Today’s Courier Herald Column:
The takeaway from Tuesday’s elections is that trust in Government, specifically in the state government, must be restored before those who govern us will effectively be able to lead those of us who are governed. Nowhere is this more true than the State Senate.
Dysfunction has been the modus operandi of the upper chamber for years. Open power struggles, often fueled by little more than contests of ego, have trumped the process of developing sound public policy on too many occasions.
The last two years have been dominated by the power struggle between Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle and the Senate Republican caucus, who stripped him of most power over the body just after his very successful re-election. While Cagle was equally responsible for the Senate’s inability to move big ticket legislation during the 2011 session, his decision to stand aside and let the Senators “lead” during the 2012 session was akin to giving them enough rope with which to hang themselves. We now have a noose that is tied perfectly for all to see. The question as always is how many will look.
Leadership took care of themselves quite well during the 2012 primary. Don Balfour, set to be tried by the Senate for years of claiming false expense reports, received the approval of 63 percent of voters against two challengers. Balfour’s arrogant statement that he’s been doing things his way for 20 years and keeps getting reelected holds true. I guess it can no longer be called arrogant since he can back it up.
Senate Majority Leader Rogers also feathered his nest quite nicely, receiving 59% of the vote against challenger Brandon Beach. All Rogers had to do to win re-election was disavow the T-SPLOST legislation that was a product of his Senate chamber in 2010, campaign against the project list that came from the unanimous vote of a committee of which he was a member but never attended a meeting, and then create an “independent” political committee, transfer the funds of the Senate Republican Trust along with instructions and his accomplishments, and then receive multiple direct mail pieces to benefit his campaign which would not have been legal without the “independence” part. Nice work.
The farther from leadership positions a Senator was, the more difficulty they had with their primary challenges. Banking Chairman Jack Murphy and Majority Whip Cecil Staton barely survived, with margins of 117 and 207 votes, respectively. Both also received the extra “independent” mailings. Both also return with ethics complaints filed against them, as did Rogers.
An additional recipient of mailers and the related ethics complaint is Senator Bill Heath. Heath is now facing challenger Bill Carruth in a runoff election. Senator Johnny Grant lost his bid for re-election, so there will be at least one, possibly two Republican senators who lost their seats in a primary.
While Rogers victory can be much more easily traced to turning his back on the major transportation initiative that was the product of his own body, the victories of Murphy and Staton, are more troubling because of the margin. The Senate’s decision to launder money to an independent group that fails the test of being independent can easily be responsible for a couple hundred votes. Trust is not maintained when powerful insiders are able to maintain power because rules are bent, broken, and ignored.
If there is hope for this very broken caucus, it is that more than half of the members have been elected since 2010. They have yet to receive the largess of the Balfours, nor have become addicted to power like those who are willing to circumvent rules to ensure their own re-election at the expense of the caucus, Senate, and the people of Georgia.
Senator Josh McKoon has already proven that those with little institutional experience can make a difference when they stand firm and articulate a clear point that resonates with the people, as he has done with ethics reform. Others at his seniority level have a decision to make. They may continue to follow along the path that the senior senators have taken, allowing themselves to be painted the same colors by a very broad brush. Or, they can choose to reject the status quo of self-service first.
The caucus is now openly discussing future leadership, though formal votes will likely not be taken until November after the decision in contested races are known. That provides little but sufficient time for the sophomore class to decide if they want to align with their constituents, or if they want to continue to condone the bad actions of those with leadership positions and seniority.
The Senate needs wholesale leadership changes. The President Pro Tem position is already open. The Majority Leader, Rules Chairman, and Banking Chairman need to be changed. All have discredited the institution and the caucus.
This issue is no longer about Casey Cagle. If the idealistic newer Senators wish to maintain their principles, they must assert themselves to instill trust in the body once again. The class of 2010 must remove their training wheels. They were elected to lead. Now it is their time.