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Lawmakers won’t dawdle as election looms

POSTED: January 12, 2014 12:15 a.m.

Local legislators are gearing up for a short, dense Georgia General Assembly session, with earlier primary elections around the corner.

“It’s going to be busy, obviously,” said Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville. “We’ll just be focusing and working longer hours, frankly.”

Rep. Timothy Barr, R-Lawrenceville, whose district covers parts of South Hall, said he’ll be buckling down.
“I don’t watch TV during the session — I read,” he said with a laugh.

A federal ruling has made primary elections earlier than ever, and with it, the goal to conclude the legislative session as early as possible.

“The Justice Department ruled we were not giving enough time for absentee ballots to go to military personnel across the U.S. and also overseas,” Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, explained. “That’s the reason the primaries have been changed — to give enough time for runoff ballots.”

A federal judge ruled there must be 45 days between the general election and runoff elections to count absentee ballots. Thus, candidates will be qualifying in March for the May 20 federal primary. Legislators may move the state primary to the same date to avoid duplication.

“Georgia has to have a huge gap between the primary and general election, basically,” said University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock. “They’re talking this year about trying to be out by St. Patrick’s Day. That’s a six-week spread, pretty much.”

For Barr, the earlier election will be his first time running from the legislative office.

“It’s definitely on your mind,” he said. “It will be like coming straight out of the gates into campaign mode.”

Bullock said the pressure on legislators is heightened because they are barred from campaigning or fundraising during the session.

“The legislators themselves cannot raise campaign funds while they’re in session,” Bullock said. “If they were to have a session that dragged into the later half of April, they might find themselves with only four, five, six weeks to get ready for a primary challenge, and the person who’s challenging them can raise money throughout this period.”

“Frankly I don’t know that there is a problem in being in a hurry to get out,” House Speaker David Ralston told the Associated Press. “I don’t think people want us to do a whole lot of things. I think they want us to do a few things, and do them right.”

Rogers is the most seasoned legislator of the Hall delegation; he has run nine campaigns.

Now in his 20th year as a legislator, he said he’s come to accept that campaigns never truly end.

“Election years, we all know, run every two years,” Rogers said. “Of course in our positions, we never stop running — you’re always running and dealing with the issues.”

He thinks that nonelection years are “a little more relaxed,” although the legislators remain busy out of session year in and out.

“We average 40 to 50 meetings a month; constituent calls and e-mails number probably 40 or 50 a day,” he said. “There’s never a dull moment.”

Despite the timeline being somewhat of a stress, Barr and other legislators voiced their approval.

“I personally feel like it will be a positive for the state,” Barr said.

Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, agreed. He said he’s always lobbied for a shorter session.

“I think that this whole process is really an improvement,” Miller said. “It will make the legislature in general more responsive because we have a shorter window of opportunity to work in.”

Each day running the Capitol chambers also runs up a cost, he said.

“We need to get things done and we need to be a good steward of the taxpayers’ resources,” Miller said. “Further, I think this will demonstrate to the public — and to the legislators themselves — that we could have been much more efficient than in years past.”

Bullock said there could be drawbacks, however.

“One of the ideas of something a legislator should do is deliberate. Deliberation — almost by definition — takes time,” he said. “So if the pressure is for them to get out of here, let’s move this along, then there’s probably going to be less deliberation.”

The session will still likely be max out at the constitutional limit of 40 days, but there will be fewer off-weeks throughout where legislators remain in the Capitol for meetings. Less time to study the consequences of legislation could mean unexpected consequences, Bullock said.

“If we need any examples of unexpected consequences, think about a thing called Obamacare,” Bullock said. “It sounds like a great idea — OK, great, let’s pass it. And then it gets around to being implemented ... and the details become more known. The old notion that the devil is in the details.”

Hawkins said legislators would devote the necessary time to their constitutional duty of determining the state’s budget, and wouldn’t rush any bills.

“We will focus like a laser on those major issues, but we won’t rush through things. We can’t do that,” Hawkins said. “We’ve got to do a good job on each piece of legislation. We can’t let mistakes be made.”

Bullock said more likely than underexamined legislation would be altogether avoidance of bills that generate conflict.

“If an idea is introduced and it looks like it’s going to cause trouble, my guess is it will go back to that sponsor, who will be told ‘Tell you what, we’re going to put this on hold, introduce it next year,’” Bullock said. “This is the second session, so there may be ideas that were floated last year and they may have already had some scrutiny ... but other things, probably not.”

Not that it would be unprecedented to rush a bill’s passage, he said.

“There have even been instances where the legislature passes things on the last night, and it really is like Cinderella — you’ve got to finish up by midnight,” Bullock said.

And of course, he said, there’s the old adage about election years and taxes.

“It’s generally thought you that you don’t pass new tax bills in an election year,” he said. “If you’re going to increase taxes, you do that in the off year.”


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