Georgia lawmakers screw the everyman in ’09 

“This place is for sale,” muttered the disgusted Democratic state representative a few minutes after one of the strangest episodes in recent Gold Dome history.

The lawmaker had walked out of the House chamber last Wednesday following a much-watched vote on Gov. Sonny Perdue’s pet bill to snatch road-building authority away from the state Department of Transportation — a vote that Speaker Glenn Richardson held open for nearly five breathless minutes while his henchmen worked the room to persuade a handful of pliable pols to switch their votes.

When Richardson, whose podium houses a private voting scoreboard, saw that enough legislators had flip-flopped, he called for voting machines to be locked and cast the deciding vote himself to pass the hot-potato measure to the Senate.

No one said sausage-making is pretty. But in addition to looking ugly and smelling worse, much of the sausage produced of late by Georgia lawmakers is chock-full of legislative salmonella.

Between bills penned by industry lobbyists as gifts to special interests, bills aimed to siphon power from local governments, bills designed to pander to voters in upcoming elections, and bills that do little else than make the state a laughingstock among educated people, it could be credibly argued that average Georgians need protection from their own General Assembly.

It would be naive not to acknowledge that wrong-headed and self-serving legislation has always been present at the state Capitol, but before the dawn of Republican dominance, the power dynamic largely came down to a tug-of-war between the competing interests of rural and urban residents. In recent years, however, the only interests that seem to command much attention are those of wealthy corporations and powerful industries. Successful bills — even arguably misguided ones — that are intended to benefit average Georgians seem increasingly rare.

The year dawned with the state looking at a projected budget shortfall of more than $2 billion, and expectations for the legislative session were accordingly subdued. As far as the public was concerned, lawmakers had two chief tasks: to devise as painless a budget as possible, and to approve a transportation funding plan to help metro Atlanta deal with the crippling gridlock on its roadways. As icing on the cake, it was hoped the Legislature also would create funding for a state trauma care network.

One of the few positive notes from the session that ended last Friday at midnight was that a host of draconian budget cuts proposed by the governor was ultimately avoided. But it wasn’t our state lawmakers who came to the rescue; it was manna from President Obama — $2 billion in federal stimulus money — that allowed budget writers to patch the holes.

Apart from that bright spot (which could still be dimmed by falling revenues), the 2009 General Assembly was mostly a disaster. The transportation funding plan — a measure Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle had notoriously promised to deliver within the first week of the session — failed in the final, frenzied minutes of the session, just as it had last year.

Worse than simply a lost opportunity, the state’s inability to pass the bill this year is expected to have a calamitous impact on MARTA, which has long been hampered by an outdated rule limiting how the agency can spend its own revenue. Without the rule change, MARTA may need to slash service, perhaps halting all bus and rail traffic one day a week.
And, aside from whatever money is raised by Perdue’s “super speeder” legislation to sock lead-footed drivers with heavy fines, there still will be no dedicated funding for trauma care.

While lawmakers couldn’t reach agreement on measures vital to regular Georgians, they fell all over themselves rushing through a bill to enable Georgia Power to charge residential customers in advance for the cost of two new nuclear reactors at its Plant Vogtle facility near Augusta. The private utility hired a mind-boggling 70 lobbyists to twist arms and promise favors to get the bill passed.

Setting aside that the issue belonged before the elected Public Service Commission instead of the Legislature, the measure puts Georgia ratepayers — us, that is — on the hook for a project whose final cost hasn’t even been officially projected. The bill’s true objective is to insulate Georgia Power from financial risk at public expense; even large commercial and retail ratepayers were wary enough to get themselves exempted from being charged upfront for the nukes. The measure now awaits Perdue's signature.

But it wasn’t as if legislators didn’t get anything done the final night. With a few hours left to go, they easily passed — almost as an afterthought — a huge capital gains tax break for wealthy Georgians. That measure alone is projected to cost the state a half-billion dollars in annual revenue at a time when we’re trying to stave off budget cuts.

And, of course, the General Assembly managed to pass Senate Bill 200, the aforementioned proposal to wrest the power to determine which road projects get built away from the DOT board and give it to the governor and House leaders.

Assuming Perdue signs SB 200 into law — critics have already pointed out apparent flaws in the bill’s wording that could expose it to legal challenges — the result could be a return to an era when governor’s races were largely bankrolled by road contractors.

Passed with little fanfare Friday was a small measure that may offer insight into how Georgia lawmakers view the rest of us. House Resolution 161 will provide $500,000 in restitution to John Jerome White, 49, a man who spent more than 22 years in prison because of a false rape conviction. Although White was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2007, HR 161 requires that he pee into a cup for the rest of his life like a common parolee. If White ever tests positive for drugs, the payments cease.

Even when the Legislature begrudgingly tries to make amends, it can’t resist delivering a backhand.

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