Everyone — the lobbyists, the press, hell, even some elected officials — was prepared for the worst when state lawmakers returned to the Gold Dome in January to kick off the 40-day General Assembly.
Not only was it an election year, which guaranteed that state lawmakers would propose outlandish bills just to earn media attention, it was also the first election year for the Tea Party freshmen swept into office on the national-outrage wave two years ago.
Those legislators, and even some of the more experienced state senators and representatives, did not disappoint. It is agreed by all rational minds that what Georgia most needs from its leaders is legislation that could help create jobs, fix problems in the upcoming transportation-tax vote, and make relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers less cozy. Instead, we were treated to red-meat bills about abortion, drug-testing people seeking welfare, and undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children who now are seeking a college education. (Political columnist Tom Crawford noted during one particularly bully-tastic week that the only demographic group left unscathed was "white Christian males who are still employed and don't have to apply for public benefits.") Attempts to do good by Republicans and Democrats alike were scuttled in favor of the same ol' bills boosting the same ol' corporate interests.
In hopes we'll prevent history from repeating itself, we'll review the low moments of the 2012 legislative session. Regular readers might notice the larger-than-usual number of senators among this year's award winners. That's not by design. Once the more grown-up of the two chambers, the Senate has devolved into a freak show. One theory: Senate leaders are rewarding Tea Party freshmen whose support last year was crucial in stripping Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle of much of his powers as the chamber's presiding officer. In return, those same leaders have given the foot soldiers the green light to introduce whatever legislation tickles their fancy — or just copy and paste from national conservative message boards. (Also: The House, traditionally the more dysfunctional of the legislative branch's two chambers, lost some of its resident crazies, politically speaking, including Marietta's Bobby Franklin, who died last July, and James Mills of Gainesville and Tim Bearden of Villa Rica, both of whom took jobs under Gov. Nathan Deal.)
That noted, it brings us great pleasure to exorcise ourselves of these sleazy details — and also recognize the few lawmakers who rose above the muck and tried to make Georgia a better place. Without further ado, CL proudly presents the Golden Sleaze Awards.
The "Allergic to Microphones" Award
Rep. Judy Manning, R-Marietta
When the Marietta Daily Journal queried state lawmakers in January about their GOP presidential picks, Manning dug deep inside herself and delivered the stupid. After chiding the media for fixating on candidates' personal lives, the Cobb County Republican, who miraculously has served her district for more than 15 years, said she's "afraid" of Mitt Romney's "Mormon faith." "It's better than a Muslim," she added. Manning, a Newt Gingrich supporter, went on to accuse Romney of performing — she wasn't sure about the number — approximately 180 gay marriages while he was governor of Massachusetts. (He didn't.) National media quickly picked up the story, leading Manning to post on Facebook: "A seasoned [reporter] manipulated my comparison using verbal judo and made my choice for a Republican Presidential candidate appear to be motivated by religion. NOT SO!" Mormons received an apology from Manning. Muslims did not.
The "Stick it Where the Sun Don't Shine" Award
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle
When eight senators stripped Cagle of much of his duties as Senate president in November 2010, the lieutenant governor basically became a figurehead. Which means he stands at the dais all day, presides over the chamber, and deals with the "bad back" that deprived him a chance in the Governor's Mansion. But when legislation that would make it easier for homeowners and businesses to install solar panels on their roofs came up for consideration in the Senate, the Gainesville Republican exercised one of the few powers he still enjoys. Rather than assign the legislation to the Regulated Utilities and Industry Committee, where it belonged, Cagle punted the bill where it'd surely die a slow death: the Natural Resources and Environment Committee. The bill's sponsor, state Sen. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, refused to watch his legislation languish and eventually attached it to another bill. By then, the utility had sufficiently lobbied lawmakers out of pursuing the measure, which experts say would have barely affected the utility giant's bottom line. The move by Cagle — whose campaign chairman sits on Georgia Power's board — offered them plenty of time to do so.
The "Commander in chief in the War on Women" Award
Rep. Doug McKillip, R-Athens
Known by Gold Domers as "McFlip," this flaxen-haired lawyer switched parties in late 2010 after he was passed over for the House Democrats' top position. And with an "R" behind his name, he wasted no time pressing the crazy pedal. In addition to co-sponsoring odious legislation that requires welfare recipients to take random drug tests, the Athens lawyer introduced what could become the first significant restriction on abortion rights in the Peach State since lawmakers approved a 24-hour "waiting period" on abortions in 2005. Under his proposal, abortions would not be allowed after the 20th week of pregnancy — the stage of development, McKillip claimed, when fetuses could feel pain. Witness after witness said the lawyer — not a doctor — was wrong. The 20-week provision was stripped from the bill, as even members of his own party felt that such decisions should be best left to a woman and her doctor. Ultimately, McKillip was able to slip in a slightly more flaccid version of the 20-week provision (one that does allow abortions under "medically futile" circumstances past 20 weeks), and the bill eventually passed. It's unclear if McKillip, who says he became pro-life in 2009 when he found God, is more concerned about the primary challenger he recently drew than women's health. In the words of one Capitol observer: "McKillip threw all the women of Georgia under the bus for two more years under the Gold Dome."
The "Hold My Hand, You Big Xenophobic Teddy Bear, You" Award
Sen. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville
Loudermilk could easily have left undocumented immigrants well enough alone after the General Assembly last year approved Arizona-style legislation. Rule No. 1 of the Gold Dome: One must never stop harassing Mexicans. This year, Loudermilk, one of the Gold Dome's biggest Bible beaters (you'll occasionally see him flipping through the Good Book at his desk), introduced a proposal that would ban undocumented immigrants — including students carried by parents across the border into the United States as young children — from attending all of Georgia's public colleges and universities. One could argue Loudermilk was overriding the Board of Regents, which in 2010 enacted a policy that prohibited undocumented immigrants from attending the state's most competitive colleges and universities. And University System Chancellor Hank Huckaby, who stressed that the agency's current policy be given a chance. According to the state, approximately 300 of the university system's 318,000 students are undocumented. What's more, they all pay out-of-state tuition rates. No such luck. When it came time for Loudermilk to defend his bill in front of a House committee, he actually asked D.A. King of the Dustin Inman Society, the Cobb County-based anti-immigrant organization, to sit next to him. It passed the Senate but failed in the House.
The "Black Helicopters" Award
Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock
If you want to waste a few hours of your life, ask a Tea Party member about "Agenda 21." Developed by the United Nations in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the voluntary program was designed as a blueprint to help communities lessen their impact on the environment. But Tea Partiers and conspiracy theorists remain convinced it's a vehicle for U.N.-sponsored troops to march people out of their subdivisions and cars and into Soviet-style tenements and overcrowded trains. Enter Rogers, one of the upper chamber's most influential and powerful members, who introduced a mind-bender of a resolution that says Agenda 21 promotes "radical, so-called 'sustainable development'" and "views the American way of life of private property ownership, single-family homes, private car ownership and individual travel choices, and privately owned farms all as destructive to the environment." When not battling the New World Order, the good senator — who, whoa, dude, represents Senate District 21 — was pleasing his corporate overlords, especially telecommunications companies. Inspired by the free-market fappers at the American Legislative Exchange Council, Rogers introduced legislation that would preempt cities and counties from starting broadband programs in rural areas so private companies, which now say the low density of these rural areas doesn't justify installing infrastructure, could one day do business there. Chip Rogers is protecting Georgia from tin-foil conspiracies and keeping rural areas on dial-up and in the dark ages until AT&T decides they're worth a damn. Way to go, senator.
The "A Good Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste" Award
Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus
Just when we think McKoon might have some good ideas, he goes and mucks it all up. The first-term lawmaker produced one of the more commendable ethics reform measures, a package of legislation that would've limited lobbyists' gifts to lawmakers to $100, among other provisions. (Procedural tricks by GOP leadership resulted in the bill — which we stress, was very good — from languishing.) But nothing made us wince more than McKoon's efforts to ride the coattails of a national firestorm and introduce a bill that would prohibit religious nonprofits' employee insurance plans from being required to cover women's contraception. That bill — along with another proposal preventing the state health plan from covering employees and teachers' abortions by state Sen. Mike Crane, R-Newnan — so angered Senate Democrat women they marched out of the chamber. Overlooked by most of the Gold Dome crazy caucus was McKoon's bill that would ask Georgia voters, via a carefully worded constitutional amendment in November, whether they wanted to ban Sharia, the religious law of Islam. Yes, it's an election year — but that's no excuse. How 'bout when the dust settles next year we shoot for more legislation like the ethics package — measures that'd reform the Gold Dome for the better — rather than create solutions for problems that don't exist?
The "Heir to Glenn Richardson" Award
Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville
Someone should check on Balfour, who as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee is arguably the most powerful member of the upper chamber — the Snellville Republican's getting sloppy. Ever since the lobbyists' best friend helped ram through legislation that would allow Georgia Power to charge ratepayers in advance for two new nuclear reactors, Balfour's upped the ante for ballsy bills that are blatant reach-arounds for corporate interests. And the Waffle House executive simply does not give a damn if you call him out on such antics. First, Balfour managed to achieve the impossible by bringing together labor unions and the Tea Party in opposition to his bill that would, among other things, ban labor protests — and just labor protests — outside CEOs' residences and punish mass picketing with a steep fine. (Bill supporters stressed to Tea Party members, who wisely opposed the measure, that the bill wouldn't prohibit protests outside abortion doctors' homes or strip clubs. Thanks, guys!) He followed up this masterpiece with a quizzical measure that critics said could allow developers to weasel out of repaying loans. Yes, the private developers who helped put Georgia in its mess of overbuilt, low-quality homes, need a bailout. And when Senate lawmakers watered down legislation that would discourage lawmakers from diverting fees dedicated to tire cleanups or driver's education courses, Balfour said with almost refreshing candor: "We have been doing this for 20 years and I keep getting re-elected." Perhaps Balfour's just feeling a little under pressure from the fact that he's the subject of an ethics complaint that alleges he charged taxpayers for gas mileage when he's in other states speaking at conventions — not to mention also while he's in town during the session. And rather than driving the 30 minutes to Snellville, he spends the night in a Midtown condo he pays for with campaign funds. Maybe one of his Gold Dome friends lives in town and will let him spend the night?
The "E-I-E-I-Oh-My-Lord" Award
Rep. Terry England, R-Auburn
Before the state House voted to approve controversial legislation that would place further restrictions on when abortions could be performed in Georgia, lawmaker after lawmaker stood at the rostrum to wax poetic and posture about the issue. None were more creative than England, a farmer and nursery owner who compared a woman giving birth to a baby that dies shortly thereafter to delivering dead baby barn animals. "Life gives us many experiences," England said. "I've had the experience of delivering calves, dead and alive. Delivering pigs, dead and alive. All of us that have done that ... it breaks our hearts to see those animals not make it." England then recalled the time one of his constituents — "real salt of the earth people, y'all," he said — promised that he'd stop chicken fighting if the General Assembly would ban abortion. House Speaker David Ralston wisely called for the vote after England took his seat.
The "Protect the Shell Game" Award
Sens. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, and Greg Goggans, R-Douglas
In 2005, the General Assembly passed Joshua's Law, so named for a young boy who was killed in a single-car accident. The measure would allow for extra fees on some traffic offenses to help pay for driver's education courses in Georgia. Last year, none of the cash generated by those fees — roughly $11 million, according to the Associated Press — went toward the cause. The same can be said for fees you pay as part of your sewer bill and when you buy a new tire, which are supposed to clean up abandoned landfills and dumped tires, respectively. Instead, lawmakers redirect the cash into the general fund, which is then used to pad budgets or pet projects in their home districts. "We have used all these resources we had to keep correctional officers in prisons, State Patrol officers on the road and teachers in the classroom," Hill bemoaned to the Associated Press. Thanks to the two lawmakers, business as usual shall continue. When legislation that could've helped end the long-running bait and switch came up in a subcommittee, Goggans sabotaged the bill (which Hill later blessed) by stipulating that the fees would go toward their intended uses only when the state's reserves reached ridiculously high levels. That's happened only once since 1988. How ironic that Hill, who this session introduced a bill that would require polluters to pay for monitoring of waterways for two years because the EPD is so broke it can't do its job, would derail a bill that, well, helps the EPD do its job.
The "Big Tease, No Reveal" Award
Gov. Nathan Deal and the Transit Governance Study Commission
For the last two years, state leaders including Gov. Nathan Deal have strung folks along on the possibility that lawmakers this year would approve a bill to create an overarching transit agency to help metro Atlanta prepare for its next big phase in economic development. Gone would be the days of MARTA, CCT, GRTA, GCT, and God knows what acronym all running buses and trains independent of each other. From that foundation, a more connected metro Atlanta transit network would grow. Instead we were delivered an absolute clunker of a bill that was so poorly written it shows how out of touch state leaders remain when it comes to transit. Gold Dome leaders could've adopted legislation developed by an Atlanta Regional Commission committee created to address the very problem — and the final product of which was blessed by metro Atlanta's elected leaders. Instead they merely created a confusing "council" stocked with 'burbanites that could be overruled by the state. It should be noted that the state contributes zilch to operating transit other than a few luxury "coaches" shuttling suburbanites (their constituents), in and out of downtown. Granted, the fact that it didn't pass is probably a blessing. But to fail so miserably at crafting a good bill on such an important issue? And then spend most of the Legislature's time on wedge issues and a tax "reform" bill that's essentially a back-alley handjob to special interests? Deplorable and depressing.
The "Damn the Facts, Damn the Ethics Officials" Award
Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Albany
Kudos to Rynders for shooting first and asking questions later — and keeping alive the House's crusade to avoid any kind of ethical reform. In mid-February during a budget hearing, Rynders grilled Holly LaBerge, the state's top ethics officer, over charges the agency made. Reading from a one-page document with stats provided by the House Budget Office, the Albany Republican rattled off what he considered to be excessive purchases and charges by the agency, which in recent years has virtually been bled out of existence thanks to budget cuts and political dickering by state legislators. "I just can't help but wonder if we couldn't fulfill the mission there a little bit better if we managed it more properly," Rynders said. It turns out the lawmaker had little to no idea about the charges — all of which could be considered justified. (As reported by Atlanta Unfiltered's Jim Walls: $1,646 was spent on removing, per the order of the agency that oversees the state's properties, 30-year-old carpet from the ethics commission's walls. Salary hikes were given because, the former director said, staffers were doing the work of two or three other people thanks to layoffs.) When Walls pressed for more details, the House staffers who compiled the information couldn't verify some of the charges — or find any evidence they were improper.
The "Poor People Can't Fight Back ... Right?" Award
Sens. John Albers, R-Roswell, and William Ligon, R-Brunswick
Republican lawmakers last year tried to make immigrants' lives a living hell in hopes they'd leave town. This year's legislative session was all about crushing the men and women who depend on such public assistance as food stamps and unemployment assistance. Albers, whom some lawmakers refer to behind his back as "Sen. Know-it-all," wanted people receiving welfare benefits to first submit to a drug test. No biggie that a federal judge had blocked a nearly identical law in Florida for violating the U.S. Constitution's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. Ligon's bill, on the other hand, would require people receiving food stamps to engage in "personal growth," a vague term which could mean anything from obtaining their GED or going through job training. Yes, even those with college degrees and who are working their asses off trying to find a job in a dismal economy — one that lawmakers appeared unable to address during 40 days of lawmakin' and obsessing.
The "No Breaks for the Poor" Award
Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody
In 2000, then-Gov. Roy Barnes gave Georgia businesses a big fat kiss when he OK'd a moratorium on employers' contributions to the state's unemployment insurance trust fund. What was supposed to be a four-year exemption turned out to be quite popular when Republicans took over the Gold Dome, who continued giving most employers a pass. By 2009, the height of the Great Recession, the trust fund was bone dry and Georgia was forced to ask the federal government for a $736 million loan. It's time to start chipping away at the debt. So employers will carry the burden, right? Nope! Millar would prefer the men and women getting by on some of the nation's most frugal unemployment benefits absorb the bulk of that pain. Under the Dunwoody Republican's plan (which might violate the Georgia Constitution because it didn't originate in the House), the state's maximum of 26 weeks of unemployment benefits will reduce to a sliding scale between 12 and 20 weeks — less than any other state in the country. A compromise avoided a provision whereby applicants would have had to wait a week before receiving benefits. So they've got that going for them, which is nice. [Sarcasm font.]
The "MARTA Must BE Destroyed to Succeed" Award
Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven
Jacobs fought his damnedest to rearrange the deck chairs on the SS MARTA. When the DeKalb County Republican last year became chairman of the Gold Dome committee that oversees MARTA, we thought we finally had someone in charge who understood that the transit agency was dying thanks in large part to an antiquated restriction on how it spends the tax revenue generated by Fulton and DeKalb county residents. But it appears the days of using MARTA — which, we should note, enjoys no state funding — as a piñata are far from over. Sure, Jacobs offered to temporarily extend a suspension of the "50/50" restriction — so called because it requires that half of MARTA's funding be spent on operations while the other half pays for system expansion. But only if the Fulton County Commission, which currently makes three appointments to the MARTA board, gives up two of those slots to a "caucus of mayors" from North Fulton. (Jacobs denied linking the two in an interview with WABE, but really, c'mon.) It did not pass, but we expected more from Jacobs than to treat MARTA like a political football — especially when it's on the road to insolvency.
The "We Were Promised Better" Award
House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge
After the scandal-plagued era and resignation of his predecessor Glenn Richardson, you'd think that Ralston, the top dog in the state House of Representatives, would be all for ethics reform. Especially after he and his family enjoyed a lobbyist-funded junket to Europe to ride high-speed trains. But the behavior of the burly elephant from Blue Ridge this session proves otherwise. According to numerous sources, Ralston deserves much of the blame for at least two of his own party members' ethics reform proposals — including one in another chamber — not making any movement this year. Among them: legislation which would give the state commission that's tasked with regulating elected officials the authority to make its own rules, a power that was stripped under Richardson. Despite an earlier endorsement by Ralston, who essentially decides what bills receive a vote in the lower chamber, the measure never got off the ground. And notice no Republicans stepped forward with a proposal in the House. Yes, Ralston's been very clear that, in the words of his chief of staff, "transparency through disclosure and providing the information to Georgians with only the click of a mouse." Which is code for "I'm not finished with enjoying steak dinners on the National Rifle Association's dime."
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