COVID-19, budget matters and election reform look to be the major issues up for debate under the Gold Dome at this year’s session of the Georgia General Assembly.
The Assembly convened in Atlanta last week for its 40-day annual session.
Pierce County is represented by State Representative Steven Meeks (R, Screven) and State Senator Tyler Harper (R, Ocilla). Both were re-elected without opposition in November. Meeks is beginning his second term, while Harper is beginning his fifth two-year term.
Both legislators say they expect COVID-19 to continue dominating discussion during this year’s session.
“We are obviously still dealing with COVID, but I think we are in a lot better position than we thought we would be,” said Harper.
Meeks agrees, noting state revenues are up and the vaccine is now being distributed. He praised the leadership of Governor Kemp and appropriation committee chairmen Blake Tillery (R-Vidalia) in the Senate and Representative Terry England (R-Winder) in the House for their work in managing the crisis.
Kemp ordered a roughly 10 percent cut in the state budget last year as COVID-19 descended on Georgia in the middle of last year’s session of the Assembly.
Despite a firestorm of criticism, Kemp reopened Georgia faster than neighboring states and businesses were able to recover faster, also leading state revenues to recover as well. Harper points out, even in the midst of a pandemic, Georgia was again the number one state to do business in for the eighth straight year.
Both legislators think some of last year’s budget cuts might be restored, although not entirely eliminated, in the coming session.
The budget is the only constitutionally mandated duty of the assembly.
Meeks points out other neighboring states are having to look at making deep cuts or raising taxes as a fall out from the virus.
“We have battled through the storm and the worst is behind us,” Meeks said.
Kemp in his state of the state address last week said there would be no more cuts, no furloughs and no new taxes. He also called for giving teachers a $1,000 bonus, but did not endorse the second part of his across the board pay raise for teachers. That idea was scuttled last year as the pandemic hit.
Both legislators say they think the bonus will pass since state revenues have stabilized.
Harper points out the state’s reserve funds are at a healthy level and there has been no discussion of raising taxes.
Both also mentioned last year’s passage of the Market Facilitator Act as a big help.
“One of the things (the law) did was assess sales tax for items purchased online,” said Meeks. “We didn’t know it, but the Lord was smiling on us when we passed it. With the majority of folks buying online during the shelter in place and during the holidays, the increased sales tax revenues have been a God send.”
In other COVID related issues, both Meeks and Harper say they are committed to making sure South Georgia gets the vaccine supply it needs to immunize its residents.
“We are getting 120,000 doses per week. I know there is some angst about the roll out and the speed with which it is being done, but the demand for the vaccine is obviously very high right now,” Meeks said.
Harper provided a couple of vaccine-related websites for constituents.
Residents may search for vaccination sites at https://dph.georgia.gov/locations/covid-vaccination-site. They can also check on distribution numbers for the vaccine at https://dph.georgia.gov/covid-vaccine.
First responders and nursing home residents are begin vaccinated first in partnership with CVS and Walgreens pharmacies. Governor Kemp proposed a partnership with grocery stores, Kroger, Publix and Ingles, to distribute the vaccine to the general public.
The legislators noted the pandemic has changed things in Atlanta for the Assembly’s annual meeting.
Legislators are tested twice weekly, face masks are required and social distancing is practiced.
“We have changed the way we hold meetings and hearings with the social distancing spacing,” Harper said. “Still, the Capitol is the People’s house and it belongs to them. It is open, but there are guidelines and restrictions in place for safety.”
Harper and Meeks encourage constituents to wear masks, practice social distancing, wash their hands and follow public safety, CDC guidelines.
“We will get through this, together,” Meeks said.
Other than COVID and the budget, another issue receiving lots of attention is election reform.
After a record turnout this year and record absentee voting and charges of fraud and irregularities, Georgia trended Democratic for the first time in three decades. While the General Assembly remains under near super majority Republican control, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump by a razor thin margin in Georgia marking the first time since 1992 the state voted Democratic in the presidential election. Both U.S. Senate seats flipped and for the first time since 2002 are both held by Democrats. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock will take office shortly.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has suggested tightening Georgia’s absentee ballot procedures.
Since 2005, Georgians can request an absentee for any reason – not just because they are going to be out of town or are physically impaired.
The sheer volume of ballots resulted in delays in counting and raised suspicions about the validity of the vote.
Harper and Meeks declined to get involved in the nuts and bolts of the issue, but both say they think the absentee issue and more stringent voter ID laws will be addressed in some way this year.
“The important thing to keep in mind is voters must be confident their vote is counted,” said Meeks.
Both men commended election poll workers this year for the great job they did in a difficult atmosphere.
Meeks and Harper commended county and city leadership here for keeping them informed about local needs.
While there are no pressing local issues before the Assembly, Meeks mentioned a survey on adjusting hunting season for doves that might be of interest to local outdoorsmen. Local hunters who are interested can participate in the surveys at www.surveymonkey.com/r/DoveSurvey2021.
Both men offered their congratulations to the Pierce County Bears and the Pierce County community on the state football championship. Both said they engaged in some friendly wagers on the Bears.
“We had hoped to honor the Bears at the Capitol but the pandemic won’t allow for that right now,” said Meeks. “We certainly are proud of them.”
Harper is chairman of the Natural Resources and Environment Committee, vice chairman of the public safety committee, a member of the appropriations and rules committees and an ex officio member of the Agriculture and Consumer Affairs committees. Meeks is still awaiting his committee assignments for the House for this year.