'An unprecedented situation': Coronavirus clamps down on statehouses as legislatures scramble to adapt
As a global pandemic exploded, a Georgia state senator shrugged off his flu-like symptoms and attended a special legislative session last week for nearly eight hours.
Now, he and three other state senators in the Georgia state legislature have tested positive for the coronavirus virus, spanning both parties and marking what appears to be the largest outbreak in a U.S. legislative body.
"For now, I'm at home," Georgia state Sen. Brandon Beach, a Republican, said as he became the first to announce he had the virus. When reached by USA TODAY at his home Monday, he said he couldn't talk at the moment because of his coughing. The Georgia General Assembly had already suspended and all lawmakers are now urged to self-quarantine.
Across the country, the coronavirus crisis has upended statehouses, forcing at least 23 to suspend or adjourn early to follow social-distancing safety requirements, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The goal: Prevent scenarios like the one in Georgia. Most have set dates to reconvene later this spring, but those timelines are uncertain given the rapid acceleration of the COVID-19 virus in the U.S.
Thousands of pieces of legislation will have to wait. But the biggest challenge could be balancing state budgets amid a national recession.
Bills in Hawaii for new collective bargaining agreements with public employees are on hold. In Ohio, a deal between the House and Senate on eligibility requirements for the state's private school voucher program is in jeopardy with an April 1 deadline approaching. Republican- and Democrat-backed measures in Idaho that would provide property tax relief to residents are sidelined until next year. In Connecticut, bills that would legalize marijuana and sports betting might be pushed to 2021 if the situation doesn't improve.
"We've never had to suspend sessional operations before, so this is an unprecedented situation that we're in," said Democratic Sen. Martin Looney, president speaker pro tempore of the Connecticut Senate. "We're dealing with an unknown here because, at this point, we don't know how much longer the crisis is going to last and how much worse it may get before it begins to get better."
'To be determined'
The halted legislative proceedings come as the U.S. Congress has pressed ahead with meetings in the Capitol even though three members of Congress, one senator and a senator's husband have tested positive for the virus. The Trump administration and Congress are working on hammering out a nearly $2 trillion stimulus plan.
Lacking mandates from the federal government, it is governors and city mayors who have taken the reins on handling the crisis in their states and cities. Seventeen states, including New York, California and Illinois, have imposed either shelter-in-place advisories or orders, affecting around half the U.S. population. States and cities have shut down public schools. Others have closed "nonessential businesses" and limited large gatherings but stopped short of telling residents to stay home.
The Connecticut General Assembly is suspended until at least April 13, but it's unclear whether lawmakers will return and conduct business before May 6, the constitutionally set deadline to finish. Lawmakers have discussed a special session for emergency bills or even remote voting. Looney said he hopes the legislature can take consumer-protection action related to the cost of diabetic supplies.
But he said "some of the more controversial things" might be difficult to pass, including a Democrat-backed bill to legalize cannabis that's "problematic now." So is legislation to legalize sports gambling, a complicated undertaking because it would require amending a 25-year compact between Native American tribes and the states.
The Iowa legislature suspended for 30 days after approving legislation that gave Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds additional spending authority to combat the virus.
Iowa lawmakers can shorten or lengthen the legislative suspension if they choose, but the only thing they are required to pass when they return is the state’s budget, leaving the fate of other priorities uncertain.
In limbo as a result of the suspension: A major tax overhaul proposal from Reynolds, an expansion of the state’s medical marijuana program, and constitutional amendments on restoring felon voting rights and erasing constitutional protections for abortion.
“There are a lot of members that have a lot of priorities that are still out there," said Iowa Sen. Majority Leader Jack Whitver. "So obviously we want to pass as much of the people’s business that we can. But all of that is to be determined on when we come back."
Virus poses major budget strains
States are already bracing for severe budgetary ramifications from a steep nosedive in sales tax revenue as a result of shuttered restaurants, bars and citizens urged to stay indoors. Several states passed emergency funding measures, in chunks ranging from $15 million to $150 million, to address the coronavirus outbreak.
"The issue won't be that we won't be able to do the legislative matters that we wanted to get done," Mississippi Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, a Republican, said. "The issue will be the economics."
In some statehouses, shortened sessions meant rapidly approving budgets for the next fiscal year. That includes Tennessee which adopted a scaled-down $40 billion budget ahead of the legislature adjourning March last week.
With lobbyists and members of the public barred from the capitol, Tennessee lawmakers quickly overhauled the $40 billion budget that Republican Gov. Bill Lee presented in early February. That meant removing or reducing funding for some of the governor’s top projects, including paid family leave for state workers, a $250 million mental health trust fund for schools, a cut to the state’s professional privilege tax and reducing pay raises for teachers.
Other major Republican-backed legislative initiatives – such as passing a permitless-carry gun bill and a wide-ranging abortion restriction bill – are seemingly off the table. It’s still unclear whether the legislature will be in a position to actually resume business June 1 or merely adjourn for the year, which it had originally intended to do in mid-to-late April.
"It’s a very difficult time for Tennessee," said Randy McNally, the state's Republican lieutenant governor who oversees the Senate. But he credited the state's past fiscal decisions for building "the foundation that enables us to weather the storms that come.”
The decision by Arizona lawmakers to break temporarily left a slate of proposed laws in a sort of political purgatory.
Stalled amid the health emergency is a proposal to double Arizona’s gas tax of 18 cents over the next several years to pay for road repairs and improvements.
Unclear, too, is the fate of legislation to regulate short-term vacation rentals, which critics argue have made it harder to find affordable housing in markets from Phoenix to tourist draws like Sedona and Flagstaff. And Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, unsuccessfully urged legislators to let counties run elections by mail ahead of a primary in August and general in November.
"A lot of people gave up a lot that they had worked hard on," Republican Senate President Karen Fann told her members last week.
The Democrat-led Massachusetts legislature, which meets year-round, is among nine states still in session despite the coronavirus outbreak. Doing so has involved limiting proceedings to small "informal" sessions where only party leaders and bill sponsors attend to pass non-controversial legislation. No roll-call votes are taken but legislation passes by a voice vote. Because of social-distancing requirements, the sessions are now livestreamed.
Lawmakers have prioritized legislation to address the coronavirus outbreak and economic consequences. Lawmakers allocated $15 million to beef up the state's coronavirus response and waived a one-week waiting period for residents to apply for unemployment, among other actions.
"We are continuing to work even though it is remotely," Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka said, shortly after concluding a two-hour teleconference phone call with more than 30 Democratic caucus members. She's assigned her members to groups to work on safety-net, housing and economic development issues that will stem from the coronavirus crisis. "There's a lot happening and we want to make sure we stay ahead of the curve as much as possible."
And yet, despite being in session, much of the normal business has been sidelined.
"We wanted to do a comprehensive transportation bill and housing bill," Spilka said, adding that a budget also needs to be approved. "But a lot of those substantives issues are – and have to be – put aside for right now to meet the immediate needs of containing the public health crisis."
Republican-controlled Mississippi suspended its session last week but already met deadlines to send bills from one chamber to the other. Lawmakers could return for one day to address coronavirus issues and then reconvene for regular business later in the spring.
Hosemann, elected last year as Mississippi lieutenant governor, said the Senate had time to address several priorities before adjourning last week: passing a modest $1,000 pay increase for Mississippi teachers, the lowest paid in the U.S., creating a new state tourism department and overhauling state pre-kindergarten funding.
But he said the financial issues loom largest.
He pointed to a loss in sales tax revenue, which funds much of the operating budgets in state and local governments. He said Mississippi casinos, which drive a lot of the economy in coastal Mississippi, were ordered closed this month. The state's Toyota and Nissan plants are also shut down.
"Like everybody else, we're going to feel the economic hit of this," Hosemann said. "Everywhere you look, there are economic challenges for every state, and they're not going to be any different anywhere."
USA TODAY Network staff writers Natalie Allison, Stephen Gruber-Miller and Andrew Oxford contributed to this report. Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.