Named for Ellis Arnall, the reformist governor who led Georgia in the '30s and '40s, the Arnies Awards celebrate those state lawmakers who rose above the muck and tried to make Georgia a better place.
Rep. Brian Thomas, D-Lilburn: Last year, the General Assembly pushed through a "statewide water plan" that was neither statewide – environmentalists said it centered around metro Atlanta's unquenchable thirst, nor a plan – the concept wasn't written into law and was basically toothless. Thomas, an archaeologist by trade, delivered an eloquent speech from the House well about the issue, citing the importance of stewardship. This year, Thomas, a member of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee, stood down Sen. Chip Pearson's, R-Dawsonville, attempt to do an environmentally unfriendly rewrite of a stream buffer law. Thomas challenged Pearson, forcing him to explore the wild idea that – gasp – the measure could confuse the state Environmental Protection Division field officers who actually have to enforce its language. To one of the valuable lawmakers who actually thinks long-term when it comes to Georgia's environment, we raise a glass.
Rep. Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta: Abrams, a tax attorney and romance writer in her spare time (!), understood why an assessment cap on property taxes sounded like a tempting idea. But she also turned out to be an eloquent – and effective – critic of the legislation, one of several property tax bills sponsored by Rep. Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta. In an op-ed on local blog Tondee's Tavern, and more convincingly in the House well, Abrams ably dissected Lindsey's proposal, pointed out not only its inherent unfairness – while you pay a certain amount in property taxes, your next-door neighbor could pay much, much less. And in a toe-to-toe sparring with the Buckhead Republican about increasing homestead exemptions, Abrams didn't bend or back down. It took guts to adopt such a stance on an issue compounded by the foreclosure crisis, but it was a necessary move.
Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta: As promises of billions of dollars from President Barack Obama's stimulus plan made state and local lawmakers drool, Brooks saw an opportunity in metro Atlanta. His legislation, House Bill 493, would resuscitate the Youth Conservation Corps, a 1990s state creation based on a Depression-era New Deal program that never received funding. The goal: Put young people to work this summer weatherizing people's homes, a multipronged approach that would create jobs, help Georgians save energy, and give a beleaguered Morris Brown College – which could provide energy-efficiency training to the corps – some much needed good news. Alas, it may have been too progressive and required too much brainpower for his colleagues; as CL went to press, the bill was held up in a Senate committee.
Sen. Doug Stoner, D-Smyrna: For a bunch of bureaucrats who contribute nothing to MARTA's operations costs, Georgia lawmakers sure are quick to dictate how the state's largest transit agency should function. Since its inception, MARTA's been forced to spend half of its largest revenue stream (a 1 cent sales tax in Atlanta, Fulton County and DeKalb County) on expansion, when it could really use the cash for day-to-day operations. Stoner introduced a bill that would end that crippling law and allow the agency – currently facing a $60 million operating budget shortfall – to spend according to its needs. With ridership numbers at an all-time high – and its main funding source a-hurtin' from the economy – MARTA could use the freedom.
Sen. Preston Smith, R-Rome, and Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna: With the exception of a major hiccup involving embryos (see Smith's Golden Sleaze Award), Smith had a respectable session in '09, especially when it came to improving Georgia's criminal justice system. And Golick has often served as a voice of moderation and reason in a mob-rule House. Together, these two lawyers managed to shepherd through Smith's twice-derailed bill to allow state prosecutors to seek life without parole in murder cases. Apart from giving DAs more plea-bargaining options, the change likely will save the state millions in legal costs associated with pursuing shaky capital cases. To achieve this end, the two had to face down some of the Legislature's most powerful self-appointed vigilantes who wanted to tack on a loathsome amendment to allow convicted murderers to be sent to Death Row even if two or three jurors disagree. After a week of sticking to their guns (no pun intended), Smith and Golick prevailed.
Sen. Seth Harp, R-Midland: If only we could clone this wizened lawmaker from Midland. Harp, a moderate Republican who's considered a genuine legislator, earned kudos this year from sauce heads and freedom-lovers when he introduced a bill that would allow cities and counties to vote on whether they wanted to have the choice of buying alcohol on the Sabbath. Reread that last sentence: "allow cities and counties to vote." Ludicrous, we know – a Georgia politician who actually believes in local control. The bill faced opposition from notorious stone thrower Sadie Fields of the Georgia Christian Alliance. Let's not forget the state's chief teetotaler Gov. Sonny Perdue, a supposed local control advocate, who opposed the bill. Unfortunately, several of Harp's colleagues – most of whom feared angering the religious right so close to the 2010 elections – got cold feet about voting for the hot-button issue. Harp decided to withdraw the bill rather than see it go down in flames. But he says there's always next year.
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