Opinion: A clash of biographies fuels state Capitol fights over U.S. Senate, budget

January 16, 2020 - Atlanta - Gov. Brian Kemp shook hands with Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (left) and House Speaker David Ralston after he delivered his second State of the State address as the Georgia 2020 General Assembly continued for it's fourth legislative day. The governor and the house honored former U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson during the session.  Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
January 16, 2020 - Atlanta - Gov. Brian Kemp shook hands with Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (left) and House Speaker David Ralston after he delivered his second State of the State address as the Georgia 2020 General Assembly continued for it's fourth legislative day. The governor and the house honored former U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson during the session. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

A pall of pessimism has infected the state Capitol.

With the 2020 session of the Legislature only two weeks old, we have a breach between Gov. Brian Kemp and House Speaker David Ralston that now stands two issues deep.

One fight is about money – and a $28 billion state budget. The other is about loyalty. And money, too.

Both disputes have traveled roughly the same time frame, with flash points that first became public last fall.

But each confrontation also has roots that stretch back a decade. They are fundamental to each player’s biography, which means neither can be easily papered over. We’ll tackle the easy one first.

By now you know that U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, has decided to challenge U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed last month by the governor to replace the retiring Johnny Isakson.

Two Democrats are already in the race, but the Republican side of the contest is quickly becoming a proxy war between Kemp and Ralston.

The governor’s thinking has been transparent. The Buckhead businesswoman has two important attributes – her gender and her wealth.

Like the national party, the Georgia GOP has been bleeding white women, particularly in the suburbs of north metro Atlanta. Loeffler, it is hoped, might staunch that bleeding. She faces two daunting November elections in two years, but has the resources to self-fund. She has promised to spend $20 million this year alone.

The relationship between Ralston and Collins is more visceral. On Tuesday, Collins was the chaplain of the day in the House chamber, a nod to his degree from a Southern Baptist seminary.

Ralston helped introduce him. “And yes, I have a confession, he is my friend,” the House speaker said. “He is my friend. He has stood by me when few would, and I don’t forget that.”

There’s a story in that quote.

In November 2008, Glenn Richardson of Hiram was in his fourth year as the first Republican speaker of the House in modern Georgia history. He had a volatile temper, and his tenure was a rocky one.

A north Georgia attorney named David Ralston challenged Richardson. One of Ralston’s wingmen was Collins, a fellow House member and Air Force Reserve chaplain who had been dispatched to Iraq.

Given that he was overseas, Collins couldn’t vote. No proxies were allowed. But Collins insisted, and the caucus rules were changed to allow the Gainesville lawmaker to cast a losing vote for Ralston.

Alliances formed in defeat can be stronger than ones that result from victory.

Richardson, by the way, imploded 13 months later, amid news of a divorce, an affair with a lobbyist, and an attempted suicide. Ralston was elected to replace him.

In the 2012 GOP primary for the Ninth District congressional seat, radio host Martha Zoller had the transient support of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Collins, still a state lawmaker, was backed by former Gov. Zell Miller – and Ralston. Collins won.

In essence, Ralston is doing today what he did eight years’ ago – repaying a debt.

When it comes to his fight with the House speaker and other lawmakers over the budget, Governor Kemp may be doing something similar. But his dish is one that’s best served cold.

The intense budget fight brewing between Kemp and Ralston, over both the extent of cuts needed and where the knife should slice, already has lobbyists and lawmakers advising each other to prepare for a legislative session that could drag on through mid-April.

On Monday, both Ralston and the governor appeared before members of the Georgia Municipal Association at a gathering near the state Capitol. The House speaker sought allies.

“In weddings, they tell you to speak now or forever hold your peace,” Ralston told the mayors. “I’m telling you much the same this morning. Because soon it will be too late.”

The confrontation has its roots in Kemp’s decision last August to order most state department heads to immediately trim 4% from their budgets, and 6% more for the fiscal year that begins this July.

House and Senate budget writers, whose advice might have been sought by past governors, were shut out of early discussions by Kemp.

Three days of formal budget hearings were held last week, but lawmakers still felt shortchanged when it came to details about what must be slashed to pay for a $2,000 teacher pay hike promised by Kemp.

It is worth remembering that Kemp, after a brief stint as a state senator from Athens, was appointed secretary of state in 2010, when Karen Handel resigned to make a Republican run for governor.

Throughout his tenure, which lasted until after his election as governor in 2018, Kemp’s budget and authority as secretary of state were under perennial attack from the Legislature — and Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration, too.

With a mandate to oversee elections, corporate filings and the professional competency of much of the state’s workforce, the budget for the Secretary of State’s office in 2008 — as the Great Recession took hold — stood at $42 million.

By 2015, Kemp’s office budget had bottomed out at $22 million a year.

In between, the Legislature heaped more duties on Kemp’s office. A stringent state immigration law passed in 2011, requiring license professionals to prove their citizenship with each renewal, led to massive backlogs. Other duties were erased.

In 2013, Gov. Nathan Deal arranged for the state archives to be removed from Kemp’s control — after the secretary of state’s office had announced layoffs of archive staff and the cancellation of public hours — a situation that resulted in public protests.

That same year, the state ethics commission was removed from Kemp’s jurisdiction, as was the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency, and the governing boards for pharmacists and dentists. The next year, it was the state Board of Accountancy.

We do not know this for a fact, because Governor Kemp prefers to keep his own counsel.

But it would not be surprising if Kemp thinks that he wasn’t always properly consulted by other actors in the Capitol during his eight years as secretary of state — and may now be showing many of those same players what it felt like.

For better and worse, past is usually prologue in the state Capitol.

We should mention that Kemp’s successor as secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, will be working with a 2021 budget that inches up to $25 million, having endured a fairly modest cut of just over $1 million.

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