Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Day 37 of the 2011 meeting of Georgia’s General Assembly didn’t go according to the script. The major event of the day was planned to be the final negotiations between the House and Senate on a (less than) comprehensive tax reform plan, then to pass it through the House so the Senate could begin the process needed to get a final passage before Day 40. By mid-afternoon, no one was talking about taxes. Instead, Senators were locked into an hours long caucus meeting considering reversing their pre-session coup on Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle.
The Senate began the year with a coup against Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle. Despite being re-elected by a wide margin and with the public support of the Senate caucus, Cagle received the “Mark Taylor” treatment, stripping him of most powers in what ended up an awkward “power sharing” agreement.
Cagle, retaining upward political ambition despite this setback and his aborted attempt to run for Governor, was left with little to do during this session, save for waiting for his opportunity to regain his authority. Senators, however, began the session not only with much to do, but with the realization that they were not only sharing power with the Lieutenant Governor, but with each other. The results have been less than elegant.
Central to the new power sharing arrangement was a “Committee On Assignments”, to which the stripped powers of Cagle were transferred. Cagle was allowed but two appointments to this committee, and his appointees were not invited to the first meeting. But the other members of the committee have found their own personal ambitions and/or distrust of fellow Senators and their motivations too much for efficient daily operations. They have spent more time making sure their peers do not attain more power than themselves than they have coalescing the body into a cohesive unit.
The Georgia Senate has always been somewhat of a decentralized body, but one with an identified leader who was empowered to negotiate with the House (and frankly, lobbyists that control much of the operations at the Capitol) and speak on the Senate’s behalf. No more.
House members have been openly grousing about their inability to cut deals with the Senate on legislation, and yesterday, even Speaker David Ralston went on record saying it was time for the Senate to end the experiment of committee management in the Senate, but stopped short of recommending Cagle have his power returned, or if all remaining powers should be centralized within a central figure within the Senate.
To most Georgians, this is just political “inside baseball”, and most will be more concerned with Jason Hayward’s leadoff home run during real baseball’s opening day. But the cost is real, and must be understood.
The legislature has been trying to negotiate a tax package to reform Georgia’s tax system from one that matched Georgia’s economy in the 1950’s to one for current economic realities. Yet when this deal should have been receiving the full focus of leadership, they instead were playing internal games for either personal political advancement or even worse, juvenile and petty political payback.
Republicans swept all statewide constitutional offices in November’s elections and have near super-majorities in both the House and Senate. It has been almost a decade since Democrats in this state have had any real power. Republicans now own the state’s problems, and have a responsibility to fix them. Failure to do so will leave no one to blame but themselves.
Georgians are worried about unemployment greater than 10%. They continue to live with schools that are among the worst in the nation. Mobility ceases to exist within parts of the state for hours a day as transportation infrastructure has failed to match Georgia’s growth. And 37 days into the 40 days the Senate has to address these issues, they can’t even decide who runs their body, much less what their agenda is.
The Senate has been a failure in 2011. There is no positive spin to put on this fact. Instead of spending this week at the Masters Golf tournament, Senate “Leaders” – Cagle, Williams, Rogers, Shafer – need to go find a room, and air it out.
They have three days left to work for the people of Georgia this session. They need not spend one hour of that time jockeying for their own position. Georgia deserves better. Much better.