle to pass second-chance legislation allowing Georgians to clear minor offenses off their criminal records to help them secure jobs and housing.
The bill by Sen. Tonya Anderson, D-Lithonia, would allow Georgians with certain first-time misdemeanor and non-violent felony convictions in Georgia to petition superior courts to have those records shielded from public view.
Other efforts to move criminal justice reform in the legislature fell short as Democratic lawmakers filed more than a dozen bills this month to repeal the state’s stand-your-ground and citizen’s arrest laws, prohibit police officers from racial profiling, ban no-knock search warrants and punish wayward district attorneys.
Ralston said he found elements of those bills worthy of consideration. But he said the legislature ran out of time to give them the serious debate they deserved.
“We were so focused on the budget and the hate-crimes bill, I thought it wasn’t feasible to take them on,” he said.
Ralston said he has asked Efstration’s House Judiciary Committee to hold hearings this summer with an eye toward proposing additional criminal-justice and policing reform measures during next year’s session.
While the legislature disposed of the hate-crimes bill in the middle of last week, it took until the final hours of the session to pass a scaled-back $25.9 billion fiscal 2021 state budget.
Legislative budget writers imposed 10% spending cuts on state agencies across the board. But after drawing down $250 million from the state’s reserves and getting the welcome news that the recession has had a bit less impact on tax collections than expected, lawmakers found enough money to cancel the furlough days that were looming over teachers and state employees.
“As Georgia’s economy reopened and revenues rebounded slightly … Georgians and Georgians were resilient,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia. “We will continue to weather this storm.”
The final version of the budget restored or lessened spending cuts in a number of areas, including education, health care and public safety. In some cases, the legislature was able to plug in gaps in state funding with available federal dollars.
But minority Democrats complained the 2020 session was a lost opportunity to tap into additional sources of revenue that could have reduced the impact of the spending cuts. Proposals to substantially increase Georgia’s tobacco tax and reduce the size of the tax credits the state hands out to lure new businesses died during the session’s final stages.
“Although the state budget is not as dire as expected, it still devastates citizens across the state of Georgia,” said Rep. Debra Bazemore,” D-South Fulton. “This will be especially difficult, as well as add insult to injury during this pandemic where people have lost or are on the verge of losing their homes and cars or are unable to feed their family.”
Beyond hate crimes and the budget, lawmakers crafted protections for businesses and health-care providers fearful of lawsuits brought by people who contract coronavirus on their premises.
Among the last bills emerging from the session was a measure to shield businesses, hospitals, doctor’s offices, sports teams and other enterprises from lawsuits against all but the most serious negligence cases.
Supporters hailed the measure as needed legal protection for businesses struggling to rebound amid the pandemic, while opponents argued it would leave workers in the lurch.
Lawmakers also moved to extend broader unemployment benefits to people struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic and to offer up tax credits for companies that produce personal protective equipment.
With health care on the minds of many amid the pandemic, Georgians may be able to rest a little easier without having to worry about receiving a huge and unexpected hospital bill if they have to go to the emergency room.
Legislation to curb the practice of “surprise” billing cleared the General Assembly after being touted as a top priority for Republican leaders. It requires health-care insurers and providers to work out costs for medical procedures between themselves, leaving patients out of the mix.
Also in the health-care arena, the legislature expanded Medicaid coverage to new mothers in Georgia to six months post partum and funded the initiative with $19.7 million.
Also topping the legislative agendas for influential Capitol-goers like the governor were bills to reduce the number of standardized tests Georgia students need to take each year and limit participation in the state’s popular dual enrollment program.
On the environmental front, the legislature increased the fee for the disposal of coal ash at landfills from $1 per ton to $2.50 to discourage out-of-state companies from bringing their coal ash waste to Georgia.
Lawmakers banned the burning of railroad ties treated with harmful creosote used in the production of electricity and cracked down on discharges of cancer-causing ethylene oxide, a chemical used to sterilize medical equipment.
Environmental groups also helped kill the so-called Right to Farm Act, which would have limited the ability of property owners to file nuisance lawsuits against farm operations that move into their neighborhoods.