Rep. David Stover is a brave man. He may well be one of the gutsiest people serving in the General Assembly.
Stover stood before the House of Representatives last week to give one of those brief speeches that are known as a “morning order.” Most of these speeches are delivered to commend a constituent or organization back in the home district for performing a good deed.
Stover had a much more contentious point to make: He essentially accused Gov. Nathan Deal of being a power-mad chief executive who was trying to exercise the “divine right” of kings.
“I’m here today to refute the theory of the divine right of a single authoritarian branch of government,” Stover said, quoting liberally from the philosopher John Locke. “So many times here in the Capitol, we forget that we’re elected to serve those that elected us to these positions. In fact, we’re pressured to only have one branch of government. Somehow, we have lost our way in the legislative process.”
Stover went on: “The executive drives every decision under the Gold Dome. We worry what will happen if we vote against the governor’s bill or the lieutenant governor’s bill. The answer is quite simply, punish those who disagree with these bills.”
Stover is a Republican business owner from Newnan who’s been actively involved in tea party activities in Coweta County. He is part of a sizable faction of young lawmakers who care more about their conservative principles than about trying to please the Chamber of Commerce.
The criticisms in Stover’s speech are often heard from Democratic legislators, but they hold so few seats that their concerns can be brushed aside. Stover’s hard-edged speech is an indication that there’s some restlessness in the ranks of the Republican majority.
Stover was correct about the main point he was trying to make. A combination of law and tradition has made the governor of Georgia one of the most powerful officeholders in the nation, to the detriment of the legislature.
There was a time when the governor held even more power than he does today. Back in the 1960s, Gov. Carl Sanders decided who the speaker of the House would be and appointed the committee chairmen. The legislature essentially served as a domestic staff that carried out the governor’s orders.
Some of that power has since faded away, but whoever serves as governor still has enough leverage to get just about anything he wants from the General Assembly.
When a major bill is introduced in the House or Senate, one of the first things you’ll hear a lawmaker ask is, “What does the governor think about it?” You won’t often see a legislator push back against something that the governor really wants, regardless of how good or bad an idea it may be.
Stover has rebelled not only against his own party’s governor, but against the legislative leadership as well.
Earlier in the session, he signed on as a sponsor of the bill that seeks to raise $1 billion in annual revenues to build roads and bridges. The transportation bill is one that Deal, Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle badly want to pass. Several weeks into the session, however, Stover dramatically announced he was removing his name from the bill.
“As it currently stands, it would be a $500 million tax increase, and I cannot and will not support any such increase on the backs of our citizens,” Stover said.
By standing up to the governor and the leadership, Stover has put a bull’s-eye on his back. You can bet that future bills he sponsors will not be passed, or even allowed to get a vote. He could lose some committee assignments. The leadership could even have the lines of his district redrawn to make it more difficult for Stover to run for re-election; it’s been done to other lawmakers who wouldn’t be team players.
As the General Assembly session moves into its final days, legislators are still grappling with that transportation bill and with Deal’s proposal to have the state take over the operation of low-performing schools.
If enough of Stover’s friends and colleagues get caught up in his spirit of rebellion, we could be headed for a very entertaining finish.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report.