Judging from the recent session of the General Assembly, Republicans seem to have become the new Democrats in state politics.
A majority of Republican lawmakers, with the assistance of Democrats, approved what has been accurately described as a “massive tax increase” that will generate more than $900 million a year to pay for highway and bridge construction projects. The highway bill includes an increase in the gasoline excise tax, a new tax on hotel rooms and a yearly charge of $200 on electric vehicles. The tax hikes were strongly supported by the three most powerful Republicans at the Gold Dome: Gov. Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Speaker David Ralston.
The usual rhetoric is that Democrats will raise taxes but Republicans will keep them from doing that. After watching the passage of the highway bill, I’m not sure you can say that anymore.
Republican lawmakers also terminated a lucrative tax break worth more than $20 million a year to Delta Air Lines. It’s usually the Democrats who are calling for an end to these corporate tax giveaways, but it was Republicans who made it happen.
Speaker Ralston, with some encouragement from the corporate community, helped stop the passage of a “religious freedom” bill that could have resulted in discrimination against gays and lesbians. It’s usually conservative Republicans who accuse Democrats of supporting gay rights, but it was the most powerful GOP member of the House who blocked a bill that could have limited those rights.
For the first time in years, Republicans did not pass a single bill in this session that was intended to punish Georgia’s immigrant communities. When one Republican tried to slip through a measure that would have prohibited driver’s licenses from being issued to immigrants whose deportation was deferred by President Obama’s executive order, Republicans like Sen. Tommie Williams (R-Lyons) derided his effort and voted it down.
“These kids didn’t come here of their own accord—they were drug here by their parents,” said Williams, who employs a deferred-action immigrant in his restaurant. “What this amendment does is, it punishes those kids for the sins of their fathers. Where is the common sense in that?”
Republicans in the House and Senate—along with their Democratic colleagues—adopted legislation that will require health insurers to cover autism treatments for children up to the age of six. Ironically, the insurance mandate in the autism bill is very similar to the insurance mandates that make up the Affordable Care Act. Republican lawmakers loathe Obamacare, but they passed an insurance bill just like it to help young children with autism.
Republicans—again with the cooperation of Democrats—passed a bill legalizing the use of marijuana derivatives for the treatment of specified diseases. Deal has already promised he will sign the medical marijuana bill into law. Republicans supporting the legal use of controlled substances? This is really an astounding political development.
Up until two or three years ago, Republicans wouldn’t have mentioned any of these issues, much less introduce bills to address them. These are the kinds of issues that tend to strike a more responsive chord among Democrats and liberals than among conservative Republicans—but the GOP was leading the way on them.
This crossing of party lines, of course, also applied to Democrats in the legislature. Deal’s legislative package authorizing a state takeover of struggling schools is the kind of proposal that Democrats have traditionally opposed—they would argue that it could lead to the privatization of schools. The governor’s school bills, however, would not have passed without getting crucial votes from Democrats like Sen. Freddie Powell Sims (D-Dawson).