The 2020 Georgia Legislative Session may well go down as one of the longest and strangest in the state’s history. Facing across-the-board budgetary cutbacks, legislators began the session in January looking for ways to balance the state budget, and that was before COVID-19 (otherwise known as the Coronavirus) was a thought in anyone’s mind. Poor policy decisions over the past decade meant the state budget had been placed at risk. The addition of skyrocketing unemployment and lost revenue caused by the virus outbreak added to the state’s financial uncertainty.
By March, just two weeks shy of adjournment, the virus landed square in the Senate chamber infecting several members and their staff. The legislature adjourned March 16 to a date uncertain, while the virus roiled the state, pushing hospitals to capacity and leaving health care workers without sufficient equipment to handle the pandemic.
Georgia was already facing a recession and COVID-19 pushed the state’s finances to the edge of a cliff. State agencies were asked to trim their budgets another 14%, putting at risk public school funding, health care, food inspectors and many more vital programs.
Even though not in session, Georgia’s Senate Democratic Caucus remained busy working with constituents on finding solutions for unemployment claims, helping people get tested for the virus, and learning how to do it all virtually.
When the legislature reconvened on June 15 there were 10 working days remaining in the 2020 session. There were also new rules on social distancing and voting, in order to keep members and staff safe and healthy.
Final budget cuts were reduced to 10%, using a large portion of the state’s Rainy Day Fund to fill in gaps. As always, there was last minute wrangling on legislation and Democrats held firm on ensuring education, employment and health care were priorities.
Racial justice became a Democratic centerpiece during the final days of the 2020 session. Decades of injustice boiled over when video images of police brutality circulated this spring. A Hate Crimes bill that had been stalled in the Georgia Senate became tantamount in taking a first step toward more equitable policing and Senate Democrats led an effort to negotiate the passage of House bill 463.
HB 463 creates enhanced penalties for crimes committed because of the victim’s perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability, or physical disability. It would also require law enforcement to collect and report demographic data and information about the crime whenever a hate crimes investigation occurs, regardless of whether charges are brought.
HB 463 is a beginning, not an end, and Senate Democrats will work toward increasing equity in policing and in education, the workplace and health care.
Also on the equality front, Sen. Tonya Anderson (D-Lithonia) passed the Clean Slate Act to allow people convicted of misdemeanors other than sex offences and domestic violence to get their records sealed after staying out of trouble for four years.
On the health care front, Sen. Lester Jackson (D-Savannah) passed legislation to prohibit insurers from charging exorbitant co-pays that act as a barrier to affordable health care. Sen Valencia Seay (D-Riverdale) passed legislation to enter Georgia into the Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology Interstate Compact to expand access to audiology and speech-language pathology by allowing multisite licensure of those professions.
Sen. Freddie Powell Sims (D-Dawson) passed sweeping legislation to improve transparency and school board accountability for school system budgets.
Sen. Doc Rhett (D-Marietta) passed legislation to create banking improvement zones where a local government could support a bank in an underserved area by using that bank to hold local funds.
One thing rang true during the 2020 Legislative Session – Georgia Democrats played a more significant role in shaping legislation, as the balance between the parties shifts.