When I am asked to sum up the achievements of a General Assembly session, I usually offer the same assessment: it could have been worse. That was certainly the case this year. Our lawmakers approved a budget that didnâ€™t wreak great havoc on current programs and passed at least a few bits and pieces of a tax revision plan.
More significantly, Gov. Nathan Deal was able to secure legislative passage of his proposal to overhaul Georgiaâ€™s criminal sentencing laws, a policy objective that was both humane and sensible. The governorâ€™s criminal justice revision will eliminate some of the draconian measures adopted during Zell Millerâ€™s â€œtwo strikesâ€ era. Those laws have jam-packed Georgiaâ€™s correctional system at a cost to taxpayers of more than $1 billion a year. The new system for sentencing should save money, because many non-violent offenders and drug users can be diverted into treatment programs and drug courts instead of being sent to an expensive prison bed.
Lawmakers said their main priority for this session was to create jobs, and some of the bills they passed will do just thatâ€”for attorneys. If Deal signs the bill that requires drug tests for all welfare applicants, a lawsuit is already being drafted that would challenge the law in federal court. A similar law in Florida was blocked by a federal judge there.
The bill making it a criminal offense to perform an abortion after 20 weeks of a pregnancyâ€”the doctor involved could go to prison for as long as 10 yearsâ€”will likely trigger a court challenge if Deal signs it.
When you add those measures to last yearâ€™s immigration law, which is still being litigated in the federal courts, you can see that the General Assembly continues to be a full-time employment service for attorneys.
Our lawmakers once again showed an inability to stand up and say â€œnoâ€ to the Georgia Power Co., an entity that has more political clout than any mere governor or legislator. When Sen. Buddy Carter (R-Pooler) tried to get a bill passed that would have made it easier for homeowners and businesses to generate cheaper electricity by using their own solar panels, Georgia Power swooped in and essentially told the Legislature they werenâ€™t going to allow it.
Carterâ€™s bill never made it out of committee, and electricity users will continue to be charged upwards of $1.6 billion in higher rates to pay early financing costs for Georgia Power to build those two nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle in Waynesboro.
On the other hand, as I said a few paragraphs ago, it could have been worse.
Sen. Don Balfour (R-Snellville) tried to push through legislation that would have made it illegal for unions to picketâ€”a blatant violation of â€œthe right of the people peaceably to assembleâ€ contained in the First Amendment. This bill was so misguided that it managed to unite labor organizations and Tea Party groups in opposition.
Another bill would have enabled developers to walk away from bank loans that they personally guaranteed they would pay off if a real estate project happened to go bad. The measure was written, of course, so that ordinary Georgians would not be allowed to escape their obligations to pay off credit card debt or a student loan. But if you were a wealthy, politically connected developer, it would have been a sweet deal for you.
That bill, no surprise, was also introduced by Balfour, the best friend a plutocrat ever had. The House leadership sat on Balfourâ€™s bills without bringing them up for a floor vote.
It was, in the end, a normal legislative session. Although some bad bills made it through, a few of the really horrific ones were prevented from passing.
Tom Crawford firstname.lastname@example.org
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com that reports on government and politics in Georgia.
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