ATLANTA — State lawmakers have taken up legislation that would give the General Assembly a say over the declaration of public emergencies in Georgia.
Current state law gives the governor sole authority to declare an emergency, as happened last March when the coronavirus pandemic struck Georgia. The legislature then is required to convene in a special session on the second day following the emergency declaration.
But there’s no end date on public emergencies, Georgia Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, told members of a House subcommittee Wednesday.
“Once it gets started, it’s on cruise control,” he said. “It’s hard to stop it.”
Under a bill introduced by Setzler, emergencies declared by the governor could run no longer than 30 days unless renewed by the General Assembly. Following legislative renewal, lawmakers then would have to revisit emergency declarations every 90 days and either extend or terminate them.
“The idea of having a date certain where [an emergency declaration] ends mandates legislative involvement in the input but not with execution and control,” Setzler said.
Rep. David Dreyer, D-Atlanta, said he felt uncomfortable that the General Assembly had no further role to play after leaving the state Capitol last March for what turned out to be a three-month recess having ratified the open-ended emergency declaration ordered by Gov. Brian Kemp.
“This governor acted in good faith with this emergency declaration,” Dreyer said. “But there’s no guarantee. … The way the system is set up, we’re abdicating responsibility with no real way to get it back.”
Setzler said his bill also would let the legislature set conditions for renewing emergency declarations. For example, lawmakers could have a say on whether daytime curfews should be imposed or whether churches should have to close, he said.
Church closings became a controversial issue last year when some argued churches should be allowed to conduct services in person even while businesses had been shut down by the pandemic.
“This is not a coronavirus bill,” Setzler said. “But as we moved through the months and conditions changed … should the legislature not have had some ability to revisit that? That’s what this does.”
Setzler said his bill also isn’t aimed at Kemp, who he said hasn’t taken a position on the legislation.
“This isn’t a political thing,” Setzler said. “[But] a lot of us left uneasy with the process, not with the outcome. Now, we can affect the process moving forward.”
House Bill 358 is cosponsored by Republican Reps. Timothy Barr of Lawrenceville, Ginny Ehrhart of Marietta, Dewayne Hill of Ringgold, Emory Dunahoo of Gillsville and Steve Tarvin of Chickamauga.
The subcommittee did not vote on the bill Wednesday.