ATLANTA — Rural broadband, pandemic recovery and election battles to come in Georgia’s legislative session highlighted the annual “Eggs and Issues” program held Wednesday by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.
Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and Georgia House Speaker David Ralston each promised to focus on boosting broadband internet access in rural parts of the state and shoring up Georgia’s economy amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Democratic legislative leaders pledged to fight likely upcoming moves by Republicans to change Georgia’s election laws governing voter ID requirements and mail-in voting qualifications.
The chamber’s traditional breakfast gala was virtual-only this year instead of the usual in-person gathering at the Georgia World Congress Center, marking the rising role of online communications as state lawmakers look to bolster telehealth options and virtual studies for schools.
“As 2020 fades in the rearview mirror, I believe we have the opportunity and the responsibility to make strategic decisions now that will positively impact our state for generations to come,” Kemp said.
The governor’s remarks came before he unveils his budget priorities on Thursday as Georgia businesses and state tax revenues continue rebounding from the pandemic. On top of avoiding budget cuts, Kemp said he plans to push “substantial investments” for rural broadband in his budget proposal.
Internet expansion and technology improvements are also on the agenda for Duncan, who presides over the Georgia Senate. He pressed the need for building out telehealth platforms and shoring up Georgia’s freight and logistics industries, which have been hit hard by the pandemic.
“We want to continue to gain the momentum that we’ve gained in the last two sessions,” Duncan said.
Look for important annual tweaks to the current fiscal year budget to come early in the session in case the General Assembly has to suspend proceedings like it did last year due to the pandemic, Ralston said.
A handful of state lawmakers including Georgia Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, have already tested positive for COVID-19 just three days into the session, creating uncertainty over how the next roughly two months will go as the legislature tackles hundreds of bills.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen on the pandemic,” Ralston said. “We need to get an amended budget out there fairly soon, at least to keep the state open through the end of June.”
The speaker also signaled he does not expect the session will tamper with Georgia’s lucrative film tax credit program, which some lawmakers have called for shrinking to help boost state coffers. Also unlikely this session are any major bills on health care and health insurance in Georgia, Ralston said.
“I’m not sure that during the middle of a pandemic is the best time to undertake substantial changes,” Ralston said.
Looming over Wednesday’s program were the likely political brawls ahead on efforts to change Georgia’s election laws after President-elect Biden became the first Democrat to carry Georgia since 1992 and Democrats flipped both U.S. Senate seats.
Many Republican lawmakers also have targeted mail-in voting after huge numbers of absentee ballots were cast in the June 9 primaries, Nov. 3 general election and Jan. 5 runoffs.
While the state’s top Republicans largely skipped discussing election issues Wednesday, Democratic leaders in both legislative chambers said they’re gearing up for a fight to oppose any moves that could reduce ballot access in future elections.
State Sen. Tonya Anderson, D-Lithonia, who chairs the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, said opposing crackdowns on mail-in voting “will definitely be a priority.” House Minority Leader James Beverly, D-Macon, called fraud and election issues a distraction from legislative efforts to help Georgians push through the pandemic.
“We’ll be ready for the fight,” Beverly said. “But it’s not something that we should be spending time on.”
Kemp is set to deliver the annual “State of the State” speech on Thursday, outlining his budget and legislative priorities for the session, followed by a rebuttal from Democratic leaders.