General Assembly 2013: Historically Unremarkable

April 1, 2013 11:00 am

by Charlie · 8 comments

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

The most remarkable thing about this year’s session of the Georgia General Assembly was the unremarkable nature of the event.  There were few public battles. Most clashes of personality and ego occurred behind closed doors.  Instead of being remembered for what was done during the 40 days that ended last Thursday evening, it’s highly likely that it will be remembered for what didn’t happen.

The lead-up discussion prior to gaveling in was centered on the hospital bed tax renewal to prop up Georgia’s underfunded Medicaid program.  Governor Deal quickly sidestepped the need for legislators to vote for a renewal of the bed tax by instead floating the idea that the Department of Community Health could assume the tax levying authority of the legislature.

Republican legislators, fearing the wrath of being accused of breaking their pledges of not voting for tax increases, jumped at the chance to preserve and possibly increase current revenues without any of their finger prints marking the deed.  It was a sign of more to come.

When discussion turned to the General Assembly allowing the Georgia World Congress Center to go on the hook for $300 Million in bonds to build a stadium next to the Georgia Dome, the Governor and the City of Atlanta again stepped in to avoid a vote from the legislature.  It really doesn’t matter, as this was more Kabuki theater than not.

The legislature voted the real amount dedicated to the stadium back in 2010 – a tax that will extend to 2050 and put far more money into the project than the $200 Million figure used in a blatant misrepresentation for what taxpayers will ultimately contribute to replace a perfectly functional facility.  Incidentally, watch for the Georgia Dome to be featured in the NCAA Final Four tournament this week.  I’m sure state and city officials will be embarrassed to have such a rundown dump as the centerpiece of the sporting world for a few days.

“Comprehensive Ethics Reform” was also a phrase with buzz in the early session, but as time wore on, the world “comprehensive” seemed to mean less and less.  In the end, there was movement, but with the same old – and tiresome – focus.  Legislators enjoy keeping the focus on lobbyists, knowing the general public holds the profession with generally low regard and in high suspicion.

By continuing to extend rules on who must register as a lobbyist and controlling the lobbyists’ activities, legislators have yet again been able to deflect that transgressions which occur from an elected official who accepts gifts that go unreported have no fear of reprimand – and that those same officials continue to control the process which remains far from independent.  These same legislators were patting themselves on the back for passing gift caps, calling it “historic”.

Again, I’m not sure doing something that 47 other states have already been doing qualifies for that word.  Instead, it feels a lot like 2010 – the last time we passed “historic” ethics reform that didn’t change the behavior or culture of the Georgia Dome.  At least leaders were calling it “a good first step”, implying that there are more steps needed.

Then again, many of these same legislators were promising that they would roll up their sleeves and make transportation their number one priority after the statewide failure of T-SPLOST referendums.  The vacant legislative record on transportation in the 2013 – another hallmark of what wasn’t done this year – should stand as testament to the value of elected officials telling you what they’ll do by the time they hope you have forgotten the question.

And then there were guns.  Nothing excites the Georgia legislature than the annual bills designed to ensure that one of the most pro-2nd amendment states in the union keeps the issue at the forefront.  And as usual, various laws were proposed, vigorously debated, and ultimately – not passed.  A compromise on when students would be allowed to bring weapons onto college campuses came too late for the legislature to consider the bill in their final hour.  Yet another non-accomplishment.

This one, however, can be assured to be back next year.  After all, every legislator will want to be on record as being sufficiently pro-gun heading into a primary election.  And besides, as this year has proven once again, gun issues can generate headlines, attention, and interest that helps deflect how many other items aren’t receiving attention.

Left Turn Only April 1, 2013 at 1:47 pm

I’ll believe the pro gun legislators are serious about Second Amendment rights when I see in the House and Senate galleries gaggles of grizzled tea party types with their “assault rifles” fitted with 30 round clips sitting next to groups of inner city kids with odd bulges under their white tee shirts, all watching their “representatives” do their work. It’s the people’s house, after all, so what sense does it make to deny our constitutional rights there?

I do, however, agree with them on packing in churches. I doubt if a single person in my own congregation even owns a gun, but in the unlikely event I attend a rattle snake handling session in a Holiness church, I think I want a piece.

Dave Bearse April 1, 2013 at 4:35 pm

“These same legislators were patting themselves on the back for passing gift caps, calling it “historic”.

Is that last word a typo? Histrionic would be more apt.

Dave Bearse April 1, 2013 at 5:02 pm

Comprehensive ethics reform being reduced to a gift cap visor in time for the Master’s was a buzz kill. I understand one of the holes in the visor is that legislators only need reimburse lobbyists for ticket face value, instead of the $500 it costs the lobbysits or us peons to purchase a ticket.

Georgians have sought ethics legislation ever since it became public over three years ago that is was “common knowledge” in the General Assembly that House Speaker Richardson was sleeping with a lobbyist pushing a bill that Richardson was sponsoring. The transparency legislation the following year deserves accolades. Transparency legislation didn’t however address the root problem: lack of legislator’s personal responsibility and independent oversight.

Personal responsibility and independent oversight were at the heart of Senate Rules Chairman Balfour’s abuse of per diem that became known the very next year. Yet again, the General Assembly sidesteps the root cause, this time with gift cap legislation. Unfortunately, unlike the transparency legislation, loopholes render this year’s legislation nearly useless in capping gifts for the rank and file. The little positive it contains is offset by loopholes that exempt lawyers from registering as lobbyists, and legitimizing lobbyist paid junkets.

I hope the Governor sends a clear message to the General Assembly and vetoes this legislation. Georgians expect true ethics legislation where independent oversight holds General Assembly representation, not the lobbyists, personally accountable. I think no legislation for another year is the fastest path to sound legislation. As it stands now, next year the General Aseembly will at best likely fix only the grossest loopholes and call the matter it closed. And it will be closed for a few years, until the root cause that has not been addressed is addressed.

The Last Democrat in Georgia April 2, 2013 at 12:17 am

“Unfortunately, unlike the transparency legislation, loopholes render this year’s legislation nearly useless in capping gifts for the rank and file. The little positive it contains is offset by loopholes that exempt lawyers from registering as lobbyists, and legitimizing lobbyist paid junkets.”

The Legislature said that they were going to get tough on ethics and, by golly they got TOUGH on ethics…in their own special way…

SOWEGA April 1, 2013 at 5:04 pm

Perhaps next year, in dramatic repudiation of the 17th Amendment, the General Assembly can hold a vote on their choice for Georgia’s next Senator. This may very well reveal more about our legislators than we’ll ever glean from a 40 day session.

Three Jack April 1, 2013 at 11:58 pm

If we paid their salaries via credit card, taxpayers would win the chargeback challenge with ease.

These guys set the bar so low prior to the session by making ethics reform the perceived issue, yet still managed to not even reach their own low setting. This session is the model of what happens when the public just stops caring.

The Last Democrat in Georgia April 2, 2013 at 12:10 am

“This session is the model of what happens when the public just stops caring.”

…Unfortunately.

John Pezold April 2, 2013 at 8:37 am

For the record, there were a few Republicans who voted against the Bed Tax bill.

http://www.legis.ga.gov/legislation/en-US/display/20132014/SB/24

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