In the longest legislative session in Georgia history – caused by the long COVID pause from mid-March to mid-June – lawmakers handled a number of thorny and difficult issues, including the passage of a constitutionally-required $26 billion state-funded budget for FY 2021. As we have reported throughout this journey, the budget preparation took much of the oxygen out of the Gold Dome in the waning days of the Session after initially breezing through prior to the world-wide pandemic slamming the brakes on state revenue. When lawmakers left the capitol in March, our state’s financial picture looked bright – caused, in part, by historically low unemployment numbers. Fast forward to June when every family in the state was impacted by the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. Many individuals were teleworking and schools were shuttered – leaving students to receive virtual instruction. Thousands of individuals lost their jobs, shattering unemployment numbers and increasing the percentage of those without work to more than 30 percent. Countless numbers of Georgians were physically impacted by actually contracting the disease or losing a loved one to the pandemic – and lawmakers and staff were not immune. Nonetheless, resiliency was essential to the state’s recovery efforts. The Governor made a plan to reopen Georgia’s economy, get folks back to work and return students to schools. The completion of the legislative session was proof of the resiliency. One prays these efforts will succeed in the face of the virus’ resurgence.
HB 793, the state’s new spending plan for FY 2021, touches every individual in the state. As House Appropriations Chair Terry England (R-Auburn) commented, there’s a person at the end of every dollar required to be cut. Due to a decline in state revenue collections, Governor Kemp’s Office of Planning and Budget Director, along with House and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairmen, directed agencies to prepare new budgets with a 14% reduction from FY 2020. This news was a shock – not just to agencies but also to the public and the advocates for state services. Declines in state collections were not just the result of the falling sales taxes but also due to postponement of the income tax filing deadlines and collections of motor fuel taxes. By June when lawmakers were meeting with agencies better news emerged – the agencies were instructed to plan for an 11% reduction rather than 14%. Meanwhile, the number crunchers looked at collections received by the state and projected for the state’s flagging economy. Governor Kemp issued a new revenue estimate for the revival session, reflecting that the state might manage a balanced budget with a 10% reduction, noting that his revenue estimate would be revised by around $2.9 billion or a total of $25.9 billion expected collections. This news was a relief: drastic cuts in all program areas would not be necessary – but education and healthcare (including mental health) would see the bulk of the reductions. The Governor and General Assembly made it clear that whatever plan was developed – it was essential that the State retain its AAA bond rating. We have included a brief report on various budget program areas which is incorporated into this Report.
The resumed Session was much busier than anyone expected. One major initiative was the enactment of a “hate crimes” law, finally passing in reaction to the shootings of African American citizens by the police or would-be cops here in Georgia. Georgia was one of four states nationally without a hate crimes statute. That changed on June 26, 2020, when Governor Kemp signed HB 426 into law as Act Number 329. HB 426, which was authored by Representative Chuck Efstration (R-Dacula), enacts stronger penalties for crimes motivated by bias and prejudice. It does not create a separate crime. Further, it grants a prosecutor the ability to request enhanced penalties and the presiding judge, once an individual is convicted, the discretion to impose those penalties. Many lawmakers in both parties worked on this initiative from its inception during this legislative cycle.
Upon the conclusion of the bill signing period, Governor Kemp indicated his plans to call a special session of the General Assembly. The Governor cited the urgent need to address a possible technicality which occurred during the passage of HB 105 but also left the door open for more legislation to address “other budgetary or oversight issues.”
As we intensely monitored the 40 days this legislative session, we have prepared a report examining some of the higher profile pieces of legislation. We have included a substantial number of measures in this report, but it does not cover every piece of legislation offered in the 2019-2020 legislative cycle.
We welcome you to review the Report and look at the bills and resolutions we have outlined. The full legislative website may be accessed at www.legis.ga.gov, and of course, please let us know if you have any questions.