Last-minute lawmaking: don’t read, just vote

Follow the progress of every bill with the AJC’s bill-tracking tool, which includes the odds of each bill’s passage. Try it at and get complete daily coverage at

Crossover Day

The Legislature reaches its fateful Crossover Day on Monday, the day on which a bill dies for the session if it hasn’t passed at least one house. After Crossover Day, xx days remain until the expected end of the session, March 20.

Two hours remained in the 2012 legislative session when the Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill shielding the identities of people applying for hunting or fishing licenses.

What the Senate sponsor didn’t mention was that legislative leaders had also reshaped the bill to seal the records of some ethics cases against politicians. On a raucous Senate floor crowded with lawmakers, family members, friends and staffers, few were even listening to the senator describing the measure.

Within minutes of the Senate vote, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter found out about the changes and posted what happened on Twitter and Facebook; good-government lobbyists and political bloggers picked up on it, and the House killed the measure.

Still, it was a classic example of the frantic last-minute deal-making that has long prevailed in the General Assembly, a system in which procrastination and negotiation turn cobbled-together phrases into legislation in the final hours. The practice means that only a select few know what’s in some of the most important bills of the session, while the vast majority of legislators have little time to read or understand what they are voting on.

On the final day of the 2013 session, senators voted on more than 100 bills totaling more than 1,000 pages. In the final two hours, they considered 40 bills, or one every three minutes.

Some legislative leaders have made it clear they plan to keep it that way this session, which is scheduled to end March 20.

The Senate Rules Committee shot down a proposal last month to give lawmakers a day to read conference committee reports — final versions of bills negotiated by three House and three Senate members before they vote on them.

‘Difficult to justify the current system’

Senate Judiciary Chairman Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, also wants the public to get greater access to changed bills; recorded votes on all bills; and a requirement that the Legislature pass a state budget first each session.

But nothing hits at the untidy customs of the final few days of each session like his resolution to give lawmakers 24 hours to review conference committee reports before voting. More than a dozen states require at least 24 hours, McKoon said. In Georgia, lawmakers get an hour, and even then it’s often when their desks are covered with other last-minute bills.

“For policymakers, if we are going to be enacting the laws of the state, we ought to have a pretty good idea of what we are voting to approve,” said McKoon, a senator who enjoys little support among statehouse traditionalists. “Right now, I don’t think anybody can look you in the eye and tell you, on the last day, that they have read and understood everything they have been voting on. … It is just difficult to justify the current system.”

Senate leaders respond to McKoon’s proposal by saying that they can’t unilaterally pass such a rule if the House doesn’t go along with the idea.

And Senate Majority Leader Ronnie Chance, R-Tyrone, a member of the committee that rejected McKoon’s proposal, argued that approving a 24-hour rule could doom legislation — including the budget — if a bill contains typographical errors or has other flaws that need last-minute fixes. In the case of the budget — which the Georgia Constitution mandates lawmakers pass — it could force lawmakers to come back for a a costly special session.

“If I as a legislator am interested in a certain bill, I am going to make sure I go through the conference committee report and read it,” Chance said. “The concern that a bill is going to be hijacked and put into a conference committee report …. that’s pretty easy to spot.”

And lobbyist Jerry Keen, a former House leader, said the problem may be overblown.

“I know there are times there where you think, ‘Wow, how did that get in there?’ But that has been the exception,” Keen said.

'Best advice I give out is caveat emptor'

Still, those instances have happened frequently enough over the years to raise questions about the last few days, a time when weeks of calculated stalling lead to legislative all-nighters and last-minute frenetic activity amid the increasingly loud, crowded chaos of the Capitol’s third floor.

In the final hours of the 1991 session, the Legislature passed a measure effectively outlawing the sale of low-cost replacement contact lenses through drug stores and discount pharmacies that get them from mail-order firms. The law said that only licensed eye specialist could sell replacement lenses. After a storm of consumer protests, the 1992 Legislature reversed it and allowed consumers to buy the lenses through pharmacies.

The next year, the General Assembly approved a bill at the last minute that included an amendment pushed by the doctors lobby that was written so broadly that it made it a felony for nurses to give injections or for diabetics to give themselves shots. A judge threw out that section of the law a few months later.

Legislation that quietly passed in the final hours of the second-to-last day of the 2005 session — a measure that helped Gov. Sonny Perdue defer state taxes on land he sold — became a campaign issue in the governor’s re-election campaign the next year.

In 2009, as the Great Recession was hitting the state, lawmakers tacked a huge capital-gains tax cut onto a jobs bill on the final day and easily passed the measure. Capital gains are profits from the sale of stocks, bonds and other investments. Perdue vetoed the bill, saying the state couldn’t afford to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

Chuck Clay, a former senator turned lobbyist, said some of the last minute changes “are accidental, some of it is intentional.”

“The best advice I give out is caveat emptor — buyer beware. And be very careful when you are scrutinizing these conference committee reports and somebody is presenting them that you have some sense of whether there is another agenda here,” Clay said.

‘Human nature doesn’t change’

Steve Anthony, a former top House aide who now teaches politics at Georgia State University, said some lawmakers have to take part of the blame because they simply don’t read the bills.”They don’t read what’s filed on the fifth day of the session, let alone the 40th. They didn’t read them then, they don’t read them now, they won’t read them tomorrow,” he said.

Those members, he added, look to how their friends in the General Assembly or their party’s leadership come down on a bill to figure out how to vote.

But Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, who first joined the General Assembly in 1987, said it’s not just a question of lawmakers refusing to read the bills on Day 40, the final day of the session.

“It is not practical or realistic to think that members of the General Assembly, even those following bills closely, can absorb the number of conference committee reports placed on the desks on Day 40,” she said. “With the volume of reports, the density and the timing, it is not physically possible to read and absorb laws we are finalizing.”

Part of the problem is the planned procrastination of each legislative session. When lawmakers want to pass something quickly, they can do it in a few days. Or, in the case of last-minute legislation tacked on to someone else’s bill, within a few hours.

But in most cases, lawmakers deliberate for weeks or months on bills, holding some “hostage” for trades or collecting support to assure passage.

“Human nature doesn’t change, from term papers to legislation,” Clay said. “You give me another week to turn it in, I’ll take it.”

‘Never introduced, never discussed’

Bills that stall for two months are amended onto other, more innocuous bills, known in legislative parlance as “vehicles.” One innocent-sounding tax bill is frequently decorated with several other special-interest tax cuts and becomes what lawmakers and lobbyists call a “Christmas tree.”

Sometimes proposals that were barely mentioned during the session suddenly pop up on the final day and zoom through the chambers. Some lobbyists are considered specialists at such last-minute deals.

Oliver said in some cases, legislation that has “never been introduced, never been in a committee and never been discussed publicly” gets tacked onto bills and becomes law, sometimes added by lawmakers in secret.

“There are many instances where laws could be offered only in secret when reasonable people know they could never be passed in public,” she said. “There are a few people who will try to do that. It doesn’t have to be many to create a bad result.”

Oliver said in some cases, legislation that has “never been introduced, never been in a committee and never been discussed publicly” get tacked onto bills and become law, sometimes added by lawmakers in secret.

“There are many instances where laws could be offered only in secret when reasonable people know they could never be passed in public,” she said. “There are a few people who will try to do that. It doesn’t have to be many to create a bad result.”

To McKoon, the problem with last-minute legislation came to a head last year when, on the final day of the session, legislative leaders stitched together an ethics package in overnight meetings. McKoon was unhappy about the way the bill was put together. As the AJC reported, the bill — designed to limit lobbyist spending on lawmakers — contained numerous loopholes.

“It hit our desks at 9:07 p.m. and we voted at 10:15 p.m.,” he said. “To have 68 minutes to try and read and understand all of the changes was absurd. The idea that a bill having to do with open and transparent government was cobbled together in the middle of the night in a secret meeting, and then we have an hour to understand it and vote on it, is the perfect illustration of what is wrong with our system.”