Lawmakers grant Kemp expanded powers in public health emergency

By: - March 16, 2020 6:54 pm

Rep. Calvin Smyre has his temperature checked before a special session held Monday in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. All lawmakers were checked. Georgia House of Representatives photo

Lawmakers Monday approved the governor’s request for expanded powers under Georgia’s first-ever public health emergency declaration while state officials combat the spread of COVID-19.

If the outbreak hasn’t subsided by mid-April, they’ll return to Atlanta for another special session to do it all over again on April 15. And if enough state lawmakers are unable to return – potentially because too many of them are ill – then Gov. Brian Kemp can renew the declaration without them, according to Majority Leader Jon Burns, a Newington Republican.

Legislators wrestled for much of Monday with the question of how to balance the need to grant the governor broader authority during a time of crisis without forfeiting the Legislature’s independence. The emergency declaration gives Kemp and other state officials the power to order quarantine, direct health care decisions and take other actions.

“I would remind us all that there is an executive, a judicial and a legislative branch of this government in this state, and it’s clearly defined in the Constitution the powers of each,” Burns said to his House colleagues.

There were 121 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Georgia as of noon Monday, when the state’s count is updated each day. One person – a 67-year-old Cobb County man with underlying medical conditions – has died in Georgia.

One of the governor’s floor leaders, Rep. Bert Reeves, a Marietta Republican, made the grim case for allowing the governor’s declaration to renew if needed without legislative involvement.

Reeves said he and others were concerned that “if this outbreak is as devastating and bad as it potentially could be,” that lawmakers may find themselves among the sick and that could leave the Legislature short on the number of votes needed to maintain the governor’s broadened state-of-emergency powers.

More than 30 state representatives – nearly one-fifth of the chamber – and seven senators were absent Monday when lawmakers confirmed the governor’s emergency declaration. A national state of emergency was declared Friday.

Monday’s special session was held just days after lawmakers abruptly and indefinitely suspended their regular session early because of the virus. The most important state legislative business left hanging is next year’s $28.1 billion budget.

The Legislature’s vote was needed to ratify the governor’s emergency declaration. Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, a Carrollton Republican, argued the steps being taken would head off a worsened crisis.

“It’s one of those situations where half the population is out there going, ‘Are they overreacting?’ and the other half is going, ‘Are they doing enough?’” Dugan said. “And unfortunately, the only way we can know if we were overreacting is to not do anything and then see where the disease takes us.”

The day had started with a moment of unity, with clear bipartisan support for the resolutions in each chamber. Both chambers ultimately passed the measures with near unanimous votes.

But reminders of the viral threat were easy to find in a building that is usually bustling with activity this time of year: Lawmakers were checked for a fever before the session. One lawmaker wore a face mask. Others wore latex gloves.

“We are in uncertain times, for this is the time for us to speak with one voice, to act with one heart, dedicated to the proposition that we must act,” the longest serving member of the House, Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat, said to his colleagues.

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