Georgia ReportNews

Lawmakers Don’t Let Deadlines Derail the Gravy Train

Georgia legislators have some problems when it comes to telling time.  

This weakness has been evident for decades and was most famously displayed in the 1964 General Assembly session. On the last night of that session, the House was debating a redistricting bill as midnight neared. That was an important deadline because the Georgia Constitution only allows the General Assembly to convene for 40 days. Rep. Denmark Groover hung from the railing of the House visitors’ gallery and tried to stop the hands of the wall clock before they could show 12 o’clock. The clock crashed to the floor of the House chamber. Someone took a photo of Groover as he dangled from the gallery and the photo was published around the world, becoming one of the best-known images of Georgia politics.

The same issues of time and a 40-day limit have cropped up in the past two legislative sessions. Last year, the Senate extended debate after midnight as senators considered a bill granting a lucrative tax break for Mercedes-Benz executives. It was well after 12 o’clock before senators finally voted on the bill.

The problem was even worse this year.  As the midnight hour rolled around on the final day, there were numerous bills still out. House Speaker David Ralston decided there really wasn’t a problem after all. He announced: “We have been advised by legislative counsel that we do not have to end at midnight. We’re gonna go a little past midnight.” Legislators once again ignored their legal deadline and continued to vote on bills for another 30 minutes.

Mar. 24 was Day 40 of the session. Most people would agree that Mar. 24 ended at midnight, at which point Mar. 25 began. The legislature thus was voting on bills during the 41st day of the session, which is prohibited by the state constitution.

Obviously, legislators weren’t going to let silly things like “clocks” or “calendars” or “constitutional limitations” keep them from voting. Some of the lawmakers also weren’t going to worry about such concepts as “ethical conduct.”

Near the end of the session, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Rep. John Meadows (R-Calhoun) was trying to get a bill passed that would require insurance agents to be paid a minimum 5 percent commission when they sold health plans. Meadows happens to be an insurance agent. There are rules that provide a legislator can refrain from voting if he or she would possibly benefit from a bill. Meadows didn’t do this. He voted to pass the agents’ commission bill. Before the Senate could consider the measure, the story about Meadows’ conflict of interest hit the newspapers. Senators backed off from voting on the bill, and it failed to pass.

Another legislator with a potential conflict was Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford). She works for an insurance company that holds a lucrative contract with the state to provide managed care services for Medicaid patients. The state budget that provides the money to pay Unterman’s employer came up for a vote twice in the Senate. Unterman did not excuse herself—she voted for it both times.

These episodes all illustrate the arrogance that persons acquire when they serve in the General Assembly for a long time. You get so used to lobbyists begging you to pass bills that you start feeling special and privileged. You believe that you don’t have to comply with the rules and laws—those things only apply to ordinary people. That’s how you end up with legislative sessions where constitutions are violated, ethical lapses are laughed at and corruption sets in.  

As retiring lawmakers made their goodbye speeches on the final day of the session, Rep. Al Williams (D-Midway) delivered the most accurate summation of the current legislative ethos. “I’m not leaving,” Williams said, “but I will accept the right package.”