Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Thursday marks a merciful end to the 2012 session of the Georgia General Assembly. As the gavels bang Sine Die at the end of the day, the current spigot of my bountiful cynicism will be turned off. I’m OK with that. 40 days appears to be past my tolerance of good government by fiat, paid for by lobbyists.
As expected, this pre-election year brought few major changes that would raise the attention of a temperamental electorate. Elections years are usually like that. This year, re-election is from re-drawn districts. Legislators are loathe to get off on the wrong foot with voters who have yet to vote for them.
There were two major initiatives which are exceptions to this: Criminal Justice Reform and Tax Reform.
Criminal Justice Reform demonstrated that if there is the political will and intestinal fortitude among state leadership, sides which usually oppose each other can come together, rise above petty differences, and solve a problem for the good of the state as a whole. This is a rare event, and should be celebrated as such.
Tax Reform demonstrated that if there isn’t sufficient political will or intestinal fortitude among state leadership, the default position will remain to pass a bill that takes care of the major lobbying efforts behind an initiative and put just enough window dressing on it to make it palatable to the general electorate. It also demonstrated that if leadership and lobbyists want something bad enough, they will introduce something to the public (who apparently can’t be trusted with information about how they will be taxed or who will get tax cuts) on Monday and send it to the Governor on Thursday.
What will remain significant about this session, however, is what did not happen with this legislative session. Months from now, the dogs that didn’t bark will likely ring the loudest.
The same day that legislators go to the polls for their re-election in their primaries, voters will be asked to tax themselves “an extra penny”, which in most counties represents a 16.7% increase in sales taxes paid. The regional T-SPLOSTS represent a cop-out of leadership from an exiting Perdue administration who kicked the can of solving a gridlocked metro Atlanta region to a new administration and ultimately to voters themselves. Despite recognizing flaws in both construct and proposed execution, the Governor, Mayor, and legislature have decided on a strategy of a PR campaign instead of using leadership to address the problems.
The legislature also decided to remain deaf and dumb when asked about the upcoming half billion in gifts to be bestowed upon Arthur Blank and his new stadium. They very much prefer you not equate this money to improve Atlanta’s infrastructure by an additional and duplicative stadium to the other infrastructure they want you to increase your taxes by 16.7% to pay for. They also want you to quit asking them to put a limit on the amount of free tickets they can receive.
The issue of ethics in Georgia Government and the lack of enforceability of Georgia’s ethics laws received the full ostrich treatment by Georgia’s leaders this year. Despite being ranked dead last in Georgia’s ability to police corruption, leaders still continue to blame “bloggers” for their problems. An attempt to limit gifts to legislators went nowhere, and a resolution creating a study committee of changes to Georgia’s ethics laws was gutted.
Both State Senator Josh McKoon – a seeming lone voice championing needed reforms – and citizen activists demanding change were stripped from the study committee. In their place are senior Senators who by their positions receive most of the perks from the status quo. Prominently included is Senator Don Balfour, himself the subject of an ethics complaint for billing taxpayers for mileage and per diem expenses on days where he doesn’t even appear to have been in the state. It should also be noted that despite this having been known by his peers through much of the session, the complaint to the Senate Ethics Committee was filed by a citizen and not one of the people who serve with him every day. No, those are the people who continue to insist that they can regulate themselves while showing no effort nor taking any initiative to actually do so.
The cliff hanger of Sine Die will be if any side blinks on the “fetal pain” bill, outlawing all abortions after 20 weeks. The bill was pronounced dead after the Senate added exceptions for ectopic pregnancies and similar conditions where the baby would be stillborn. Under the House version, the mother would be required to carry the baby to term. Georgia Right To Life has already threatened to primary the Speaker and a couple dozen other house members over their refusal to advance another pro-life piece of legislation, making the Speaker significantly less sympathetic to their histrionics than usual.
As soon as the gavel hammers Sine Die, legislators will be able to begin receiving campaign checks from those who were well taken care of during this last 40 days. They will use this to further their business model of “We’ve been voting this way for 20 years and I still keep getting re-elected.” Yet there will be primary challenges.
Many will be futile, but some will hopefully leave a mark. Unfortunately, when the public has finally had enough with the status quo, they often are only able to defeat the weakest and most underfunded of the candidates. Those, most likely, are the ones least benefitting from the current system.
It is all enough to keep one cynical. Cynicism is not enough to keep one from participating however. Instead, it should be a call to get involved in the upcoming elections, and be heard. If this status quo is acceptable, then look at the slick mailers coming soon to your mailbox with “jobs”, “low taxes”, and anti-Sharia law messages with approval. If not, ask your legislator pointed questions. Demand answers. Send them this column. And, above all, hold them accountable.