The 2020 legislative session ended Friday, putting a close on one of the most unusual, and longest, sessions in the state government’s history.
The session lasted for a record 166 days, said Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, and ended in a rush to pass a FY21 budget to continue funding the state government beyond July 1.
It was also the second time in the state’s history that legislators met on a Saturday to deliberate on the spending plan, Dugan told the Times-Georgian on Monday.
The $26 billion plan was given final approval by the Georgia House on Friday and starts on Wednesday. But it includes spending cuts in everything from k-12 schools and universities to health care programs and law enforcement — but no furloughs for state employees.
Overall spending was cut 10%, or $2.2 billion, Dugan said. Gov. Brian Kemp agreed to pour about $250 million in reserve funds into the state budget to alleviate some of the cuts.
“We knew the budget was going to be tight. We already knew there was going to be a reduction before we started and before COVID, with the shutdown of the economy,” Dugan said. “It just got exacerbated after the pandemic got going. We were prepared to make 14% cuts across the board.”
The coronavirus pandemic brought not only record unemployment, but thousands of businesses that shut down or still struggle to remain open. That sent state tax collections, mostly for income and sales taxes, plummeting.
The economy is starting to turn around, according to figures for Carroll County and across the state released last week by the Georgia Department of Labor.
Labor Commissioner Mark Butler and Dr. Hilde Boenheim, director of the University of West Georgia’s Center for Business and Economic Research, said they are hopeful this data shows the state’s economy is moving in the right direction.
Dugan said he is also hearing from companies both big and small about bringing their employees back now. But he added that while people are going back to work, some employees might still be cautious about going into an office where they could contract the virus and return home to spread it to their families.
Meanwhile, a bill to legalize pari-mutuel sports, horse racing and casino gambling across the state was reintroduced last week by state Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson. Dugan said this “concerned” him because of how late in the session the proposal was resurrected.
“Any time you see something come up unexpectedly in the last week, it’s almost like the shiny object that a magician has in one hand while he’s doing the trick in the other,” he said. “It always causes me some concern when it happens, because I start looking at what are they trying to slide some place else that we haven’t caught yet?”
He added approving sports gambling would not be an “appropriate use of general fund dollars” to support one particular industry. But he said he anticipates it will be legalized within the next few years.
“With gambling in the state, even if it had been there, it would not have been a profit earner for us this year,” he said. “For example, sports betting, during this period, what sports would you be betting on?”
Approval of gambling in the state would require a voter-approved constitutional amendment.
On Friday, Gov. Kemp signed a hate crimes bill into law that was sparked by the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia and similar crimes across the nation.
The bill provides sentencing guidelines for anyone found guilty of intentionally targeting a victim because of their actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender, mental or physical disability.
Under the law, a person found guilty of committing a hate crime as it relates to these protected classes would face an additional punishment from six months to a year and a fine of up to $5,000 for one of five misdemeanor offenses and at least two years in prison for a felony.
But Dugan said he did not like a clause that would also protect first responders being taken out of the legislation. This was added to House Bill 838 dealing with police officers, he said.
“It still passed, but I would have rather had it on one piece of legislation,” he said. “Any time you put something like that in there, there will be someone who goes, ‘but what about this one?’ There’s always one more group that’s out there. Then it goes back to, ‘why have it if everyone is included?’ Then it goes back to what the original crime was.”
While COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Carroll County, Dugan said he agrees with the governor’s decision to not restore shelter-in-place orders across the state. As of Monday, there were 678 confirmed cases and 39 deaths in Carroll County, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.
He also said it would be “almost impossible” for the state to implement a travel ban on residents from other states, similar to one the New York government imposed travel restrictions on Texas residents last week.
“The death rate has continued to decline; the positive rate is inclining, but the death rate is declining,” Dugan said. “I think a lot of that is we’ve gotten smarter on how to interact.”