Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan outlines his agenda for the 2020 legislative session at the State Capitol on January 13, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Disagreement has emerged between Georgia House and Senate leaders on when to resume the 2020 legislative session as many local businesses are poised to possibly reopen after weeks of closures prompted by coronavirus.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, has called for reconvening the session on June 11 to give state lawmakers more time to wrangle the state budget before June 30, the legal deadline for the 2021 fiscal year budget to be passed.

In a letter Friday, Ralston told House lawmakers the June 11 date would give them the most updated financial picture for the state, given that tax revenue collections for April will not be available until the end of May.

“It is a given that substantial cuts will need to be made in the budget,” Ralston said. “I do not believe it is sound practice to make these difficult decisions without the best and most current information.”

However, his counterpart in the Senate, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, prefers a May 14 date for the General Assembly to resume work. Doing so would help state agencies and school districts start planning for the upcoming fiscal year sooner, said Duncan’s chief of staff, John Porter.

“We owe it to the teachers and students of our state not to wait until the last minute,” Porter said Friday afternoon.

The earlier date also figures as a show of support for businesses like restaurants, gyms and barbershops that Gov. Brian Kemp has given the green light to reopen after weeks of statewide mandatory closures.

“Our chamber is ready to get back to work for the people,” Porter said. “We can abide by the same safety guidelines we have asked Georgia’s businesses to adhere to.”

The legislative session has been suspended since March 13, leaving hundreds of bills and critical budget negotiations in limbo. Georgia is also under a statewide shelter-in-place order issued by Kemp that runs through the end of April.

How many bills the legislature would consider upon reconvening remains up in the air. Per state law, the General Assembly’s only legal requirement is to pass a balanced budget for the upcoming fiscal year by June 30.

Restarting the session on June 11, as Ralston wants, would give Georgia hospitals and health officials more time to curb the spread of coronavirus. But it would also give lawmakers less time to hand in a budget that will be heavily influenced by an expected nosedive in tax revenues, due largely to the coronavirus-prompted economic slowdown.

In his letter Friday, Ralston said House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, will start scheduling budget committee meetings “over the next couple of weeks.”

Last week, Ralston tapped five state lawmakers and several key Capitol staffers to serve on a committee tasked with looking at how to close out the remainder of the session. That committee has not met yet, according to an official with direct knowledge of its activities.

When they do meet, the committee members will dive into the logistics of how to hold the session in a way that reduces the risk of exposure to coronavirus. Some officials have already reached out to the National Conference of State Legislatures for insight on what other state legislatures are doing to hold their sessions safely and transparently.

Nearly half of the country’s state legislatures have postponed their sessions or rewritten rules for convening amid coronavirus, according to the national conference. Several have met in unorthodox circumstances to conduct business in recent weeks, such as in sports arenas or outdoor tents.

In some cases, lawmakers in other in-session states have voted by proxy. For instance, lawmakers in Kentucky changed rules for the state’s House of Representatives to let members located outside the chamber text photos of their votes to a few members inside the chamber.

The story was updated to include additional comment from House Speaker David Ralston.