Most of Georgia's lawmakers, lobbyists, and political observers expected the 2014 legislative session to be quick. State reps and senators would sign off on the budget and do little else so they could hit the campaign trail — and, most importantly, raise cash, which they can't do during the session — well before the May 20 primary.
But the General Assembly's 40 days in Atlanta were anything but quiet. Despite state lawmakers' lightning-fast schedule, reps and senators managed to fire off mind-boggling measures, pad the state budget with funding to curry political favor, and waste time on absurd issues. Legislators tried to expand the number of places where guns could be carried, restrict abortions, and basically give businesses the OK to discriminate against everyone. (We lost count of the anti-Affordable Care Act bills mere weeks into the session.) Rather than spend the little time they budgeted to writing policy on serious issues such as education, transportation, and young children, lawmakers opted for trivial and unnecessary crowd-pleasers.
Twenty-five years after Creative Loafing's inaugural Golden Sleaze Awards, state lawmakers have proven there's no limit to the number of bad bills and craven behavior under the Gold Dome. Per tradition, we've tracked the lawmakers who spent the session feathering their own nests, favoring the few over the many, and perfecting the art of hypocrisy. And yes, we took some time to recognize a few do-gooders who worked to make the state a better place for all its residents. Without further ado, we humbly present the 25th annual Golden Sleaze Awards.
The "How Much Stupid Shit Can I Accomplish in 40 Days?" Award
Gov. Nathan Deal
Oh where to begin with Georgia's wily, Teflon®, magnet-for-scandal, and oh-so-icky governor! Nathan Deal has truly had a breakout year. His continued opposition to expanding Medicaid is bad enough. This session, he managed to go one step further and supported legislation allowing the General Assembly to strip him of that authority — and potentially deprive hundreds of thousands of Georgians from getting quality health care in the foreseeable future. To reform health care laws, he instead called on Congress to restrict emergency room access, a change that would limit medical treatment for both the state's poor and immigrant populations. Deal's sleazy ways had no end in 2014. His $547 million education funding increase looked promising — until you realized that nearly $8 billion has been cut from that same fund over the past decade, and that he was largely pouring money into classrooms to pander to voters in an election year. He helped bring metro Atlanta national infamy with his horrid response to a winter storm that ensnared the region in chaotic gridlock. And then he spent more than $12,000 in taxpayer cash to take a group of reporters on a helicopter ride to observe the second storm's ice damage — an effort that was most definitely not related to rebuilding his image, his staff promised. And just when you thought Deal couldn't get any more ridiculous, he brilliantly chose to close off his office's first-floor entrance and restrict access from a nearby street-level doorway. The decision was blasted, and later reversed, because the doorway happened to be the entrance for men and women who use wheelchairs. The list goes on and on, but it all leads us back to the same question: What is in the Governor's Mansion's water? Hell, in voters' water?
The "Champion of Animal Cruelty" Award
Rep. Stephen Allison, R-Blairsville
When not signing on to important bills that would ban Sharia law or restrict where drones could operate, Allison, a Blairsville Republican, likes to make sure hunters can legally terrorize raccoons. The lawmaker's House Bill 423 would allow raccoons to be captured, caged, and used to train hunting hounds. The process sometimes involves lowering a cage from a tree into a pack of barking, crazed canines. Or raccoons are dragged across fields. Sometimes the animals are then released and killed, animal activists said. They claim the cruel exercise exposes dogs to rabies and other diseases, noted that the measure would basically codify animal cruelty, and questioned its pressing need. Allison's bill, which as CL went to press had passed the House with only one dissenting vote and was waiting for a hearing in the state Senate, said the events would have to be permitted and the animals would be released safely. We're sure that will be enforced.
The "Founding Fathers Would Giggle" Award
Rep. Tom Kirby, R-Loganville
Back in January, Kirby tried to simplify Georgia's firearm laws. But his plans were too simple: All federal gun restriction written on or after Jan. 1, 2014, regarding firearms made or owned in Georgia "shall be unenforceable in this state." "It's sad that we need a bill like this," the Loganville lawmaker told CL. "We want to remind Congress that they don't have the right to violate the Second Amendment more than anyone else." We could go into the fascinating, 200-year judicial beat down of "nullification" — a theory beloved by antebellum South Carolina that says states can ignore federal laws or secede from the Union. But never mind; the bill failed to move.
The "BETTER OFF uneducated" Award
Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick
Since 2013, Ligon has touted a Tea Party-supported anti-Common Core bill that would allow Georgia to "retain absolute control" over what its students were learning and how tests were administered. Nevermind that the standards originated under the watch of former Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, before spreading nationwide. The Brunswick Republican felt that opting out of Common Core would preserve Georgia's liberty. (Considering that Georgia perennially ranks among the worst for public education, maybe we should experiment.) When a House Education Committee considered changes to his bill, which was opposed by countless educators across the state, he was directly asked what Common Core standards caused him concern. "I would have to go and look," he replied. You would think that someone trying to reform education would at least, well, know what he's trying to change. Instead, he balked at the amendments and withdrew his support from his own legislation.
The "Womb Police" Award
Sen. Judson Hill, R-Marietta
There's no coat rack in the state Senate, but there were plenty of coat hangers on the day Hill introduced his bill to stigmatize an elective surgery. The Marietta senator's proposal cut non-emergency abortions from the health insurance that covers state employees and teachers. In response, state Sen. Valencia Seay, D-Riverdale, waved a hanger from the Senate floor's lectern to remind people what kind of tools are used to terminate pregnancies when abortions are illegal. Senate leaders did not allow her to distribute them to her colleagues' desks. State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, said the GOP was turning into the "womb police." Hill said all of the southern states, among 24 nationwide, already have such a restriction in place. Aim high, Jud.
The "Uber Goober" Award
Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell
Powell says he likes Uber, which positions itself as an app to link riders with drivers more so than a taxi company. But he doesn't want pedophiles and other creeps working as chauffeurs. He dropped a proposal that would insert state law enforcement beside local cops on taxi rules. And it would increase their ability to crack down on "rideshare" services like Uber and Lyft by adding such requirements as liability insurance, driver background checks, and government-approved rates, as measured by a meter. Uber, alas, already does the first two. And for payments, it only takes e-payment via the app and displays the trip cost before the customer gets in. After an hours-long hearing in Hartwell's Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee, the bill passed with some edits, but has apparently run out of gas and is not scheduled for a full floor vote. Oddly enough, Powell is a-OK with anyone and everyone licensed to carry a gun walking around churches, bars, and airports — and maybe even college campuses. He helped push legislation that would expand the number of places where guns could be carried.
The "Parents make great drug mules" Award
Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon
Peake's medical marijuana bill, considered an answer to the prayers of parents whose children suffer from seizures, became one of this legislative session's most watched issues. Under close supervision from academic research universities, the proposed program would only allow people with cancer, glaucoma, and seizures to be treated with cannabis oil — not the leafy THC-laden drug that most people associate with pot. The Macon lawmaker insisted he wasn't trying to start Georgia down the path toward legalized weed. But what he thought was a simple, innocent change turned out to be more difficult. Federal laws prohibit Georgia from purchasing illegal drugs from other states. And the creation of dispensaries at public universities jeopardized their federal funding. In the bill's most recent version, Peake said Georgians who obtained the oil would receive immunity from prosecution if caught by state authorities. That basically means parents must break federal law and become drug smugglers. His measure started with the best of intentions, but the law was one step forward, two steps back.
The "No Non-Straight, Non-White, Non-Christians Need Apply" Award
Rep. Sam Teasley, R-Marietta, and Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus
It takes a truly atrocious proposal to earn Jim Crow comparisons. Kudos to Teasley and McKoon for managing to pull it off. With little warning, the duo introduced respective bills known as the "The Preservation of Religious Freedom Act." The two pieces of legislation would have opened the door for business owners to potentially discriminate against different minority groups if they felt their religious beliefs were being threatened. Both pieces of legislation mirrored a similar measure that Arizona lawmakers passed. (Gov. Jan Brewer later vetoed the proposal.) McKoon's and Teasley's companion measures received immense backlash from local LGBT groups and major corporations such as Coca-Cola, Home Depot, and UPS. McKoon, to his credit, has often tried to make the Gold Dome a more ethical and transparent place. And he could've let his bill quietly die without much debate. Instead, McKoon attacked the companies opposing his bill, lent credibility to a larger conservative group boycotting those businesses, and claimed "the only discrimination that's going on in this state is against people of faith." Those words of wisdom came from the mouth of a white male in the majority party that rules a state where gay marriages are banned and voters' rights are assaulted every legislative session. If anyone knows about oppression, it must be Josh!
The "School's Out, I'm a Bummer" Award
Rep. Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming
Hamilton is tired of privately employed school janitors, lunch ladies, and bus drivers who work under contract and collect unemployment during the summer — when they are unemployed. So he introduced House Bill 714, which would have cut their jobless benefits. Plenty of school systems have cut such jobs from staff rolls and hired contractors to farm out the campus work. "I blame the employers," Hamilton said to bus drivers at the Capitol a week after some of them had honorably watched out for kids who were stuck for hours in Snow Jam's gridlock. Then he immediately passed HB 714 through his own committee, rejecting an amendment that targets the contracting companies, saying it might have unintended consequences. As
CL went to press, the bill had stalled in the Senate. If only he'd show the same zeal for schools' support staff as he did for Georgia's poor private probation companies. He carried a bill that opens the door for companies to charge exorbitant monitoring fees to people convicted of misdemeanors.
The "Thou Shalt Not Roll Up To Zippy Mart® Stoned" Award
Rep. Greg Morris, R-Vidalia
After state officials removed the statue of a good ole white supremacist from the front of the Capitol last November, Morris had a great, non-divisive idea for a replacement: a monument with the Ten Commandments on it. Morris, arguing that including the preambles to the U.S. and Georgia constitutions helped lawmakers skirt any separation-of-church-and-state conflicts, said that legislators had a "constitutional right to display" the religious rules. Morris' head-scratching lawmaking didn't stop there. He also wanted to require drug tests for men and women receiving food stamps and welfare benefits if state officials had a "reasonable suspicion" that they were stoned, strung out, or straight trippin' balls. When asked to define "reasonable suspicion," he replied from the well: "If you roll up to a Zippy Mart® at 3 a.m. with hubcaps missing, wearing sunglasses, and buy three frozen burritos ... there's reasonable suspicion you're high." Whoa.
The "Why Won't You Die, Obamacare!" Award
Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine
The most troubling proposal aimed at hamstringing the Affordable Care Act in Georgia — and there were many — came from Spencer. The second-term legislator and physician's assistant unveiled a bill with several other members of the House's wingnut caucus that would ban state agencies, public universities, and state employees from helping with the federal law's rollout. Basically it'd nullify the ACA. Spencer said the legislation was modeled after a California-based "states' rights" think tank's blueprint used in South Carolina and Tennessee to save ourselves from "participating in the destruction of our own economy." He later commented in a Facebook post that many hospitals in need of Medicaid funds are simply "like addicts on crack" — so let 'em go through withdrawals! The southeast Georgia rep's bill also urges Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens to start or join a lawsuit to reverse the U.S. Supreme Court's 2012 ruling that upheld the bulk of the Affordable Care Act. Health care activists initially scoffed at the bill's ridiculousness. Then the House went ahead and passed Spencer's proposal — because why not!
The "Rural Georgia Doesn't Really Need Hospitals, DOes IT?" Award
Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta
Praise be to honest lawmakers! No one likes to see grandstanding or shirking at the Gold Dome. Especially not officials like Cooper, a straight shooter who said that rural hospitals — namely 15 medical facilities at risk of shutting down — are simply out of luck and may just "need to close" their doors if they can't receive needed federal funding tied to Medicaid expansion. Two days later, she backtracked and claimed that closing those hospitals would be an "unthinkable proposition." How dare her critics entertain propositions that may or may not have originated from the mouth of the House Health and Human Services Committee chairwoman herself! It's one thing to oppose President Barack Obama's health care reforms, which could significantly help Georgia's low-income and rural residents, along party lines. It's even more baffling when those remarks come from a nurse who claims on her website to "foster legislation that promotes improved health care for Georgians." Bonus points for a suburban lawmaker telling rural Georgia what works best!
The "¿Hablas Inglés?" Award
Sens. Bill Heath, R-Bremen, and Don Balfour, R-Snellville
No legislative session is complete without a bill or seven attacking the rights of Georgia's immigrant population. This year, a dozen Republican senators led by Heath attempted to prevent young undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children from getting their driver's licenses. Despite the fact that the feds have temporarily allowed "Dreamers" to stay in the country and obtain licenses — a decision that Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens said was legally sound — Heath claimed that "continuing to grant such privileges to illegal aliens" would do nothing but hurt law-abiding Americans. Meanwhile, the recently acquitted Balfour, whose district is comprised of large Korean and Latino populations, wanted to require people who conduct business with state agencies to speak in English only. Balfour told 11 Alive, "If you're going up and down Buford Highway and there's a bunch of Vietnamese restaurants ... We're not asking them to change their signs, we're not asking them to change their menus, we're not asking them to speak English. We encourage people to speak in English." Yes, except when they're applying for driver's license exams. Or conducting pretty much any other form of state business. Got it.
The "Rookie of the Year" Award
Rep. Sam Moore, R-Macedonia
Looking to commit political suicide? Take some tips from Moore. Less than one month into his Gold Dome career, the Cherokee County lawmaker introduced a measure to effectively end Georgia's loitering laws. Doing so would also allow registered sex offenders to visit schools, playgrounds, and other places with little kids. Moore's fellow Republicans promptly ripped him apart on the House floor over the measure that he later chalked up as a "rookie mistake" — one that he said he wouldn't have made had he known the media had plans to read his proposals! That's only the beginning. He introduced two anti-cop bills: one that lets people refuse to identify themselves to police and another that would allow gun-toting homeowners to shoot officers who enter their homes with a no-knock warrant. Shall we nullify the Affordable Care Act in Georgia? Moore's game. Wanna ban fluoride from the state's water supply? Sam's your man! How about we permit motorcyclists to pass cars in the same lane? No question at all, the avid motorcyclist said. Moore's first month in office was so atrocious that he's already picked up an opponent in his district's primary this May. Never say die, buddy!
The "Stand Your Ground (Inside Your Office)" Award
Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro
In early February, Stone, chairman of the state Senate's Judiciary Non-Civil Committee, was accused of not giving Senate Bill 280, a bill pushed by Sen. Fort to repeal Georgia's "Stand Your Ground" law, a "full or fair" committee hearing. The following week, Moral Monday Georgia activists refused to let the Waynesboro senator leave until he agreed to meet face-to-face with them. Stone quietly hid inside his office — offering to meet with only two protesters without cameras — and waited for Capitol Police to arrest 24 demonstrators. After the protest, Stone told reporters that Moral Monday Georgia's effort was a "circus" that polarized its cause. But his belittling remarks, especially about another group's sincere movement, didn't exactly help bring people together. In the same conversation, Stone said he was "open-minded" to Fort's proposal even though he had sent an email update the week beforehand to constituents that said the bill had no chance in hell of being approved.
The "Scared of Spandex" Award
Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville
Last October, Dunahoo caught hell for a bill he'd proposed at the tail end of the previous legislative session that would require bicyclists pay a $15 fee to register and slap a license plate on their two-wheelers. It would have also prohibited riders from traveling side by side in a bike lane. So he did exactly what Thomas Jefferson or John Galt would in such a situation — get on Facebook and address the haters with a typo-riddled rant filled with grammatical errors about problems caused by "rebel cyclist [sic]" hogging the road. Dunahoo never had any intention to vote for it, he said. He merely proposed taxing clean transportation to get everyone around the table to discuss. Shortly after the uproar, one of the co-sponsors removed his name from the legislation. Another one slowly backed away two months later. Finally, Dunahoo also did the same from the bill. It now sits without a champion in Legislature.
The "Secrets in suburbia" Award
Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs
When the Atlanta Braves announced the team was high-footin' it for the 'burbs, no one boasted more than our dear friend Ehrhart. (The once-powerful longtime politico seemed delighted to portray himself as the "matchmaker" of the deal.) Perhaps coincidentally, Ehrhart co-sponsored legislation that would allow contractors involved with public projects — maybe a stadium? — to be exempt from Open Records requests. Ehrhart told the Marietta Daily Journal that anyone who thought he was trying to protect the Braves from scrutiny needed to "readjust their tinfoil hats." Just because we're paranoid doesn't mean we shouldn't watch you like a hawk.
The "Anarchy in the G-A" Award
Rep. Charles Gregory, R-Kennesaw
Jury duty sucks. What sucks worse? When you have to send someone to prison for something you think should not be a crime at all! Gregory, widely considered one of the lower chamber's more imaginative chaps, agrees. He wants jurors to be informed that they could not only let defendants off the hook for certain crimes, but also straight up nullify laws. This cockamamy constitutionalist scheme, pulled straight from the latest Tea Party email chain, has been proposed in years past. As expected, lawmakers swatted it down like they've done in previous sessions. Probably because they'd look foolish basically telling people that, if selected to be a juror, they had the right to ignore much of what state lawmakers do for 40 days out of each year. The bill went nowhere.
The "You Need a Break" Award
Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta
It's already legal for appointed boards of business worthies called "local development authorities" to own a piece of tax-free land and lease it back to a company in the name of economic development. Fine. So how about adding hotels and motels to the list of businesses that can wiggle out of property taxes with that nod from an authority? Hell yes, says Beach, an Alpharetta Republican. He introduced a proposal this session that lets hotel and motel owners wipe their hands clean of taxes that help pay for roads, schools, and other useful things. He called it a "cleanup bill." Yeah, somebody's cleaning up. It passed the Senate and awaits a House floor vote. In other news, his Senate Bill 141 would make it illegal to sue a doctor, replacing courts with a government "Patient Compensation Board," a new bureaucracy that would be — ta da! — stacked with doctors.
The "Fuck It All I'm Outta Here" Award
Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon
The Golden Sleaze academy is relieved to announce the last statue it will ever award to the retiring Macon rep. Arriving in 2005, Staton immediately authored a shady bill to make voters show photo ID at the poll. Courts halted it until Georgia at least offered a free form of identification. Four years later, it became a requirement to show a birth certificate or passport copy to register to vote. The U.S. Supreme Court said that's a little much. As a parting gesture, Staton returned Georgia to national weirdo headlines this year by making it the first to pass a resolution from the Christian conservative Convention of States calling for the states to amend the Constitution to limit federal spending. A decade's worth of power in his hands and his priority is to correct Washington, D.C.'s "affront to the role of the states"? Beat it, man, and please take your ridiculous fundamentalist resolution with you.
The "Muddy Waters" Award
Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega
Trees, rocks, and shrubs surrounding Georgia's streams and rivers do plenty of good, like slowing erosion and filtering out pollution. That's pretty much why state law demands a 300-foot buffer that limits development around a tributary for seven miles upstream from and around drinking water sources. But it also makes what would be prime real estate rather useless, including that in Lumpkin County, headquarters of the extended Gooch family. The Dahlonega Republican has proposed cutting the 300-foot rule to 50 feet on trout streams, 25 feet for others, and leaves it up to the counties to decide how much more buffer they'll put around and above drinking water sources. "There's no political will to take a 300 feet buffer away from the property owners" in Lumpkin County, said Gooch, a former county commissioner, and still executive director of the Lumpkin County Development Authority.
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