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'The money will just not be there': Forsyth County state legislators talk about COVID-19's impact on budget, healthcare, school
On Tuesday, April 14, the Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce hosted a virtual town hall, where participants could submit questions for members of Forsyth County's legislative delegation

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The novel coronavirus outbreak has moved work, government and even personal meetings to be held by video conferencing, and on Tuesday, members of Forsyth County's legislative delegation to the Georgia General Assembly used the technology to hear concerns and questions about the outbreak from their constituents. 

The virtual town hall, hosted by the Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce, was similar to the group's annual pre- and post-legislative breakfasts. There were pre-submitted questions from the audience, and AT&T Regional Director Paul Chambers served as moderator.  

With the legislative session temporarily suspended due to COVID-19, it's no surprise that many of the meeting's questions dealt with the state's response and future plans related to the disease.

Impact on the state budget

The Constitution of the State of Georgia requires that each year, legislators approve a balanced budget.

In this year's session, which has been suspended since March due to the outbreak, a reduced budget had already been expected to pass before the outbreak, and lawmakers said they had some concerns about the next steps.

“We thought we'd gotten close, and now we know that we are operating in a completely different realm than I think any of us ever expected to be,” District 26 state Rep. Marc Morris, a member of the House's appropriations committee for economic development. “I would just say that as we move forward in the future, I want you to understand there may be a lot of things that we want to do, and there will be things that you want to do, but quite candidly, the money will just not be there to pay for it."

District 51 state Sen. Steve Gooch said the state might ”have to look at dipping into the rainy day reserve we have of approximately $3 billion sitting there that we've been prudent and been fiscal conservatives over the last few years to build that fund up.”

He said GDOT would also receive “several hundred million dollars” in federal funding to offset their losses.

“We're going to see some financial impacts that we've never seen before, in our lifetimes at least,” Gooch said. “The recession that we had in 2008 was severe, but I believe this could be even farther in the negative than what we saw 10 years ago, depending on when the virus goes away and when we can get people back to work.”

Impact on schools

Morris had a short answer on how school budgets would be impacted by COVID-19: “Drastically.”

District 22 state Rep. Wes Cantrell, a member of the House's appropriations committee for education, agreed, saying he was “very, very concerned about what is going it happen to that."

He said one of his children was an educator in Cherokee County, which, like Forsyth, has moved to online learning for students and he believed increasing the amount of online learning might be a way to save costs for schools.

“I'm hoping that it will cause our educators to take a look at some digital days for some cost-saving, transportation, particularly," he said. "Obviously, heating and cooling and those kinds of things, if we had a digital day a month, a couple of digital days a month, we could see some considerable savings.”

Getting back to work 

One of the most common questions in the community right now is when the virus will be over and people can go back to work.

Morris said he felt people should also be asking about “how we go back to work.”

“Restarting this economy is going to take an incredible amount of effort and planning, of how do you take an engine that has basically just stopped, how do you restart it?” he said. “Just think about bringing the airport back to some level of travel that we experienced before--it's down by 96%. How do you bring all of those workers back in? How do you have the equipment? How do you do your safety checks? And the list goes on and on.”

District 25 state Rep. Todd Jones added that along with the economic challenges, there would likely be physical challenges for some who were out of work in professions like service jobs, transportation and manufacturing.

“I'll use manufacturing as an example,” he said. “When you think about the line workers, the concern that we're going to have first and foremost is safety training. So, we're looking at line workers who have traditionally, eight to 10 hours, they've been active, they've been doing ergonomic lifts, etcetera. Now suddenly, they have been inactive how long? Six weeks, eight weeks, 10 weeks? The body reacts to that, so bringing them back online for eight hours, is there a way we ramp them up, for instance.”

Jones said businesses could look into additional training, preparation or breaks to help limit injuries and worker's compensation claims. 

Changes in technology

As a technology executive, Jones was the natural choice to take on a question regarding how the legislature would boost technology infrastructure in the state, particularly to Georgia's more rural communities.

“At the end of the day, laying down fiber and conduit will never be cost-effective into areas where there is such low density, and we need to find a way to get air coverage," Jones said, adding that Georgia should help foster a satellite-based approach for internet.

District 24 state Rep. Sheri Gilligan said she was also impressed with students getting involved by 3D printing face shields due to mask shortages and felt telecommunication with others could change business and reduce traffic.

“These are the things that we are going to be seeing," Gilligan said, "and a lot of this would not have happened had we not taken these weeks and hit a cosmic pause button and start looking at different ways of doing what we've always done.”

Remainder of session

This year's session was cut short on Crossover Day, or when bills need to be approved by one chamber of the General Assembly to have a shot at making through the other, meaning there was still lots of work to be done.

“We ended the legislative session, we indefinitely suspended it on Day 28, which was Crossover Day, and really we were getting a lot of good work done before we all left to come home,” said District 27 state Sen. Greg Dolezal. “A couple of bills that I was working on with my colleagues that I was probably the most excited about were in the healthcare space, which is obviously going to be very important moving forward."

Dolezal said he was a part of a group working on a bill to end surprise billing. Other bills he was planning dealt with price transparency and a “three-pronged approach” to deal with the virus while reopening the community and focusing on mental health.

“The mental health impact of forcing human beings who are made to live in a community with one another to not be in a community with one another, even for an indefinite time, has significant consequences," Dolezal said.

Also on healthcare, Jones said he was working on a bill to provide indigent and charitable healthcare “to individuals to 200% of the poverty line.”

Gooch said there were a number of bills being considered before the suspension but once the legislature returns, they would likely have to prioritize only the most important. 

Most important lessons learned

Amid the pandemic, lots of information has come out for ways to deal with the virus, with not all of them being factual. Gilligan said the most important lesson she had learned was to listen and communicate and make sure people have access to reliable information.

“The most important lesson that I've learned is that communication is key to everything,” she said. “We need to be able to communicate everything we know and everything we know we don't know and help people figure out where to find the facts.”