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The "Heir to Glenn Richardson" Award
Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville
Someone should check on Balfour, who as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee is arguably the most powerful member of the upper chamber — the Snellville Republican's getting sloppy. Ever since the lobbyists' best friend helped ram through legislation that would allow Georgia Power to charge ratepayers in advance for two new nuclear reactors, Balfour's upped the ante for ballsy bills that are blatant reach-arounds for corporate interests. And the Waffle House executive simply does not give a damn if you call him out on such antics. First, Balfour managed to achieve the impossible by bringing together labor unions and the Tea Party in opposition to his bill that would, among other things, ban labor protests — and just labor protests — outside CEOs' residences and punish mass picketing with a steep fine. (Bill supporters stressed to Tea Party members, who wisely opposed the measure, that the bill wouldn't prohibit protests outside abortion doctors' homes or strip clubs. Thanks, guys!) He followed up this masterpiece with a quizzical measure that critics said could allow developers to weasel out of repaying loans. Yes, the private developers who helped put Georgia in its mess of overbuilt, low-quality homes, need a bailout. And when Senate lawmakers watered down legislation that would discourage lawmakers from diverting fees dedicated to tire cleanups or driver's education courses, Balfour said with almost refreshing candor: "We have been doing this for 20 years and I keep getting re-elected." Perhaps Balfour's just feeling a little under pressure from the fact that he's the subject of an ethics complaint that alleges he charged taxpayers for gas mileage when he's in other states speaking at conventions — not to mention also while he's in town during the session. And rather than driving the 30 minutes to Snellville, he spends the night in a Midtown condo he pays for with campaign funds. Maybe one of his Gold Dome friends lives in town and will let him spend the night?
The "E-I-E-I-Oh-My-Lord" Award
Rep. Terry England, R-Auburn
Before the state House voted to approve controversial legislation that would place further restrictions on when abortions could be performed in Georgia, lawmaker after lawmaker stood at the rostrum to wax poetic and posture about the issue. None were more creative than England, a farmer and nursery owner who compared a woman giving birth to a baby that dies shortly thereafter to delivering dead baby barn animals. "Life gives us many experiences," England said. "I've had the experience of delivering calves, dead and alive. Delivering pigs, dead and alive. All of us that have done that ... it breaks our hearts to see those animals not make it." England then recalled the time one of his constituents — "real salt of the earth people, y'all," he said — promised that he'd stop chicken fighting if the General Assembly would ban abortion. House Speaker David Ralston wisely called for the vote after England took his seat.
The "Protect the Shell Game" Award
Sens. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, and Greg Goggans, R-Douglas
In 2005, the General Assembly passed Joshua's Law, so named for a young boy who was killed in a single-car accident. The measure would allow for extra fees on some traffic offenses to help pay for driver's education courses in Georgia. Last year, none of the cash generated by those fees — roughly $11 million, according to the Associated Press — went toward the cause. The same can be said for fees you pay as part of your sewer bill and when you buy a new tire, which are supposed to clean up abandoned landfills and dumped tires, respectively. Instead, lawmakers redirect the cash into the general fund, which is then used to pad budgets or pet projects in their home districts. "We have used all these resources we had to keep correctional officers in prisons, State Patrol officers on the road and teachers in the classroom," Hill bemoaned to the Associated Press. Thanks to the two lawmakers, business as usual shall continue. When legislation that could've helped end the long-running bait and switch came up in a subcommittee, Goggans sabotaged the bill (which Hill later blessed) by stipulating that the fees would go toward their intended uses only when the state's reserves reached ridiculously high levels. That's happened only once since 1988. How ironic that Hill, who this session introduced a bill that would require polluters to pay for monitoring of waterways for two years because the EPD is so broke it can't do its job, would derail a bill that, well, helps the EPD do its job.
The "Big Tease, No Reveal" Award
Gov. Nathan Deal and the Transit Governance Study Commission
For the last two years, state leaders including Gov. Nathan Deal have strung folks along on the possibility that lawmakers this year would approve a bill to create an overarching transit agency to help metro Atlanta prepare for its next big phase in economic development. Gone would be the days of MARTA, CCT, GRTA, GCT, and God knows what acronym all running buses and trains independent of each other. From that foundation, a more connected metro Atlanta transit network would grow. Instead we were delivered an absolute clunker of a bill that was so poorly written it shows how out of touch state leaders remain when it comes to transit. Gold Dome leaders could've adopted legislation developed by an Atlanta Regional Commission committee created to address the very problem — and the final product of which was blessed by metro Atlanta's elected leaders. Instead they merely created a confusing "council" stocked with 'burbanites that could be overruled by the state. It should be noted that the state contributes zilch to operating transit other than a few luxury "coaches" shuttling suburbanites (their constituents), in and out of downtown. Granted, the fact that it didn't pass is probably a blessing. But to fail so miserably at crafting a good bill on such an important issue? And then spend most of the Legislature's time on wedge issues and a tax "reform" bill that's essentially a back-alley handjob to special interests? Deplorable and depressing.
The "Damn the Facts, Damn the Ethics Officials" Award
Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Albany
Kudos to Rynders for shooting first and asking questions later — and keeping alive the House's crusade to avoid any kind of ethical reform. In mid-February during a budget hearing, Rynders grilled Holly LaBerge, the state's top ethics officer, over charges the agency made. Reading from a one-page document with stats provided by the House Budget Office, the Albany Republican rattled off what he considered to be excessive purchases and charges by the agency, which in recent years has virtually been bled out of existence thanks to budget cuts and political dickering by state legislators. "I just can't help but wonder if we couldn't fulfill the mission there a little bit better if we managed it more properly," Rynders said. It turns out the lawmaker had little to no idea about the charges — all of which could be considered justified. (As reported by Atlanta Unfiltered's Jim Walls: $1,646 was spent on removing, per the order of the agency that oversees the state's properties, 30-year-old carpet from the ethics commission's walls. Salary hikes were given because, the former director said, staffers were doing the work of two or three other people thanks to layoffs.) When Walls pressed for more details, the House staffers who compiled the information couldn't verify some of the charges — or find any evidence they were improper.
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