Now that the General Assembly has adjourned for the year and all of the bills have either been signed or vetoed, what lessons can we take away from this latest legislative session? I can think of a few.
Lesson 1: Gov. Nathan Deal is the expert when it comes to creating jobs.
Overall, Georgia’s unemployment rate is not that impressive when you compare us to other states. Last August and September, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we ranked dead last with the highest jobless rate among all 50 states.
That ranking did improve a little in subsequent months, but as of March, Georgia was still ranked by the BLS in the bottom quarter of states for its unemployment rate, coming in at 39th place.
When it comes to individual jobs, however, Georgia has a governor who’s a dynamo at finding high-paying positions in his administration for state lawmakers.
Shortly before the session started, Deal named Rep. Lynne Riley as his state revenue commissioner, a job that pays $158,000 a year.
He later appointed House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal as the state’s tax tribunal judge, a position where the previous judge was paid more than $142,000 a year.
Deal also nominated Rep. Jay Roberts as the Department of Transportation’s new planning director, a position that pays $130,000 a year. Roberts took the lead in getting Deal’s transportation funding bill passed.
Legislators only make about $25,000 a year for serving in their elected offices, but quite a few of the lucky ones have been named by Deal to better-paying positions in state government.
The job creation doesn’t stop there, either. Whenever Deal hires a legislator, that creates a vacancy that must be filled by holding a special election. These elections create more jobs for pollsters, political consultants and advertising executives.
Lesson 2: Despite all their talk about wanting to eliminate “burdensome regulations” on businesses, lawmakers are more than willing to keep those regulations in place for favored industries.
One of the sacred cows is the alcoholic beverage industry. Georgia has some of the strictest laws in the country limiting the activities of businesses that manufacture, distribute and sell beer, wine and distilled spirits.
Craft brewers and brewpub operators have tried to get some of those regulations loosened so that they would be able to sell more products directly to consumers and their customers could take those products home to drink later.
It is a situation where some deregulation could probably attract more of these startup businesses and create more jobs. Lawmakers, however, have consistently refused to approve any major changes in the beer and wine laws.
The latest attempt came this session when Sen. Hunter Hill, R-Atlanta, introduced a bill to help out the craft brewers and brew pubs. Once again, the General Assembly kept the current set of regulations largely intact.
Lesson 3: Legislators spend a lot of time obsessing about animals.
They passed a bill declaring the white-tailed deer to be the official state mammal. In earlier sessions, they adopted similar measures that designated an official state amphibian (green tree frog), state fish (largemouth bass), state reptile (gopher tortoise), and state game bird (Bobwhite quail).
Other animals received a different kind of treatment. For years, it had been illegal to trap raccoons in the 38 counties that make up the northern third of the state, although it has been OK to set traps for other fur-bearing mammals.
Legislators passed, and Deal signed, a bill that removes the raccoon trapping ban in North Georgia, bringing that area into line with the counties in the middle and southern regions.
Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville, introduced the bill at the request of the Department of Natural Resources and stepped into a raging controversy among animal rights activists.
“I have been on TV four times, on the radio six times, and in the newspapers quite a bit,” Dunahoo said after the session. He said he also received “hundreds of emails and a ton of phone calls ... some were very rational, some were really irrational.”
Suffice it to say that if legislators could devote as much time to human beings without health insurance as they do to animals in leg-hold traps, the rural hospital crisis would have been solved years ago.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report.