Atlanta Business Chronicle Report by Grace Donnelly

The COVID-19 pandemic and election reform will be top of mind for members of the Georgia General Assembly as their session begins Jan. 11.

Since the Nov. 3 presidential election, baseless claims about rampant voter fraud in the state have been a cause of concern for many Georgians. Speaker of the House David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) will appoint a special committee in the House to address election integrity, he announced at a press conference on Jan. 7.

Republican representatives hope to pass legislation this session that will “restore trust” in the election process, Senate Majority Whip Steve Gooch (R-Dahlonega) said during a roundtable discussion hosted by law firm Dentons.

The debate among lawmakers about how to do that will likely be intense, as Senate Minority Caucus Chair Elena Parent (D-Atlanta) made it clear that Democrats view the elimination of no-excuse absentee ballots as “abject voter suppression.”

The larger focus of Georgia’s elected officials will be addressing the public health and economic implications of the pandemic as well as the effort to distribute vaccines throughout the state.

Here are four things to watch in 2021:

Consequences of COVID-19

Lawmakers are likely to renew the liability shield law passed in August that provides protection for businesses from potential lawsuits over COVID-19 exposure, which is set to expire in July of this year.

Remote learning during the pandemic has made equal access to broadband internet a pressing and bipartisan issue — both for children in rural Georgia and for those living in impoverished urban communities.

Supporting the inoculation process in the state and providing relief for individuals and businesses struggling financially due to the pandemic until a sufficient number of Georgians receive the vaccine will also be priorities for members of the General Assembly during this session.

Restoring budget cuts

State legislators passed a balanced budget for fiscal year 2021 in June, which included more than $2 billion in cutsdue to revenue losses caused by the spread of the virus. As the economy rebounds, they will look at reinstating some of this funding for state agencies.

Restoring the $1 billion in cuts to Georgia’s public school funding will be a priority for Democrats. Gooch also wants to find money to fulfill Gov. Brian Kemp’s campaign promise that gives teachers a pay raise.

Ralston said he expects the budgets for state agencies will still be smaller than prior to the pandemic, but that cuts will not be as extensive as they were in 2020.