Judging from the recent session of the General Assembly, Republicans seem to have become the new Democrats in state politics.
Consider the following developments:
A majority of Republican lawmakers, with the assistance of Democrats, approved what has been accurately described as a “massive tax increase” that will generate more than $900 million a year to pay for highway and bridge construction projects.
The highway bill includes a substantial increase in the gasoline excise tax, a new tax on hotel rooms and a yearly charge of $200 or $300 on electric vehicles. The tax hikes were strongly supported by the three most powerful Republicans at the Gold Dome: Gov. Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, and Speaker David Ralston.
Sen. Mike Crane, R-Newnan, one of the Republicans who opposed the highway bill, characterized the tax increases as an “unqualified midnight run on Georgia taxpayers.”
“I believe our government ought to be fiscally responsible with the dollars it has without putting a fiscal burden on our families and businesses,” said Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, who also fought against passage of the bill.
The usual election rhetoric is that Democrats will raise taxes but Republicans will keep them from doing that. As Albers and Crane pointed out, I’m not sure you can say that anymore in Georgia.
Republican lawmakers also terminated a lucrative tax break worth more than $20 million a year that Delta Air Lines has received from the legislature since 2005. It’s usually the Democrats who are calling for an end to these corporate tax breaks — it was Republicans who actually did it.
House Speaker David Ralston, with some encouragement from the corporate community, helped stop the passage of a “religious freedom” bill that could have resulted in discrimination against gays and lesbians. You typically hear conservative Republicans make the accusation that Democrats support gay rights, but it was the most powerful GOP member of the House who blocked a bill that could have limited those rights.
For the first time in years, Republicans did not pass a single bill in this session that was intended to punish Georgia’s immigrant communities.
When one Republican tried to slip through a measure that would have prohibited driver’s licenses from being issued to immigrants whose deportation was deferred by President Barack Obama’s executive order, Republicans like Sen. Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, derided his effort and voted it down.
“These kids didn’t come here of their own accord -- they were drug here by their parents,” said Williams, who employs a “deferred action” immigrant in his restaurant.
“What this amendment does is, it punishes those kids for the sins of their fathers,” Williams said. “Where is the common sense in that?”
Republicans in the House and Senate, along with their Democratic colleagues, adopted legislation that will require health insurers to cover autism treatments for children up to age 6. Ironically, the insurance mandate in the autism bill is very similar to the insurance mandates that make up the Affordable Care Act. Republican lawmakers loath Obamacare, but they passed an insurance bill just like it to help young children with autism.
Republicans — again with the cooperation of Democrats — passed a bill legalizing the use of marijuana derivatives for the treatment of specified diseases. Deal has already promised he will sign the medical marijuana bill into law.
Republicans supporting the legal use of controlled substances? This is really an astounding political development.
Up until two or three years ago, Republicans wouldn’t have mentioned any of these issues, much less introduce bills to address them.
These are the kinds of issues that tend to strike a more responsive chord among Democrats and liberals than among conservative Republicans, but the GOP was leading the way on them. Who would have ever thought it?
This reversal of party roles, of course, also applied to Democrats in the legislature. Deal’s legislation for a state takeover of struggling schools is the kind of thing Democrats have traditionally opposed; they would argue it could lead to the privatization of schools. The governor’s school bills, however, only passed after getting crucial votes from Democrats like Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, D-Dawson, and Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur.
Republicans acting like Democrats and Democrats acting like Republicans. It’s a strange new world of politics.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report.