I wish I could tell you that Georgia’s lawmakers are getting better at the way they handle the people’s business, but that would be a lie.
This year’s General Assembly session ended the same way other recent sessions have ended: in chaos and confusion, with the final day extending far beyond midnight. We no longer have a legislature in the sense that most people think of one: a group of elected representatives who introduce bills, take the time to perfect them and then make an informed vote to either pass them or reject them.
These days, the legislative leadership keeps everybody sitting around for 38 days doing as little as possible, then crams dozens, if not hundreds, of bills down the chute in the final two days of the session.
“Half the work of the session is being done in these two days,” Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker, complained. “These bills are important and they demand a fair discussion.”
A fair discussion is precisely what they don’t get. Instead, bill after bill is shoved in front of legislators without them having the time to read or comprehend what they are voting on. The rule that lawmakers are supposed to have at least one hour to read the final draft of a bill is routinely waived. The leadership tells them to vote, and they vote.
What we have instead of a citizens’ legislature is a machine that grinds out tax breaks for Georgia’s wealthiest
On the last day of this year’s session, the combined amount of tax breaks under consideration was estimated at nearly $600 million. Many of them passed, which means there will be that much less revenue available for things like schools, health care and interstate highways that catch fire and collapse.
“At some point, we’re going to have to make some decisions about picking winners and losers,” said Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, as the Senate prepared to pass yet another tax break for the state’s corporate interests.
The situation has gotten so out of hand that even Republicans are starting to complain.
“The problem is, we send a message that if you come to the General Assembly and say, ‘I’ll create X number of jobs,’ you can negotiate for special treatment under our tax laws,” Sen. Josh McKoon said.
“We ought to have a broad-based policy that lowers the rate for everybody and provides every business with an opportunity to grow,” McKoon said.
“We want to cut everybody’s taxes, but if we agree to all this stuff and go up to $600 million in tax breaks, we’re just not going to be able to do that,” said Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome. “We ought to give everybody a tax break and not just a special few.”
There are thousands of businesses, big and small, that create the bulk of Georgia’s jobs, but they don’t get any tax breaks — these breaks only go to the favored few who have lobbyists getting their message across at the Capitol.
The bill that most clearly illustrates the deference the leadership pays to Georgia’s wealthiest citizens was HB 125. This was the bill passed by both chambers that gives a tax break to yacht owners who spend at least $500,000 to repair or retrofit their vessel.
The tax break for yacht projects passed on the final day of the session. On the next to last day of the session, legislators passed a bill to increase the fees sportsmen will pay for hunting licenses, fishing licenses and boat registrations. The bill is intended to raise more money for the Department of Natural Resources.
As the Senate was giving consideration to this measure, Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, finally connected the dots and realized just who was getting keelhauled.
“We’re raising the fees for the owner of a 15-foot jon boat at the same time we’re passing a tax break for yacht owners,” Unterman said. “You don’t have to increase the fees on the back of the little man to support this agency.”
House Speaker David Ralston often refers to his legislative chamber as “The People’s House.” The speaker is incorrect. A more accurate title would the “The Plutocrats’ House” along with “The Plutocrats’ Senate.”
The people don’t matter much anymore.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report.