COVID-19 and last week’s storming of the U.S. Capitol loomed large in the Georgia General Assembly Monday as lawmakers were sworn in to begin the 2021 legislative session.
Eleven new senators and 20 new House members took the oath of office, as the two chambers – still controlled by Republicans following the November elections – elected their leaders for the next two years.
Besides a requirement that lawmakers wear masks on the House and Senate floors, they will be tested twice a week to discourage the spread of the virus, which has sickened hundreds of thousands of Georgians and prompted the General Assembly to shut down for three months during last year’s session.
At least one lawmaker recently tested positive for COVID-19 and was absent Monday, prompting state Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, to criticize the slow rollout of Georgia’s vaccine program. Just one-third of the 555,800 vaccines shipped to Georgia so far have been administered, according to state Department of Public Health data.
“We must call on the leadership in the state … to step up,” Orrock said. “What we cannot do is tolerate this current level of being at the bottom in the nation for the levels of vaccine we’re getting out.”
The House overwhelmingly re-elected Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, to head that chamber for the next two years. In his acceptance speech, he condemned last week’s violet assault on the U.S. Capitol building by supporters of President Donald Trump that killed five people, including a Capitol police officer.
“Last week was a dark day in the history of our nation … to see American citizens storming our revered Capitol,” Ralston said. “There is no possible justification for this loss of life, bloodshed and damage. America is better than this.”
State Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, criticized Republican state senators who held hearings on Trump’s election fraud claims under the Gold Dome, which she said helped spark the riot in Washington.
“This, my colleagues, was a reckless decision,” Parent said. “We should not sow doubt, anger and faithlessness in the citizens who elect us.”
Proposals to change Georgia election laws including tighter voter ID requirements and limits on who can cast mail-in ballots look to feature prominently in this year’s session after President-elect Joe Biden became the first Democrat to carry Georgia since 1992 and Democrats flipped the state’s two Republican-held U.S. Senate seats last week.
“Our elections must be free, fair, free from fraud, secure and accessible,” Ralston said. “We must always tell our citizens the truth.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, who was re-elected to that leadership post on Monday, urged collaboration between both parties and highlighted the tough challenges ahead on voting laws and COVID-19 bills.
“We’ve got to keep things in perspective,” Miller said. “This is a part-time job but with immense responsibility.”
Meanwhile, House members re-elected Rep. Jan Jones, R-Milton, speaker pro tempore, the chamber’s No.-2 leadership position. Like Ralston, she has served in House leadership since 2010.