Published Sunday, January 20, 2013
By SARAH FAY CAMPBELL
When too much power is concentrated in the hands of one branch of government, liberty suffers, according to State Senator Mike Crane.
That’s why Crane (R-Newnan) proposed an amendment to new Senate rules Monday, the first day of the 2013 Georgia General Assembly Session. Before he could present the amendment for discussion and vote, however, the Senate voted to “engross” the rules, meaning they could not be amended.
Crane and most other senators didn’t get to see the new rules until just before the session began.
“I saw some errors... which I knew probably would be there based on who the leadership was,” Crane said. “But I had to see it so I could amend it properly. They find out that I am going to write an amendment and they move to engross the rules. And they had the votes to make that happen.
The matter was settled within the first half-hour of the session.
“Once they did get the engrossment on the rules, that was very interesting to watch the Senate Democrats come to the defense of open discussion,” Crane said. “They really did a great job of trying to not allow the engrossment to take place.”
Of the 19 votes against engrossment, 17 were Democrats. Crane and Tommie Williams of Lyons, who resigned as Senate President Pro-Tem last summer, were the only opposing Republicans. They were also the only Republicans to vote against the adoption of the rules, which passed 42-12.
“The rules, as they were written give three very important functions of the Senate over to the lieutenant governor’s office,” said Crane, who called the current rules “unconstitutional.”
Changes to the Committee on Assignments were the biggest sticking point. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, as president of the Senate, now chairs the committee and appoints two of the other four members. Two years ago – when the Senate voted to strip Cagle of many of his powers – the committee had eight majority-party members. Crane’s amendment would have created a three-member committee: the president pro-tem, the majority leader and the minority leader.
The Senate is roughly two-thirds Republican and one-third Democrat.
“The minority leader needs to be at those tables in a significant way because the Democratic senators represent a significant portion of the population,” Crane said.
As it stands, Cagle gets to control the flow of legislation through the Senate and control the assignments to “very important” conference committees, Crane said.
His unsuccessful amendment “just says all those appointments would be made by the elected leadership within the Senate,” Crane said. And that would include the minority leader.
Another major change eliminates the requirement that copies of bills and their associated amendments be placed on each senator’s desk before the bills can be voted on.
Though Cagle is the president of the Senate, he is not a member of the Senate, Crane said. Instead, he’s a member of the executive branch.
“The executive branch should not be able to extend their influence into the Senate process as far as the rules allow,” Crane said.
The reach of the executive branch could be felt when the Senate quickly considered legislation to extend the hospital provider fee, better known as the “bed tax,” which is strongly pushed by Gov. Nathan Deal. In passing the bill regarding the bed tax, “they had to suspend the rules three times,” Crane said.
The lieutenant governor is a relatively new position in Georgia’s government.
“I think the state actually governed itself very well without any lieutenant governor” until the office was created in the late 1940s, Crane said. The lieutenant governor’s only constitutional duties are to preside over the Senate and succeed the governor in case of death.
But over the years, the lieutenant governor took on more and more power — until Republicans took over the Senate in 2003 and stripped the Democratic Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor of most of his powers. When Cagle took office four years later, those powers were restored.
In 2010, that changed again.
“With the shift in leadership, they were able to change the rules to something that was not perfect, but it moved in the direction of a more constitutionally balanced separation of powers,” Crane said.
The state’s constitution is “very clear that the separation of powers... the branches of government should forever remain distinct and separate,” Crane said.
“I think the Senate fell down on the job on that one on Monday,” he said. “A lot of people say ‘look, we’ve done it forever so we might as well do it that way.’”
Crane said that’s not good government.
“If that is our measuring stick, we’d still have slavery,” he said. “We would have segregated schools.”
Crane said it’s not about personalities.
“I don’t have any axe to grind with the current lieutenant governor,” he said. “I think he does a very good job from the day-to-day standpoint of how he runs the Senate. He’s particularly adept at that and it’s not an easy job. But to have the authority to control the flow of legislation should only rest with the people through their elected senators.”
Three branches of government is about checks and balances, Crane said, which keeps one branch from having too much power.
“When the power is aggregated into a small group’s hands, freedom is at risk,” Crane said. “Can you imagine if the president had total control over Congress right now? What would gun control look like? What would health care look like? What would liberty look like?
“I’m convinced that the adoption of the Senate rules on Monday and the passage of the ‘revised bed tax’ harmed the balance of power at the state level,” Crane said. “And when this happens, ‘we the people’ stand the most to lose and nothing to gain. It is essential that we use the power of our voice to reestablish the separation of powers, for the benefit of all Georgians.”
It’s a fairly complicated topic – a bit of “inside baseball” – but it’s important, according to Crane.
“We need rules that will stand the test of time,” Crane said. “We need rules that will stand the test of personalities. And those rules work best if they follow the constitution.”
He won’t be going to the well of the Senate every day to call for change, but that doesn’t mean Crane is giving up.
“Some of the most important battles in the Senate do not happen in the well,” Crane said. “I am fighting every day. I think we have made some progress that nobody has seen.
“It’s not just me,” he added. “It’s a strong group of folks that reflect these same values and we’re working behind the scenes continuously to advance, not just this item but a number of things that will move our state forward in a way that protects all of us as citizens. There is a group of senators and a group of representatives that are... united in the preservation of the separation of powers, for the purpose of advancing the best legislation possible for all Georgians.”