Georgia ReportNews

Lawmakers Don’t Have Time to Read Bills

Gov. Nathan Deal currently is reviewing the hundreds of bills passed during this year’s General Assembly session. Some of these bills were carefully drafted by the legislative counsel’s office, thoughtfully reviewed in committee and voted on by lawmakers who had time to study the measures and understand what they were considering. Too many of the bills were frantically adopted by legislators who didn’t have time to read the documents and had no idea what they were voting on.  

This happens because of the practice of holding back dozens of important bills until the final hours of the legislative session, then dumping them on lawmakers and demanding that they vote immediately. If you ever had the opportunity to hang around the capitol and watch the final days of a session, when bill after bill is slapped together and shotgunned in this fashion, you would be disgusted or maybe outraged. When you conduct the people’s business in this slam-bang manner, you end up with laws that are sloppily written and thrown out in court or contain errors that nullify the bill sponsor’s original intention.

A classic example of this occurred back in the 1990s, when a bill was adopted at session’s end that had been erroneously amended. As passed by the legislature, the measure made it a criminal offense for a nurse to give a patient a shot or for diabetics to give themselves insulin injections.

This year, a complicated bill that allows guns to be carried in nearly every public venue came up for adoption just before midnight on the session’s last day. Needless to say, there wasn’t much time for debate.

This late-session pileup involves not just ordinary bills but the state budget as well. Legislators seldom have more than an hour to read the budget after the final version has been put on their desks.  

Some lawmakers have recognized the situation and called for changes. Sen. Nan Orrock (D-Atlanta) warned her colleagues on the session’s last day: “The logjam we have created here is not going to work to the best interests of Georgia. The pressure will be on to race through bills, to call the question, to tell people to take their seat, to cut off debate. We have squandered far too much time over these past weeks and months not doing the people’s business, and now today we’ll be faced with a hailstorm of paper without adequate time to debate these bills.”  

Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus) proposed a rule change that would have required conference committee reports—the compromise versions of bills worked out by House and Senate negotiators—to be available prior to the session’s final day. That at least would give senators some time to read what they were being asked to pass.

“Anybody who has been here on the 40th day knows the games that get played,” McKoon said. “If you are a legislator who doesn’t know what’s in the bill, how can we expect the public to have any idea what’s in a bill and have any opportunity for meaningful input? It winds up producing bad public policy.”

McKoon’s rule could not get a vote in the Senate.

The tradition of slamming through bills that lawmakers haven’t had time to read could be ended very quickly by the leadership, headed by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in the Senate and Speaker David Ralston in the House of Representatives. They won’t do it, of course, because the system allows them to control what passes by holding bills back and then shoving them in front of lawmakers who have no choice but to make uninformed votes.  

It is all about maintaining power under the Gold Dome. It is why a flawed process results in bad legislation being passed, year after year.