To Crossover Day, And Beyond

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

Thursday will be “crossover day” in the Georgia legislature.  That is the day when a bill must pass either the House of the Senate in order to be considered by the other body this session.  In short, if a bill doesn’t pass somewhere by Thursday, it is dead for this session.

…unless, as is often the custom at the Georgia General Assembly, someone decides to slip in a bill that didn’t pass as an amendment to another bill that did.  Sometimes, the good lawmakers even get creative enough to offer the amendment as a substitute bill, effectively skipping both the rule of crossover day and the committee process, if necessary.  It usually helps to have a really good lobbyist to make this happen.  But this is the kind of stuff we tend to watch for on days 39 and especially day 40.

What we are watching for on crossover day is much more a dynamic of what happens within a body.  The power struggle is between committee chairmen with competing interests, or more often, powerful lobbying interests on opposite sides of an issue.  Those that can get a bill passed by one body on or before crossover day shows where the strengths and weaknesses are in a chamber, and in the lobbying/special interest communities.

After crossover day, the battle becomes House versus Senate instead of one based in partisanship.  The House will only take up certain bills if they see the Senate taking up bills that they see as a priority.  Tradeoffs of moving and passing bills are made between the chambers.

If a certain committee chairman – or Speaker, or Lt. Governor, President Pro Tem, or Majority Leader – doesn’t see a pet bill moving on the other side of the Capitol, it is not unusual to see floor activity grind to a halt.  The message is less than subtle, if not totally obvious to outside observers.   The other body will pass the bills championed by the more powerful members or the other body won’t see any of their bills pass.

It’s a time honored tradition practiced by each side of the building, and is best understood by an old anecdote about a freshman lawmaker who was just asked to vote for a bill by a member of the other party.  The freshman protested on the grounds that he was being asked to vote for the enemy which brought a swift retort from the senior lawmaker.  “Son, the other party is your opposition. The enemy is on the other side of this building.”

The goal of crossover day is merely moving bills through the member’s own body so they can then engage the fight with the enemy.  This year that battle will have many looking for shifts in the political tea leaves.  For the last two years the Senate was – to be the most charitable – a bit dysfunctional with its leadership.  The year before that, a new and unexpected House Speaker was just trying to hold his new coalition together while doing damage control left from the last regimes.

This year, the post crossover day sprint will be between battle of equals.  Speaker Ralston has commanded firm control over the House when required since his sophomore year.  The new Senate leadership structure has made peace with a newly out of exile Lieutenant Governor.  The team has wasted no time in asserting its efficiency of railroad operations in such fashion that there are rumors CSX will be sending over a management study committee.

Thus, the final days of this session of the General Assembly will have many watching the inside parlor games to see who has the upper hand.

Not to be forgotten in this contest is that of the Governor.  Regardless of which body of the legislature may appear at times more powerful, the Governor is the only one that holds the veto pen – including a line item veto over appropriations.  In effect, that makes him a referee as well as the final judge.