Our Views: A useful 40 days
As politicians and political scientists begin to measure the success of the 2011 legislative session, they're noting what was accomplished during a relatively quiet 40 days.
Both chambers passed a supplemental 2011 budget without a conference committee, approved the 2012 budget before the last day and pushed through a Sunday alcohol sales bill after five years of stalling in the Senate.
An immigration reform bill came through at the last minute, and lawmakers decided to hold off on a tax reform bill to look at the numbers.
"They got the budget taken care of earlier than usual and passed reforms on immigration and the HOPE scholarship, which were high on the agenda," said Charles Bullock, political science professor at the University of Georgia. "On the other side, they didn't do anything serious about tax reform."
But Bullock isn't terribly surprised.
"That's a hard one to step up to and take care of, and it will likely require aggressive leadership from the governor's office," he said. "With a part-time legislature that tries to balance their businesses and other interests, most of them don't have the time or really the interest to understand the changes and dig into the implications."
Several reform ideas set the stage for leaders to step forward, Bullock noted.
"Tax reform in particular was one visible instance where the minority party exercised influence," he said. "The bill was moving along, and all of the sudden Minority Leader Stacey Abrams showed up with the data, and it halted."
Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, presented the HOPE changes as one of Gov. Nathan Deal's floor leaders, and Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, touted his immigration reform bill through both chambers.
"You also didn't see the public disagreements among the top three players. In past years, there were fireworks between the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker," Bullock said. "The change from Glenn Richardson to David Ralston probably accounts for that."
However, the most complicated aspect of the session was the power struggle in the Senate, he noted.
"You could sense the disquiet in the Senate, and we all heard what the speaker had to say," Bullock said. "An eight-member committee is not going to be a long-term arrangement. Somebody's going to emerge as the go-to person."
The Senate's Republican caucus will need to make a decision before the special session in August for redistricting, said House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.
"I don't think anyone who has paid attention to what's going on believes that the experiment the Senate has engaged in has been successful," he said. "The Senate needs to decide who their leader is and do it quickly. The internal squabblings are really getting in the way of doing the people's business."
The struggles showed in the last few days as caucus meetings slowed the progress of legislation and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle sent out a letter asking for compromise.
"When you have an uncertainty as to who the leader is and you have to take out time to have a discussion every day over what's going on, it becomes a serious problem," Ralston said. "Who do we cooperate with and negotiate with?"
Now lawmakers turn their eyes toward a new U.S. House seat that likely will carve out a new district in the northern part of the state.
"It's much easier to draw new lines when adding a seat than some states that are losing a seat," Deal said Friday. "Redistricting is always a challenge because every community wants their representation to be as strong and critical as possible. Respecting community and county boundaries will be a top priority."
More than 200 bills are piling on Deal's desk for approval in the next 40 days. He plans to sign noncontroversial bills affecting single cities and counties first, then move to legislation that affects the state.
For Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, the most successful days in the Senate chamber weren't passing favorite bills but stopping others from making it.
"I'm glad we beat some very bad legislation," he said.
"Every day at the Capitol costs the taxpayers money, and I'm for less government, not more. There were several bills that just didn't need to get through."
Reflecting on his first session as a freshman senator, Miller, who manages a Gainesville automobile dealership, calls the political process "the American Dream."
"Only in America can a salesman decide to serve and then do it," he said. "Any person in any walk of life can offer up public service and make a difference, and that's just invigorating and encouraging."
Miller looks forward to getting even more accomplished next year.
"You go to the Capitol and you want to change the world for the better, and then you get there and realize another 250 people want to do the same," he said. "The wheels of the government turn slowly, so you have to get a bite of the apple and go back and get another bite and go back and get another little bite."