If it’s the 40th day of the General Assembly session — and Thursday’s that day — it’s prime time for legislative shenanigans.
That means vehicles without wheels (re: one bill attached to another), Christmas trees that are neither green nor have a star on top (re: several bills attached to one), and hijacking that’s legal (re: gutting a colleague’s bill and putting in your own in its place. See: vehicle).
It’s a time to lean over the fourth-floor gallery railing to stop the clock, it’s time to attach a special-interest tax break that nobody’s ever heard of to a bill that nobody could possibly oppose, and it’s time to kill “good bills” and pass unsure-if-it’s-good ones. All for the sake of what is “good for Georgia,” for “jobs,” or “for the chil’ren.”
And by midnight Thursday, one of the more common phrases uttered at the Capitol will likely be “What did that do?”
Right after lawmakers vote on a bill.
“The final day can be very scary,” said former state Sen. Don Balfour, a Republican who represented Gwinnett County for more than 20 years.
“You can have a bill to recognize Coca-Cola as the state drink of the state of Georgia,” he said. “Good bill. It could come out of the conference committee saying Pepsi is the state drink of the state of Georgia. It can be 100 percent different, and you just never know.”
Conference committees — groups of three House members and three senators — often get together late on the final day of the session and decide what’s in the final bills colleagues will vote on. The rank and file are brought bills they’ve sometimes never seen before, and they are asked to vote on them. Yes or no. No might be the safer bet, but most lawmakers would rather say yes.
“Sometimes you had to just rely on your friends,” said U.S. Rep. David Scott, an Atlanta Democrat who served about 30 years in the General Assembly before being elected to Congress. “And you pray.”
Legislative leaders like it that way.
The General Assembly has 40 working days to pass a budget and pass laws — starting each year on the second Monday of January. But a big chunk of the first few months is taken up listening to the prayer of the day, introducing the doctor of the day, listening to “points of personal privilege” by members, and recognizing everyone from Miss Georgia Peach and the AA high school badminton champions to politicians, dignitaries and folks like Chipper Jones, Herman Cain and, this year, a single member of the Harlem Globetrotters.
Eventually, committees start meeting, bills are “perfected” and make it to the floor of the House and Senate, and things start happening.
The session builds to a cacophony. Which occurs Thursday, the final day of the session.
The $26.2 billion state budget — the one bill lawmakers by law must pass — still needs a House vote. Conference committees will meet and come out with new bills. Some legislation might be gutted and have the innards replaced. Lobbyists will have amendments attached to bills, changing a mandate (“shall do something”) to a suggestion (“may do something”) and vice versa.
In the end, lawmakers will take more than 100 votes between 10 a.m. Thursday and midnight, a lot of which probably could have taken place a month or so ago. But what fun would that be?
Neill Herring, a longtime Sierra Club lobbyist, calls it “our state’s annual pageant.”
“It’s got a script, everybody knows their roles,” he said. “You change personalities, but everyone recognizes their role. It’s our morality play, complete with winners and losers. “
Sometimes the unpredictable happens. The most famous example was in the 1960s, when a brilliant lawyer and onetime Marine fighter pilot, state Rep. Denmark Groover of Macon, dangled above the House chamber, trying to keep the clock from running out on a legislative session. The lawmaker didn’t fall, but the clock did.
In 1992, the General Assembly approved a bill at the last minute that included an amendment pushed by the doctor’s lobby that was written so broadly it made it a felony for nurses to give injections or for diabetics to give themselves shots.
With two hours remaining in the 2012 session, the Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill shielding the identities of people applying for hunting and fishing licenses. What the sponsor didn’t mention was that it had been reshaped to seal the records of some ethics cases against politicians. After an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter found out about it and posted it on social media, good-government lobbyists and bloggers picked up on it, and the House killed the measure.
More typical was the last-minute tax break that Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration wanted in 2015 for Mercedes-Benz workers. A state senator tacked onto it a tax break for a private college on whose board he served. When his bill came up in the final minutes of the session, supporters only said it was “good for Georgia.” It easily passed, even if not everybody knew exactly what the bill did.
“It happens all the time. It’s going to happen tomorrow,” Balfour promised Wednesday. “It’s the ripple effect you never figure out until it’s done.
“There was one legislator — I am not going to give you a name to protect the guilty — who, if he had something, we would have to look at it because you were never sure what he was sneaking through.”