Georgia legislators often exempt themselves in writing laws for others

The push to let Georgians carry guns on college campuses is seen by some as only the latest example of state lawmakers backing legislation that they may not want applied to themselves.

The statehouse — which has metal detectors, limited entry points and armed guards — is one of the places Georgians with carry licenses can’t bring their guns.

Local governments and state agencies have to abide by government transparency laws, but legislators long ago exempted themselves from the Open Records Act.

Legislative leaders said the state shouldn’t have to provide health insurance to part-time school bus drivers and cafeteria workers. But part-time lawmakers are eligible to sign up for the State Health Benefit Plan and stay on it even after they quit or are defeated, even if they get high-paying gigs lobbying their former colleagues.

Lawyer-legislators have been heavily criticized for using the state’s “legislative leave” law to get court cases delayed, sometimes for years, by claiming they are too busy with their duties to go to court. Lawmakers in the insurance industry and legal profession are exempted from mandatory continuing education. And state law has, for more than 200 years, prohibited lawmakers from being arrested during sessions of the General Assembly or its committees, or while lawmakers are traveling to either one.

So it’s not surprising that some lawmakers consider it hypocritical for the General Assembly to consider allowing Georgians to carry guns on campuses — just as it has allowed guns in recent years in bars and churches — while continuing to exempt where they work.

“It’s troubling to see, again and again, legislative leadership writing the Legislature out of the law, creating loopholes,” said state Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta. “The gun policy is a good example of that. That is an effort to throw the doors open to guns everywhere, and somehow the Capitol is sacrosanct.

“My granny always said what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

Not all gun rights advocates oppose the idea of having a more heavily armed Capitol.

State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, said, “It wouldn’t bother me if they allowed permit-holders to carry here.”

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, has come out for the campus carry bill, saying he supports efforts to “preserve Georgians’ Second Amendment rights.”

He cited recent robberies at Georgia State University’s library as an example of why the law is needed. In a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he defended the gun-carry exemption for the statehouse.

“Our state Capitol and other state government office buildings have the necessary screening and security measures to maintain a secure environment thanks to our capable Georgia State Patrol and Capitol Police,” Ralston said. “While some may seek to draw parallels between the state Capitol and university facilities, those are two distinctly different security environments.”

But John Monroe, a lawyer and vice president of GeorgiaCarry, a leading gun rights organization, said Georgians should “definitely” be able to carry guns at the statehouse. He said his group has tried to get Capitol carry in the past “and no doubt will continue to try.”

House Bill 859, filed late last month, would allow anyone 21 or older with a weapons license to carry a gun anywhere on a public college or university campus, except for in dormitories, fraternities and sorority houses, and at athletic events.

It comes two years after the House voted for campus carry, only to have the Senate strip that language from the final version of a bill that became known as the "Guns Everywhere Bill." That bill signed into law allowed weapons to be carried into many government buildings, bars and restaurants, athletic events and more.

‘It’s just the way it is’

Some Republicans said they wouldn’t be surprised if Democrats who support gun control bring up the General Assembly’s unwillingness to allow guns to be carried at the Capitol.

“I don’t know if it’s hypocritical. It’s just the way it is,” said state Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, a longtime gun rights advocate in the General Assembly. “What’s the difference between here and a courtroom?”

Georgians can’t carry guns in courthouses.

But Powell said people who have undergone background checks and have licenses to carry guns should be able to have them at the statehouse.

“We’ve not seen anyone who has gone through that process who caused a problem,” he said.

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, who has sponsored legislation to ban AK-47s and similar weapons, large-capacity magazines and armor-piercing bullets, doesn't want to see the carry law expanded.

“Guns do not belong in government buildings,” she said.

But she added that campus carry fits a pattern of lawmakers considering laws while exempting themselves from the potential consequences.

“Legislators are like every other interest group, every other lobbying group in Georgia,” she said. “They think of themselves first.”

‘Why are we different?’

Ralston’s statement did not directly respond to the bigger question of why laws treat legislators differently, and several lawmakers struggled with that broader issue.

“Why are we different?” House Judiciary Chairman Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, said, anticipating a reporter’s question. That’s not easily answered, he said.

“I personally find I am here as a layman legislator representing the people of my district who I stand equal with and am in no way superior,” said Willard, who has served in the House since 2001.

Danette Corcoran, a Fayette County school bus driver, doesn’t like the idea of lawmakers getting special treatment.

“They are servants of the state,” she said. “The mind-set is that we put them up on a pedestal, and I don’t like that. They should not be above anybody else.”

Lawmakers such as Willard find it easier to defend individual cases, such as the General Assembly’s exemption from the Open Records Act.

Lawmakers have always said they don’t want correspondence made public that contains sensitive information from constituents. But that also means lawmakers don’t have to disclose any contact that they have with lobbyists or other special interest wanting legislation or state funding. Even the governor typically releases such contacts if the information is requested.

In the past, when reporters asked the state fiscal office to review records showing how lawmakers spend their taxpayer-funded expense allowance, they were reminded that legislators aren’t subject to the Open Records Act. The fiscal office allowed access to the records, but the message was clear: It didn’t have to provide the information. A few years ago when the AJC asked for details about how the Senate and House spend the $40 million it is allocated annually to run the General Assembly’s operation, the leaders of both chambers were reluctant to provide any level of detail.

Another example of special treatment came up last year, when Gov. Nathan Deal sought to remove part-time school bus drivers and cafeteria workers from the State Health Benefits Plan. Deal, and some legislative leaders, argued that part-time state workers weren't allowed to get SHBP health coverage.

However, the AJC reported that part-time state lawmakers, and former lawmakers, received the coverage.

Protests from teachers, bus drivers and others helped persuade lawmakers to allow part-time school staffers to remain on the benefits plan, but they sent local districts a $100 million bill to pay for the coverage.

‘Only way’ to pass some legislation

A decade ago Oliver co-sponsored a proposed constitutional amendment to eliminate the provision that prohibits lawmakers from being arrested during a session of the General Assembly or committee meetings, or traveling to and from either.

The issue arose when state Rep. David Graves, the chairman of the House committee that oversees regulation of the liquor industry, sought to use the immunity provision in the state constitution in 2005 to avoid DUI prosecution. Graves had two pending DUI cases in Cobb County.

A judge rejected his claim of immunity, and he was convicted of one DUI charge and pleaded guilty to another.

Willard said: “If we as legislators break local laws, speeding, DUI, by golly, we are going to be subject to arrest. The purpose of the law has probably outlived its time, but nobody has taken action to remove it.”

Oliver’s proposed constitutional amendment to end the immunity never made it out of a committee Ralston led as chairman.

Ralston has been battling a state bar complaint from a client accusing him, among other things, of using “legislative leave” provisions to postpone his court case for several years. State lawmakers may claim legislative leave to have court cases postponed when their duties as lawmakers require them to be elsewhere.

Other lawyer-legislators have faced criticism for using the provision.

Neill Herring, who has lobbied for environmental causes at the Capitol for decades, said there is a simple reason legislators cut themselves out of some laws: It makes bills easier to pass.

“They approve a lot of measures that apply to everybody but themselves because that’s the only way they can pass those measures,” Herring said.

But Oliver sees it as an example of lawmakers seeking special treatment.

“In reality, I don’t want special privilege and the voters don’t think we deserve special privileges,” Oliver said, “and they are right.”