Caught in the furor of election-year politics and a national gun debate, Georgia lawmakers seemed poised for a do-nothing legislative session.
With every legislative seat up for election this fall, and several legislators running for higher office, lawmakers could have avoided tough debates over distracted driving, transit, taxing online sales, culture wars and education funding.
Instead of inaction, lawmakers had a banner year of sorts.
That gave legislators something to take to the campaign trail.
“If you can’t get re-elected on the things we did this year, you probably don’t need to be here in the first place,” Gov. Nathan Deal said Thursday in a speech to the Senate in the final hours of the legislative session.
A highly charged political fight between Delta Air Lines and the National Rifle Association that cost the airline a $40 million tax break drew national headlines as Georgia officials were trying to attract Amazon’s second headquarters.
But a month later, lawmakers were leaving the Gold Dome touting their successes.
Shortly after slamming the gavel to mark the end of this year’s session, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle called the year a “very solid ‘A’ session.”
“When you look at the things that were able to be accomplished, it was very historic,” he said, pointing to measures including the income tax cut and funding the Quality Basic Education formula.
All this was accomplished with a backdrop of large rallies at the statehouse urging lawmakers to enact broader gun background checks, ban bump stocks that turn weapons into machine guns and keep firearms from the mentally ill.
Gun control advocates were motivated by the Valentine’s Day shooting at a south Florida high school that killed 17 people.
Lawmakers largely ignored the call for change.
But on other subjects, the session’s productivity was a turnaround from last year, when lawmakers and lobbyists alike lamented how little was accomplished.
The 2017 legislative session ended in frustration when the House and Senate couldn’t agree on something that didn’t have to be a hot-button issue: finding homes for adoptive children. Both chambers fumed in the early-morning hours, having fallen far short of their goals.
Some bills catering to the bases of the Republican and Democratic parties failed to advance.
Hot-button proposals that fell short included allowing religious adoption agencies to deny gay couples, instituting gun controls, making English the official state language, increasing immigration enforcement, expanding Medicaid and reducing voting opportunities.
“You can look at this session and say there were things accomplished,” said state Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta. “There was progress made in some arenas. The big missing piece of the puzzle is failing to provide all our Georgians with a pathway to coverage and health access.”
But by the end of the session, most legislators went home happy with accomplishments to brag about as they run again for office.
Metro Atlanta lawmakers can talk about how, for the first time, the region will plan public transportation across 13 counties rather than the two counties currently served by MARTA. And rural legislators can point to bills that laid the groundwork for future government funding to pay for a broad expansion of high-speed internet to areas that lack online access.
Everyone will take credit for income tax cuts and increased school funding. Lawmakers approved lowering the state’s top income tax rate from 6 percent to 5.5 percent and fully funded the state’s portion of its public education formula for the first time in at least 16 years.
“There was a lot of anxiety at the beginning that this would be a disastrous session, that electoral politics would destroy everything,” said state Rep. Buzz Brockway, R-Lawrenceville, who is running for secretary of state.
“But we can get things done,” he said. “It’s amazing. We’re in a great position. Amazon is still considering us. Other companies are still considering us.”
Despite the legislative accomplishments, Georgia’s business-friendly reputation took a hit.
Cagle led the charge to pull a $40 million tax break from Delta when it dropped a discount for members of the National Rifle Association — just as the state was trying to put its best foot forward to recruit Amazon’s second headquarters.
The impact of the Delta-NRA flap was overblown in retrospect, said state Rep. Miriam Paris, D-Macon. If Amazon chooses to move into Georgia, it will still receive more than $1 billion in tax incentives.
“Georgia has won the best state to do business five years in a row for a particular reason,” Paris said. “We built that reputation. If you come here, we’re going to give you a gift.”
Still, the episode with Delta and the NRA was “a black-eye for the state,” said state House Minority Leader Bob Trammell.
The message it sent to businesses was that Georgia politicians would discriminate against major companies based on their viewpoints, he said.
“The session will be remembered for those days, and that will cast a shadow on what happened here,” said Trammell, D-Luthersville. “Frankly, that’s not putting our best foot forward. On that score we could have done a better job.”
The legislative session immediately gives way to campaign season, with just six weeks until the primary.
No matter who wins in November’s general elections, the state’s leadership will be transformed.
Sitting elected officials running for governor include Cagle; Secretary of State Brian Kemp and state Sen. Michael Williams, R-Cumming. Several legislators are also running for higher office: state Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth;state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus; and state Rep. Brad Raffensperger, R-Johns Creek.
It’s not unusual for lawmakers to rush through legislative sessions in election years, avoiding tough votes and looking forward to returning home to run for office.
This year, by taking action on bills that enjoyed broad support but took political willpower to pass, legislators ended the session feeling good about what they accomplished.
“For what was supposed to be a nonsession, it has been pretty productive,” said state Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody. “A lot of this stuff was done on a bipartisan basis. We’re not Washington, D.C. — we probably agree on about 80 percent of what we do down here.”
When the clock struck midnight Thursday to conclude the legislative session, freshman state Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick said she was surprised that bills like the ban on talking on a phone while driving got through.
“I had no idea that it was going to be the way it has played out,” said Kirkpatrick, R-Marietta. “There was a lot of angst about it in some quarters about taking people’s ability to choose what they want to do in their car, but we’ve been there with seat belts and motorcycle helmets. This is something that I’m pretty sure is going to save lives.”
Other than the dust-up between Cagle and Delta, lawmakers say they believe the opportunity to snag Amazon’s second headquarters kept them on their best behavior.
Freshman state Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, said during an election year, lawmakers tend to feel a “little more unleashed” to catch the attention of voters back home.
“With Amazon in the background, that served as a little bit of a pause for folks,” she said. “Even if it was maybe just a general conversation behind closed doors to say, ‘Do you really think that’s the best idea? Do you really want to be the person that the late-night talk show hosts say caused the state of Georgia to lose out on one of the largest potential economic opportunities that they’ve had in years?’ ”
Senate President Pro Tempore Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said he feels the chamber made a concerted effort to stay on track, despite the occasional pointed floor speech or amendment from colleagues running for higher office.
“We had to be careful that we focused on policy,” he said. “There were some distractions in both chambers. … I think we demonstrated that we were not going to be slowed by petty politics.”
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