Today’s Courier Herald Column:
The Georgia General Assembly is not officially in session this week. As is custom, there is a break after last week’s start to the session to begin budget hearings as part of the process to fulfill their constitutional mandate to pass a budget. Anything else provided by the legislature is just a bonus.
Senate Democrats used the spare time to hold a press conference on Tuesday announcing their legislative priorities. Generally, the members of a party with a distinct partisan disadvantage can be largely ignored or possibly even mocked. After all, the majority party controls the committees which legislation must pass through before it can reach the floor, and also the power to call for votes from the floor.
But this is the Georgia Senate, which puts the fun in dysfunctional. With a Lieutenant governor and various factions within the Senate Republican caucus constantly jockeying for power and control, Democrats – along with their votes and possibly even their legislation – are in play. As such, their proposals deserve scrutiny.
Perhaps the measure being put forward that will have the greatest public traction is the push for an independent ethics commission with funding independent of the legislature. The idea is similar to one pushed by now Congressman Austin Scott when he was a state Representative, so some level of bipartisanship can be claimed. Perhaps more importantly, the TEA Party Patriots have joined forces with Common Cause and other ethics watchdogs to push for real ethics reform this year. While it is highly unlikely that the legislature will go so far as to give up the power to police themselves (or more importantly, to not police themselves), the various disparate groups that will be pushing for ethics reform this year make this the most likely place that Senate Democrats can claim a victory.
During this week of budget hearings, Democrats are also calling for requirements for fees to actually be used for the purpose that they are stated to have been collected. As of now, most fees (which when raised are not to be called tax increases) are deposited into Georgia’s general fund, and are only appropriated to the causes for which they are purportedly collected if the legislature chooses to do so.
In times of budget cuts, these funds which are often earmarked to local governments never make it to their intended recipients. State legislators usually attempt to feign some concern for the needs of municipalities who were looking for matching funds when they state that times are tough, and the state needs the money to take care of the well connected before any leftovers can be remitted to local sources.
A proposal to allow for same day voter registration is dead on arrival, and if it were to somehow pass the Senate would likely not ever be addressed in a Republican controlled House. This measure is a clear appeal to a Democratic base, and does not represent a proposal that Democrats believe will become law in Georgia any time soon.
Perhaps the biggest strategy blunder on behalf of Democrats was to call for a three year moratorium on the expansion of HOT Lanes, favoring three years of study before proceeding. Republicans have received deserved criticism for doing virtually nothing to improve metro Atlanta’s transportation grid during the decade which they have had control of the Governor’s mansion. Faced with the prospect of raising taxes to fund significant infrastructure improvements, Republicans have often punted the issue by passing minor appropriations for studies rather than actually make leadership decisions.
While the only existing HOT Lanes on I-85 have received much criticism during their implementation, the proposed HOT Lanes for other areas of the metro would actually add additional lanes rather than re-purpose existing lanes. Suggesting that expansion wait for three more years of study gives Republicans an additional out for making tough decisions, and makes Democrats complicit if the Atlanta region continues to be mired in gridlock.
The suggestion that the studies wait for a 3 year period also adds a bit of additional insult to one major Republican, as that time period coincides with the remainder of Governor Deal’s first term. Suggesting the Governor stand down on transportation improvement initiatives that have been a key component in his attempt to break through various transportation bureaucracies for affordable solutions may not sit well with an executive who seems to have a better working relationship with House Democrats than their Senate counterparts.