Georgia ReportNews

Lawmakers Declare Their Independence from Gov. Deal

This year’s General Assembly session could be described as the one where legislators started to declare their independence from Gov. Nathan Deal.

Lawmakers in previous sessions had essentially served as rubberstamps for the governor, but this year they actually had the temerity to say no when Deal made his demands for bills to be changed. Not all bills, of course, but some. The new attitude was evident on three high-profile issues where the governor didn’t get his way.

Deal was concerned about some of the provisions in the “campus carry” bill that would weaponize college campuses by allowing students to carry firearms. After the bill had already cleared the House and Senate, Deal asked legislators to pass another bill that would make some amendments to the campus carry measure. Legislators ignored him and adopted gun bills in the final days of the session that included none of Deal’s changes.

On the “religious freedom” issue, Deal asked the legislature to put language in the bill that would protect gays from discrimination, using some impressive biblical arguments to make his point. Lawmakers again ignored him and passed a bill allowing private organizations to deny services to gays on religious grounds.

One of the most embarrassing setbacks for the governor involved a resolution that would have cleared the way for a controversial pipeline through the southwestern corner of the state. Sabal Trail Transmission wanted to build a 515-mile pipeline that would extend from Alabama through Georgia and terminate in central Florida, transporting natural gas for power plants operated by Duke Energy and Florida Power & Light. Deal wanted the legislature to authorize easements that would have allowed the pipeline to extend under the Chattahoochee, Flint, Ochlockonee and Withlacoochee rivers, along with Hannahatchee Creek.

Legislators argued that the easements would allow a private company to seize property by eminent domain for a pipeline that would mostly benefit Florida utilities. They said the pipeline would also endanger some of Georgia’s most important waterways. “This does not serve our citizens,” said Rep. Regina Quick (R-Athens). “I will not be complicit in this scheme for the federal government or anyone else.”

When Rep. Christian Coomer (R-Cartersville), finally brought the measure up for a vote in the House, it was resoundingly trounced by a tally of 128-34. That hasn’t happened very much in past sessions. You would typically see the House and Senate pass whatever bill Deal requested. 

In fact, Deal wasn’t even required to go to the trouble of drafting a bill if he needed something to pass. When Deal wanted a lucrative tax break for Mercedes-Benz executives last year, his aides simply instructed the legislature to add the provision to another bill late in the session.

During the years that Tom Murphy was speaker of the House, he feuded frequently with governors, even though they were from the same party. Murphy believed it was important to maintain legislative independence. He had served in that era when the governor appointed the speaker and the chairmen of committees, with legislators having nothing to say on the issue.  Murphy vigilantly guarded the House’s prerogatives.

Over the years, however, governors have nibbled away at the powers of the legislature and of other statewide constitutional officers. One of the under-reported stories of the Deal administration is how much authority has been taken from other areas of state government and placed under the control of his office.

Deal still has some weapons he can use. He vetoed the religious freedom measure a few days after the session adjourned, much to the dismay of Christian conservatives. Deal could do the same to the campus carry bill. If he signs it, that might assuage some of the legislators. If he vetoes it, as he did the religious freedom measure, that could set the stage for some really vicious fights next year.