ATLANTA — While the Georgia General Assembly is still convening on schedule for the 2021 session, little is the same from years past.
Lawmakers returned to the Gold Dome Monday donning masks, walking past the 8-foot fence being constructed around the building and prepping for a battle over election legislation.
Georgia is setting records for new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations — reaching levels beyond the state’s peak in the summer months. The death rate, too, spiking near the numbers Georgia grappled with in August of last year.
Both the Georgia House and Senate, for the first time, have mandated that masks be worn within the chambers. Members and staff will be required to take twice-weekly COVID-19 tests in an attempt to prevent an outbreak at the Capitol.
The length and success of the session largely depends on the state getting control of the rapidly spreading virus.
“We'll have to make decisions kind of on the fly if the rate spikes (in Georgia),” House Speaker David Ralston told reporters last week. “We have to get our work done."
But even with the pandemic still spreading dramatically, one thing remains top of mind as lawmakers descend onto the Capitol: the election turmoil that has gripped the country with Georgia caught in the middle.
Just last week the U.S. State Capitol was stormed by a mob of President Donald Trump loyalists egged on by the president. The aftermath of the event reverberated across the country, and in Georgia, where Gov. Brian Kemp and top state officials warned that violence in the Peach State would not be tolerated.
After the 2020 general election, Republican state lawmakers held hearings in a misguided attempt to calm constituents angry over Joe Biden’s win. Both House and Senate GOP members gave a platform for misinformation and baseless accusations of voter fraud led by former New York City mayor and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani.
Despite Democratic wins in statewide races, Republicans still hold the majority in both chambers — many calling for an overhaul of the state’s absentee ballot program after the voting method greatly benefitted Democrats in November. Sec. of State Brad Raffensperger has announced his support with legislation to do-away with no-excuse absentee ballot voting.
Ralston said during his pre-session press conference last week he is not convinced that is the right move and told reporters it would take a strong case to convince him that is the right move. Although, he has suggested lawmakers pass legislation that makes the secretary of state elected by lawmakers — not Georgia voters.
Kemp is set to deliver his annual State of the State address Thursday and release his version of the budget which follows an economy devastated by the pandemic and harsh cuts to state agencies last year. The House and Senate are planning joint budget meetings throughout next week.
Lawmakers still have unfinished business from last session surrounding social and racial justice. After passing historic hate crimes legislation following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks, social justice advocates hope lawmakers will look to reforming Georgia’s controversial citizen’s arrest law.
Based on the 2020 census, lawmakers will also take part in the once-a-decade redistricting process that consists of redrawing the maps for Georgia's legislative and congressional boundaries. The highly-politicized process allows the party in power to redraw maps within their favor.