Georgia House Speaker David Ralston

ATLANTA – Georgia House Speaker David Ralston outlined a short agenda of priorities Tuesday for the short remainder of the 2020 General Assembly session.

Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, reiterated the two top priorities he had listed previously: passing a state budget – the only action required of the legislature each year by law – and passage of a hate-crimes bill.

But during a media availability at the Georgia Capitol, Ralston touted three other bills the House passed last winter and sent to the state Senate before the coronavirus pandemic forced a three-month suspension of the session:

  • Legislation extending Medicaid coverage for new mothers in Georgia from the current three months postpartum to six.
  • A bill providing up to three weeks of paid parental leave for state employees and teachers.
  • Legislation adding training and staffing requirements for elderly-care facilities in Georgia.

“That’s essential considering what we’ve been through,” Ralston told reporters, referring to the disproportionate share of COVID-19 deaths in Georgia that have occurred to nursing home patients.

The proposed fiscal 2021 budget currently is in the hands of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which is expected to vote on it Wednesday.

State agencies are being ordered to reduce their spending by 11% across the board to help offset losses in tax revenue due to the business lockdown that followed the coronavirus outbreak.

Some lawmakers and budget watchers have called for raising revenues to balance the budget instead of such deep spending cuts, including increasing Georgia’s tobacco tax, now third-lowest in the country, to the national average.

But Ralston said raising taxes during an economic downturn would not be a wise policy choice. While it might discourage smoking, it also likely wouldn’t bring in much tax money, he said.

“Raising that tax would probably do more to change behavior  than raise revenue,” he said.

Ralston repeated his plea for the Senate to pass a “clean” hate-crimes bill in the waning days of the session. He said attempts by the Senate to amend hate-crimes legislation the House passed last year could sink the bill given the few days remaining in the session.

It’s a good thing for the speaker that he has such a short agenda in mind.

Because of social distancing requirements, House members are meeting in three locations inside the Capitol: the House chamber, the public gallery above the chamber and a room around the corner. Since that makes electronic voting unworkable, every vote is being taken by a roll call of all 180 members, a laborious process that takes at least 10 minutes.

That will render impossible the usual flurry of rapid-fire lawmaking that goes on at the end of the session, particularly late on the 40th and final day, when votes come so quickly lawmakers sometimes can’t digest what they’re voting on.

“As the clock ticks down, you’re not going to see the pace get as frantic as it usually does,” Ralston said. “But I’m not a believer in passing a large quantity of bills. To the extent it makes our workload more manageable, that makes it a good thing.”