Georgia Senate signals June likely for legislative restart

Leaders of the Georgia General Assembly are signaling that lawmakers won’t return to the Capitol until June, despite Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan continuing to say he would like to resume work in May.

Duncan and Republican House Speaker David Ralston must agree on when to restart under the terms of the resolution that halted the session on March 13 amid the spread of the coronavirus. Duncan’s chief of staff signaled defeat for his proposal for a May restart in a Thursday email sent to senators.

“Unfortunately for us, time is not on our side,” John Porter wrote. “The House can simply withhold consent past our proposed May 14 start date and force us to agree to their June 11 date.”

Porter blamed minority House Democrats for the later date, although Ralston has consistently advocated for June 11. That would be two days after the June 9 party primary elections, meaning incumbent lawmakers with primary challengers would be banned from raising any more money until after the election.

In an interview Thursday with The Associated Press, Kemp said he anticipated a “crippling” revenue shortfall.

“We’re going to have to deal with some very severe budget cuts,” Kemp said.

As governor, Kemp set a $28 billion revenue estimate for the 2021 budget in January, but will likely have to revise it downward sharply for that upcoming budget year, which begins July 1. Kemp said if lawmakers waited longer to reconvene, officials would have more time to assess how revenue is performing, “which would probably allow us to have a better estimate of where we’re going to be.”

The state started the year with $2.8 billion in rainy day savings, but a large amount of that money may be required to close the budget gap for the current year, which ends June 30. Beyond nosediving tax revenue, the state followed the federal government and moved its income tax deadline into July, meaning it will forgo a big chunk of money in 2020. In addition, Kemp is spending heavily to combat COVID-19, with lawmakers giving him $100 million from the rainy day fund before they left the Capitol.

Ralston, in a letter to House members Thursday, wrote that “we have turned our attention to resuming our legislative session as we still have several pressing public policy issues and, most importantly, a revised FY21 state budget on which to work.”

Ralston said committees could begin meeting online on Monday and that House staff are likely to return to working in the Capitol on May 18, with in-person committee meetings resuming on May 19. No votes would be taken until the session resumes, but budget hearings are among the meetings planned. A committee of House members advise on possible changes to how the House works to lessen the danger of coronavirus transmission.