Whenever I am asked to sum up the achievements of a General Assembly session, I usually offer the same assessment: It could have been worse.
That was certainly the case this year.
Our lawmakers approved a budget that didn’t wreak great havoc on current programs and passed at least a few bits and pieces of a tax revision plan.
The yearly property tax that you pay when you renew your car tags will be gradually eliminated. On the other hand, you will also have to start paying sales tax on much of that merchandise you purchase online.
More significantly, Gov. Nathan Deal was able to secure legislative passage of his proposal to overhaul Georgia’s criminal sentencing laws, a policy objective that was both humane and sensible.
The governor’s criminal justice revision will eliminate some of the draconian measures adopted during Zell Miller’s “two strikes” era. Those laws have jam-packed Georgia’s correctional system at a cost to taxpayers of more than $1 billion a year.
The new system for sentencing should save money because many nonviolent offenders and drug users can be diverted into treatment programs and drug courts instead of being sent to an expensive prison bed. If recidivism is also reduced a little, that’s an added bonus.
Lawmakers said their main priority for this session was to create jobs, and some of the bills they passed will do just that — for attorneys.
If Deal signs the bill that requires drug tests for all applicants for TANF (temporary assistance for needy families) payments, a lawsuit is already being drafted that would challenge the law in federal court. A similar law in Florida was blocked by a federal judge there.
The bill making it a criminal offense to perform an abortion after 20 weeks of a pregnancy — the doctor involved could go to prison for as long as 10 years — will likely trigger a court challenge if Deal signs it. It may even lead to a Supreme Court review of the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, a long-sought goal of right-to-life organizations.
When you add those measures to last year’s immigration control law, which is still being litigated in the federal courts, you can see that the General Assembly continues to be a full-time employment service for attorneys.
Our lawmakers once again showed an inability to stand up and say “no” to the Georgia Power Co., an entity that seems to have more political clout in this state than any mere governor or legislator.
When Sen. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, tried to get a bill passed that would have made it easier for homeowners and businesses to generate cheaper electricity by using their own solar panels, Georgia Power swooped in and essentially told the legislature it wasn’t going to allow it.
Carter’s bill never made it out of committee and electricity users will continue to be charged upward of $1.6 billion in higher rates to pay early financing costs for Georgia Power to build those two nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle in Waynesboro.
On the other hand, as I said a few paragraphs ago, it could have been worse.
Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, tried to push through legislation that would have made it illegal for unions to picket, a blatant violation of “the right of the people peaceably to assemble” contained in the First Amendment. This bill was so misguided that it managed to unite labor organizations and tea party groups in opposition.
Another bill would have enabled developers to walk away from bank loans that they personally guaranteed they would pay off if a real estate project happened to go bad. The measure was written, of course, so that ordinary Georgians would not be allowed to escape their obligations to pay off credit card debt or a student loan. But if you were a wealthy, politically connected developer, it would have been a sweet deal for you.
That bill, no surprise, was also introduced by Balfour, the best friend a plutocrat ever had. The House leadership sat on Balfour’s bills without bringing them up for a floor vote.
It was, in the end, a normal legislative session. Although some bad bills made it through, a few of the really horrific ones were prevented from passing.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, gareport.com. His column appears Wednesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.