Do-nothing session? 

Lawmakers wanted to give up the booty to industry, but politics wouldn't let them

Bad policy, bad press and bad politics. That's how one Atlanta lawmaker describes a now infamous bill to force Georgia consumers to pony up $300 million for a shiny new Atlanta Gas Light pipeline.

In other words, the project wasn't in the public interest, was soundly trashed by newspapers across the state and Gov. Sonny Perdue likely would have lost votes had he signed it.

And yet, that pellet of legislative poison wormed its way to the brink of approval in last month's General Assembly, despite vocal opposition from consumer advocates and a cold shoulder from the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

Like a headless horseman, the pipeline bill kept charging forward through committee meetings clogged with hostile witnesses, causing many to wonder just what was keeping it going. The obvious answer was that it had the backing of the top brass in the House, most prominently Speaker Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter, R-Alpharetta.

Even after it finally stalled in the Senate Rules Committee, Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, kept pressure on the upper chamber, publicly complaining that "we can't even get our bills acted upon" in the Senate.

A dominant theme of last year's legislative session was an overall pro-business stance by newly empowered Republicans, culminating in a $1 billion corporate tax break and the sprawling tort-reform package.

This year's outing, by contrast, saw that posture dissolve into scattershot attempts at sweetheart bills and public giveaways aimed to benefit specific industries and, in many cases, individual companies.

From a $28 million Delta tax credit that somehow morphed into free money for AirTran to proposed title-pawn "reforms" largely penned by that same industry to a bill that would give private developers the power of taxation over homeowners, the 2006 legislative landscape was littered with measures to enrich powerful businesses and well-connected insiders.

"There were plenty of good examples of corporate interests getting their legislation carried," says Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur. "Atlanta Gas Light and its pipeline is only the most obvious."

While last year's tort-reform law set up a huge windfall for MAG Mutual, Georgia's enormous medical malpractice insurer, by capping jury awards at $350,000, many lawmakers who supported the measure were able to say they were driven by conservative ideology.

The AGL pipeline, however, held no such ideological appeal. Industry experts maintained that it wouldn't save consumers money in the long run. Even the argument that Georgia needed the additional pipeline capacity for natural gas was undercut months ago by the announcement that another provider, Southern Natural Gas, was building a larger pipeline that would make the AGL project superfluous.

"That bill was a hard sell in an election year," explains Chuck Clay, an ex-lawmaker from Marietta and former head of the state GOP. "As time went on, the Senate backed away from it because they didn't want to be seen as toadies for the big utilities."

Clay says he believes Burkhalter was convinced the project was needed for Georgia's energy infrastructure. To many observers, however, the only realistic explanation for the pipeline bill's support lay in the prospect of payback.

Last year, after passing tort reform, Sen. Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, and other GOP leaders hosted campaign fundraisers with a brazen "we scratched your back, now it's your turn" pitch directed at doctors and hospital officials. This year, there was speculation that Burkhalter -- long considered a thoughtful, even modest lawmaker -- similarly saw the well-heeled AGL as a potential backer for his own political ambitions, which could involve unseating Richardson as speaker.

That same quid-pro-quo vibe was all over a proposal by Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, to lift the cap on title-pawn interest rates -- now topping out at a usury-friendly 300 percent. The powerful House Rules chairman pocketed more than $15,500 in campaign contributions from the title-pawn industry last year.

And intense lobbying by a big-time cabal of development interests was the dominant force behind the misleadingly titled "Georgia Smart Infrastructure Growth Act." The bill essentially would have paved the way for the creation of private cities by allowing large-scale subdivision developers to sidestep some local land-use rules, issue their own bonds and, most notably, levy taxes on residents.

Even conservative AJC columnist Jim Wooten savaged the legislation as a way to bestow developers with quasi-governmental powers over their home-buying customers -- with the distinct advantage that homeowners could not vote them out of office. Still, the bill only faltered after making it onto the final day's Senate calendar.

It should be noted that this year's highest-profile lobbyist-driven, pro-industry measures eventually stalled at the finish line, probably because cooler-headed lawmakers feared an election year backlash from alienated voters.

Legislators instead opted to play it safe by trumpeting so-called reforms that likely will end up making little impact. Both the immigration and eminent domain bills generated much press, but in their final versions were so tamed-down that they passed overwhelmingly, with solid bipartisan support.

One of the rare bills that would bring about a major change in Georgia law is the child-support legislation to overhaul the formula for determining the financial burden borne by non-custodial parents. Although a controversial provision favoring fathers was stripped out, Perdue announced he would hold off before signing the bill, presumably so he can study poll results on the issue.

Even the pet bill by Rep. Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons, to send some sex offenders to prison for a minimum of 25 years was finally embraced by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

About the only genuinely contentious high-profile bill to make it to the governor's desk in 2006 was voter ID, intended primarily to discourage poor and elderly (read: Democrats) from voting. And that was a retread of a constitutional screw-up from last year.

Certainly, the religious right gained a bit more turf -- bills to redefine "feticide," display the Ten Commandments and teach the Bible in public schools all passed -- but the Christian Coalition came out with nothing like the 2004 gay-marriage amendment, or even a serious anti-abortion bill.

So what was accomplished under the Gold Dome this year? Well, after endless bickering, the House and Senate passed a record $18.6 billion state budget that includes plenty of gubernatorial giveaways for teachers. But Sonny stumbled after earlier successes with his natural-gas tax rebate and legislation to cut class sizes; late in the session, his attempt to give faith-based groups access to state funds was shot down for the second time in two years.

Similarly, his "HOPE Chest" amendment -- designed to promote him as a savior of the HOPE scholarship despite his many votes against it as a legislator -- also went down in flames.

When the dust settles on the 2006 session, it's likely history will see few effective villains, fewer heroes and precious little lawmaking for the ages.



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