Published Saturday, March 16, 2013
The current leaders under the Georgia Gold Dome shows few signs of the outward disagreements of previous legislative sessions.
In the first generation of leaders after Republicans took the reins of power, harsh words and stalemates were common. The governor, lieutenant governor and speaker seemed to keep everyone at the Capitol on edge as they felt their way around their new power structure.
More than once in those years, threats were issued during budget negotiations to adjourn the General Assembly rather than compromise. The governor grew so exasperated that one year he left the country during the critical, final days of the legislative session.
Changing the governor and speaker didn’t completely alleviate the tension as was seen during the last two years during negotiations over tax reform. GOP senators had staged a coup and neutered Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle so that an eight-member Committee on Assignments could disperse his power among themselves.
House Speaker David Ralston belittled the committee approach as an experiment that had flopped, complaining that every time the House leadership and governor were ready to strike a deal with the Senate, a different senator would step forward with new conditions. By the end of the session, the senators were fighting with each other, too, delaying proceedings while they slugged it out behind closed doors in emergency Republican Caucus meetings.
After last fall’s elections, Cagle’s allies succeeded in their counter revolution and put the lieutenant governor back into the decision-making council and placed themselves in the leadership posts.
They are also taking a less confrontational approach to the House and governor.
“We’ve decided to work cooperatively with the House,” said Senate President Pro Tempore David Shafer, who notes that the Committee on Assignments still meets daily only now Cagle is a member. “We decided to work more cooperatively with each other.”
Shafer meets regularly with his opposite number in the House, Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones. Senate Majority Leader Ronnie Chance is often seen conferring with House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal.
O’Neal and Shafer strengthened their relationship during the Gov. Sonny Perdue years when they used to share office space in the Capitol while each served as the governor’s floor leader in their respective chambers.
“So far, it has been very good,” O’Neal said of the working relationship a day after the session’s marathon Crossover Day.
Part of the difference has been changing the people in the various leadership roles. One person didn’t change, though, the lieutenant governor. But in many respects, he appears to have changed, at least in how he deals with others.
One of the senators who previously had clashed with Cagle -- and suffered for it -- was Sen. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler. Although he was on the wrong end of the coup and wound up being downgraded in the committee he chairs, he isn’t complaining now.
“I think it’s worked fine, and I think it’s worked fine for a number of reasons,” Carter said. “My hat’s off to the lieutenant governor. He’s been very inclusive, and he recognizes that it’s a very delicate balance.”
Cagle has made efforts to reach out to both individual senators -- even those like Carter who have disagreed with him in the past -- and to the other state leaders, observers say.
The real test is ahead. Now that the House and Senate have each passed their own bills, they are considering the other chamber’s legislation and making changes. When it comes to reaching agreement on those, including the budget and ethics, the chore is finding compromise in a civil fashion.
If there are cracks that haven’t been visible yet, that’s when they’ll show through and run possibly the length of the vessel.
In some ways, the economy simplifies the task. “The revenues are so modest, there’s not a lot to argument about,” O’Neal said.