By Dave Williams, Bureau Chief, Capitol Beat News Service
ATLANTA - The General Assembly ratified Gov. Brian Kemp’s public health emergency declaration Monday in a one-day special session that took several hours longer than expected.
The governor called the special session last Friday, one day before he declared the first public health emergency in Georgia’s history to give him additional authority to deal with the coronavirus crisis.
Lawmakers convened under the Gold Dome just three days after suspending the regular 2020 session indefinitely due to coronavirus.
Unlike the political conflicts that typify the 40-day regular sessions, legislative leaders called for and got bipartisanship on Monday.
“Now is the time for us to speak with one voice and act with one heart,” Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, the longest serving member of the state House of Representatives, told his colleagues from the House podium.
The emergency declaration gives Kemp the power to limit the size of public gatherings, a step the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending, and to restrict travel.
While the governor has yet to do either, he called up as many as 2,000 members of the Georgia National Guard during the weekend to work with local governments to ensure adequate supplies of medical equipment, food and shelter.
Georgia Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, said handing the governor unique executive powers is needed to “get in front of” the spreading virus. He noted the expanded powers include limiting truck operations and boosting support for the state Department of Public Health to keep elderly and chronically ill Georgians safe.
“This is one of those situations where half the population is going, ‘Are they overreacting? And the other half is going, Are they doing enough?’ ” Dugan said. “Unfortunately, the only way to know if we were overreacting is to not do anything and to see where the disease takes us.”
House Speaker David Ralston pledged his chamber’s help with the crisis in a brief address to House members before Monday’s vote.
“We will do what we must to protect the safety, health and wellbeing of the people of Georgia,” said Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. “There is no higher obligation that we have.”
While Democrats and Republicans stuck together in passing the resolution, the votes came only after House and Senate leaders spent hours behind closed doors hashing out a disagreement over the measure’s wording.
The original House version of the ratifying resolution called for the public health emergency declaration to last until April 13 unless Kemp acted to renew it beyond that date, subject to the General Assembly ‘s approval of the extension.
The Senate resolution, however, left the decision on renewing the emergency declaration strictly up to the governor.
Because of the dispute, a special session that began shortly after 8 a.m. lasted until after 3:30 p.m.
Lawmakers eventually agreed to schedule another special session April 15 to ratify any extension of the emergency declaration Kemp decides to issue. However, the governor will have the authority to renew the declaration unilaterally if the General Assembly is unable to return to the state Capitol because the coronavirus has rendered such large gatherings unwise.
Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Stone Mountain, said he thought the arrangement devised Monday would be enough to provide a legislative check on the governor’s power amid uncertain times.
“I think we have to be optimistic that he’s going to work for the best interest of Georgians and the state,” Henson said.
The Senate passed the resolution unanimously. It cleared the House 142-1, with Rep. Matt Gurtler, R-Tiger, voting "no."
Staff writer Beau Evans contributed to this report.