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Walter Jones Columnist

Published Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Some won, some lost during legislative session

After 40 days in session and almost 1,000 bills introduced, the end of the 2012 legislative session handed victories to some politicians and special-interest groups while leaving others with less to show.

Since making laws in a democratic republic requires allies, the resulting winners and losers got where they did by making plenty of friends or many enemies.

Topping any list for consideration would naturally be the state governor. This year, Gov. Nathan Deal not only passed his agenda but did so with near unanimity. Look at his budget for next year and his supplement for the current fiscal year, tax reform and criminal-justice reform.

He also lent his support to a constitutional amendment on charter schools, a proposal that was foundering until he stepped in with modifications that won over reluctant members of both parties.

Another major reform bill dealing with the juvenile code might have sailed through had the governor not put on the brakes over budgetary concerns. His technique stalled it without a peep of public grumbling from the groups that have been pushing it for five years.

Attorney General Sam Olens, who’s never been in the legislature, took two years of negotiating with every interest group but finally secured passage of a broad revision of the state’s sunshine laws.

Contrast that with Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s effort to revamp a major area of his, regulating of licensed professionals. He drafted a bill so big that no one invested the paper to print it but rather reviewed it on computer disks. Within days, he had withdrawn it due to opposition on all sides from various professions.

A routine elections “housekeeping” bill from Kemp was defeated in the Senate, where he once served, simply because too many GOP senators were watching a debate in the House at the time and didn’t vote. It was only salvaged by some parliamentary creativity at the last minute by the leadership.

One of Kemp’s former colleagues wound up with more disappointment, Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville. Two of his signature bills perished in the House during the final hours of the session.

They may have died sooner except that House members tried to postpone his anger because, as chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee that determines the fate of every House measure, he is known to be vindictive, holding House bills hostage in his committee until his proposals get to the floor. (His counterpart as chairman of the House Rules Committee, Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, doesn’t sponsor any bills.)

Balfour’s bills to restrict where unions can picket and to limit losses by developers when debt holders seek recovery got watered down, repeatedly delayed and then finally never called up for a vote.

Sen. Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, also didn’t get everything he wanted. For instance, he tried to overcome a defeat last year on a bill that would auction off sections of three South Georgia rivers for the harvesting of trees buried underwater more than 100 years. Environmentalists worry disturbing the sediment will release toxins deposited in the days before stringent water-pollution controls, but few other environmental issues garner as many votes as those that once again defeated Williams’ logging bill. Like Balfour, he’s a Senate leader, as president pro tempore, who has gained a share of detractors over his style.

Williams was the Senate sponsor of an abortion bill where he couldn’t prevent his Republican colleagues from adding an amendment that supporters say weakened it significantly and almost doomed it outright in the House.

Despite the amendment, abortion opponents claimed victory with passage of House Bill 954 by Rep. Doug McKillips, R-Athens. The final bill including wording each side had sought in the measure limiting late-term abortions.

Divining the winners and losers isn’t as simple as labels. That’s because the tea parties pushing for charter schools and zero-based budgeting, Americans for Prosperity, were successful. Others, like the Georgia Tea Party Patriots came up empty-handed in their push for caps on lobbyists’ gifts and being consulted about tax reform before its introduction.

Several groups from across the political spectrum had joined to call for the gift cap, including Common Cause of Georgia and the League of Women Voters.

Business advocacy groups brought home prizes they had sought, including the exemption of energy used in factories from the sales tax and the creation of special courts for tax appeals. However, the date change for this year’s vote on a new transportation sales tax never got mentioned, despite pushing by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

Local-government groups and environmentalists failed in an effort they had united for which would have ensured that fees the state charges for various services, like used-tire disposal, go to the agencies responsible rather than other government projects.

Any list of setbacks would have to include local legislative delegations that failed to reach agreement on key bills for their home communities. The members of the Richmond County delegation simply refused to budge on the election-district map for the Augusta Commission and school board. Instead of negotiating over various creative options until finding a middle-ground compromise, the Democrats and Republicans each dug in their heels on their own versions and ended up with neither.

Local officials are likely to remember their lack of success. Contrast that with the Chatham County delegation which considered several versions of its map before all members slowly overcame their reservations and wound up backing the final draft unanimously.

Given the obscure nature of many of these defeats, it’s unlikely voters will hold them against these lawmakers or advocacy groups. They may reward the winners, though.

Regardless, the impact will be the greatest in the next legislative session when the winners will have added political goodwill, and the losers with have that much less.

(Walter Jones is the bureau chief for the Morris News Service in Atlanta.)

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