Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Georgia finished its primary season on Tuesday. With the possible exception of a challenge or recount, we now have a picture of what November battles will deserve Georgian’s attention, as well as know who likely will be serving our citizens in January. Perhaps more importantly, we have also seen a new dividing line in Georgia politics that will shape legislative battles when the General Assembly next reconvenes.
It was a good night for legislators. Rep. Doug Collins won the GOP nomination for the heavily Republican 9th Congressional District, and can effectively be called Congressman elect. Rep. Lee Anderson appears to have clinched the right to challenge 12th district Congressman John Barrow, but may face a re-count from challenger Rick Allen. Senator Bill Heath survived a runoff challenge as well, and will return as a member of the feuding GOP Senate caucus.
Non-legislative incumbents didn’t fare as well. Though Tim Lee barely survived a challenge to his Commission Chairmanship in Cobb, it may well be that his challenger, also a former chair, felt some anti-incumbent backlash from his time as chairman. Other Atlanta area incumbents were less lucky.
Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, Dekalb, Fayette, Gwinnett and Henry counties all replaced at least one incumbent commissioner Tuesday. Clayton and Forsyth also replaced incumbent sheriffs. Clayton’s anti-incumbent furor resulted in a new Commission Chairman, a second commissioner, and a new sheriff that is still under indictment from when he was the old sheriff.
Tuesday’s string of local losses for incumbents punctuated strong anti-incumbent losses from the July 31st primary. Legislators, while facing a few losses and many more close races, are mostly breathing sighs of relief. Looking at the bloodbaths for incumbents Tuesday, it could have been much worse for them.
Legislators, however, are in a unique position. They get to talk. They get to vote. But they don’t actually have to deliver. County Commissioners do.
When legislators and the Governor want to cut spending, they can cut the amount of money that flows to local governments. When challenged on this fact, most will attempt to deny that is going on or talk about shared sacrifice. A few like Don Balfour will actually say, as quoted by the AJC when asked about this phenomenon, “I’ve been voting this way for 20 years and people keep re-electing me”.
With state funds shrinking and property tax digests shrinking, local governments have had to either cut services dramatically or increase taxes to balance budgets.
When the matter of passing T-SPLOST was put before the voters, it was a roundtable of local officials that was legislated to come up with the list, adding their local skin to the very unpopular game. The legislators who bestowed such a gift upon the local officials then largely ran away from their creation. Some, such as Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, had themselves appointed to the group that choose the project list, attended none of the meetings, and subsequently ran against the list and, in effect, the local officials that offered it. Rogers skated for his re-election bid. Cherokee County Incumbent Commissioner Jim Hubbard lost Tuesday.
Another example that has local officials grumbling is the recent sentencing reform passed by legislators and signed into law by the Governor. While the move is designed to save the state money on prisons, re-classifying crimes from felonies to misdemeanors means county jails will now house many inmates that would formerly have been wards of the state, increasing the costs to Georgia’s counties.
State School Superintendent John Barge has already telegraphed there is now a chasm between local school boards and policy coming from the Governor and legislature regarding Charter Schools. Tuesday’s election results, combined with those of July 31st, show that local officials are now going to call legislators on the carpet more regularly on the subject of “local control”. They must, purely as a self defense mechanism.
For incumbents in the legislature who believe they have just escaped a near death experience, they need to look long and hard toward two years from now. The local officials are new, and many are angry. They also represent a farm team that is likely to consider challenging legislative incumbents if they continue to see unfunded mandates pushed down to the local level.
Tuesday was supposed to be the beginning of the November general election. It may also have been the setup for many 2014 Republican primaries.