It’s back to work today for Georgia lawmakers as they return to the Capitol to resume the 2020 Legislative Session. But officials agree that the final 11 days will be anything but normal.
While finalizing the FY21 budget will be the top priority for members of the House and Senate, the safety and health of the legislative members and their staff will be at the forefront following their 3-month break as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The Capitol will be limited to 800 people at a time (excluding staff and General Assembly members) and only two entrances will be open. Both of the entrances will have new infrared temperature screening scanners in place and anyone with a temperature over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit will not be allowed to enter the building without getting tested for COVID-19.
Masks will be mandatory for House members, staff and the public when attending committee meetings. House members will be split between the chamber floor, the gallery and room 341 during floor sessions. All members of the House have been strongly recommended to be tested for COVID-19 before returning today.
Senate leadership is strongly encouraging senators to wear masks and Senate staff will be required to wear the masks. Senators will be in overflow rooms, and the Senate Gallery will be closed to the public.
The hallway outside the House Chamber will be inaccessible to lobbyists and the public — this area will be for staff and House members only. The hallway outside the main entrance to the Senate chamber will be reserved for Senators and staff only.
“Keeping members of the House, Senate and the public safe from the pandemic through new and extensive sanitization procedures and social distancing is going to be a top priority,” said Rep. Terry England (R-Auburn), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. “We have an important job to complete and that requires our members and staff remain healthy through the remainder of Session. Things will definitely be different.”
That important job England is referring to is the passage of the FY21 budget. The current fiscal year ends June 30, and lawmakers’ top priority is the new budget.
“There’s no doubt the number one priority will be passing a balanced budget that will have to take into account a pretty severe drop in revenues,” said England.
Members of the Appropriations Committees on both the House and Senate have already been holding meetings and going over budget proposals from many government departments that reflect a 14 percent cut. The proposals include personnel cuts, furloughs and reduced travel and training.
“We hope to put the final touches on the budget proposals in the first few days, and hopefully be ready to vote as early as mid-week,” said Senate Pro Tem Butch Miller (M-Gainesville). “This is a challenge but I believe we will emerge stronger and more efficient.”
Both Miller and England believe legislation will be “light” for the final 11 days of the session, although lawmakers are expected to address some bills.
What those bills may be is still uncertain. However, the push is on to pass a Hate Crimes Bill. Speaker of the House David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) has called on the Senate to pass House Bill 426, a hate-crimes measure approved by the House in 2019. However, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan has said that while he believes Georgia needs a hate-crimes law, he believes HB 426 needs some work.c