Gov. Nathan Deal is not wasting any time. In the first few weeks of this year's legislative session, he's already tackled such pressing issues as the "bed tax" and the new Atlanta Falcons stadium.
Many Gold Dome observers thought that it would take most of the 40-day session to even approach the possibility of passing legislation related to these issues. Conversations surrounding both issues have moved surprisingly quicker than expected.
But it's not because Deal has suddenly persuaded the General Assembly to vote for the bills, which might be viewed as a tax increase or spending public cash on unnecessary projects, respectively. Rather, the governor has found ways that would allow state lawmakers to avoid signing off on such laws by transferring that burden elsewhere — mainly to unelected bureaucrats.
It's likely that the "bed tax," which levies a fee on public and private hospitals' profits, will be renewed, a move that could prevent an estimated $650 million shortfall in the state's mammoth Medicaid program.
But instead of convincing state lawmakers to simply extend the same measure that's set to expire in July, Deal has decided to give the Georgia Department of Community Health the authority to renew the hospital provider fee. State senators quickly passed the revised legislation, which now awaits approval in the state House of Representatives. Numerous CL sources say that it's only a matter of time before this version, which is more amenable to conservatives fearful of directly supporting a tax renewal and facing the ire of anti-tax activists, becomes a law.
Now, Deal appears to have adopted a similar approach when it comes to the new Falcons stadium.
Some critics, including state lawmakers, have deemed the estimated $1 billion project — which includes taxpayers footing at least $300 million of the bill through a hotel-motel tax, plus free land and potential tax exemptions — as unnecessary in tough economic times. But the governor has continued to search for a way to help Falcons owner Arthur Blank build his state-of-the-art, multi-use facility.
The next vital step is to increase the Georgia World Congress Center Authority's borrowing limit from $200 to $300 million — a move that would require action at the Gold Dome. Last week, Deal said it "would be nice" to bypass a legislative vote, adding that alternative plans were in the works.
Someone might have found a potential way out: Why not have Invest Atlanta, the city's economic development agency, take on the debt needed to fund the public portion? The details are still a work in progress, but getting anyone other than the state to take on the responsibility would play favorably into Deal's agenda: build a new stadium and avoid a contentious public battle under the Gold Dome.
Rather than voting on these issues themselves, such proposals would allow lawmakers to claim that they didn't directly support tax hikes or approve a controversial stadium deal. It's a ploy that makes both votes more palatable for lawmakers, as it sidesteps responsibility altogether.
Is this process backhanded? Certainly. Nevertheless, it's a legislative trend that has actually prevented some debates from dragging along at the state capitol. It's even prevented them from starting. Deal, to an extent, has shrewdly crafted workable solutions for these two touchy and complicated issues.
The ploy has shown promise, yet this worrisome tactic is rife with ulterior motives that certainly don't help state lawmakers regain the public's trust.
What Deal and General Assembly members are doing — delegating important decisions to other agencies — ultimately becomes a huge calculated risk. It's an evasive approach that allows lawmakers, particularly conservative ones who don't want to double-cross anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, to throw up their hands and say that they didn't vote for a tax increase.
Deal's expedient maneuvering is an attempt to absolve state lawmakers, who don't face re-election for another year, of political wrongdoing. In doing so, he's fostered the idea that it's OK for some lawmakers to conduct Georgia's business in this fashion. It's naïveté at best and a charade at worst.
But if backlash arises from decisions made by the Department of Community Health, the city, or any other agency tasked with carrying out the General Assembly's wishes, it's hard to imagine anyone pardoning state officials and legislators. People will know where to point fingers. Even if legislators aren't directly voting on the "bed tax" and stadium deals, they would be giving their indirect support to the subsequent decisions made by the Department of Community Health or city officials.
There's a bigger issue here than whether Deal and other lawmakers will see some fallout down the road. And that's the fact than an ideological anti-tax pledge made to unelected activists — one that doesn't account for Georgia's specific needs — forces elected officials to tackle the state's most important issues in such a roundabout manner.
Deal and many of the state's 236 representatives and senators have forgotten that they were voted into office to make decisions — even the tough ones. It's ludicrous to think that anyone should have to remind lawmakers that their primary directive is to serve the best interests of the constituents. Hell, it's their job.
Instead, we're finding ourselves in a political system where circumventing legislation may now be the go-to protocol for getting things done. Bureaucrats and appointees shouldn't make most of the tough decisions while state officials stay above the fray. Really builds your faith in Georgia politics, doesn't it?
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