Legislature spends millions as midnight strikes

Legislature once again commits millions of taxpayer dollars in the waning moments of 2015 session. Some lawmakers decry last-minute power plays that leave them no time to vet major spending proposals.
Gov. Nathan Deal was on hand to announce the new Mercedes-Benz headquarters in Sandy Springs in February and pushed through a special tax break for company employees in the final hours of the 2015 legislative session. BEN GRAY / BGRAY@AJC.COM

Gov. Nathan Deal was on hand to announce the new Mercedes-Benz headquarters in Sandy Springs in February and pushed through a special tax break for company employees in the final hours of the 2015 legislative session. BEN GRAY / BGRAY@AJC.COM

In the hours before a final budget agreement was reached last week, Gov. Nathan Deal wrote House and Senate negotiators that the state had an extra $45.8 million to spend.

And oh, by the way, he knew exactly how they should spend it.

The governor outlined 15 items he wanted added to the budget, including increasing the size (and future cost) of the state Court of Appeals, putting more into the state’s fund to attract businesses, extra money to pay off construction debt, increased payments to Medicaid doctors, and extra cash for school programs and state agencies.

That didn’t include the $17 million tacked on to create a training facility for big companies in Savannah and $10 million to relocate a technical college campus in Deal’s home county.

And it didn’t include the tax break he wanted for Mercedes-Benz executives and headquarters staffers that most lawmakers didn’t find out about until The Atlanta Journal-Constitution broke the news online during the final hours of the 2015 session.

Such last-minute add-ons and closed-door agreements, like the surprise introduction of a new hotel-motel tax contained in the transportation funding bill, are part of a legislative power play that many lawmakers say they’d like to see end. The historical record of the Georgia General Assembly is littered with examples of eleventh-hour legislation that is later repealed, overturned or led to unforeseen consequences.

But when it came down to crunch time last week, the deals were flying fast and furious. And in a few cases, chamber leaders tried to work around the rules they’d put in place to avoid the legislative shenanigans that have been common at the statehouse for decades.

Some newer members were steamed by their leaders’ decision to shove through the tax break for Mercedes workers and a private college around midnight on the final night of the session Thursday. One, Rep. John Pezold, R-Forston, turned to the press gallery and mouthed “for shame.”

Other legislative veterans would like to see the last-minute follies change.

“Cramming in hundreds of bills in the waning days and hours of the session is part of a very deliberate plan because it’s the way to get things passed that would not likely survive scrutiny from the Legislature and the public,” said longtime Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, who saw the same things happen when Democrats ran the statehouse more than a decade ago.

“It takes advantage of the process. The process can be manipulated to slide things through. It’s been done, sadly, for far too long.”

‘We do things kind of quickly around here’

Senate Judiciary Chairman Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, has tried to get colleagues to approve rules to slow down the process, including one giving senators a day to read the final legislative agreements they vote on near the end of a session. The Senate this year approved a rule forcing bills to be on the desk of a senator for two hours before they can be up for a vote.

However, Senate leaders tried to circumvent that rule in the final minutes of the session, pushing to waive it so they could pass the tax break for Mercedes-Benz. After losing two votes to waive the rule, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle allowed supporters to begin presenting the bill before the two-hour limit was up, just before midnight.

Sen. Bruce Thompson, R-White, who led the negotiations on the bill, explained how House Bill 202 involved the property tax assessment, appraisal and appeals system. He didn’t mention it included a tax break of up to $350,000 for Truett-McConnell College, a private Baptist school in Cleveland, Ga. Thompson’s official Senate biography says he is a trustee on the school’s board.

The official General Assembly website said Friday that the Senate approved the bill at 11:59 p.m., even though reporters documented — using their iPhones — that the vote didn’t take place for at least another five minutes. Typically, the Legislature ends by midnight of the last day so as not to exceed the constitutionally mandated 40-day session.

By the time the Senate finished, House leaders had already rammed it through their chamber over the objections of some members, and House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, had adjourned the body for the year.

Freshman Rep. Heath Clark, R-Warner Robins, went to the front of the chamber to complain about the quick last-minute vote. House photos showed Ralston’s attorney then getting in Clark’s face as he tried to return to his seat.

Rep. Scot Turner, R-Holly Springs, who voted against the tax breaks, said Friday, “All I can say is that the last 20 minutes of the session left a sour taste in my mouth.”

Ralston defended how the deal went down.

“Well, most of those provisions have been discussed,” Ralston said. “We have a provision that allows the conference committee reports to be on the table for a period of time before we take them up. And they’ve gone through, most of them have gone through the committee process.

“You know we do things kind of quickly around here sometimes. We’re citizen-legislators, we’re limited to 40 days. I don’t think the people of Georgia want us to be here any longer than that. We could stay here all year probably like Washington but they don’t seem to do much better vetting things sometimes.

“On most things, I think we did take our time and get it right.”

Former Sen. George Hooks, a legislative historian and lobbyist, isn’t surprised by the last-minute bill-crammings because he’s been seeing it since the 1980s. A few leaders get in a room and make the big decisions and colleagues are expected to ratify them.

“It’s easier to work with six conferees and the governor (making deals) than it is with the whole Legislature,” said Hooks, former longtime Senate Appropriations chairman.

He said the fact that Deal came to leaders with a laundry list of new spending was pretty much the way it’s long been done.

“What we would do is when we finish (the budget), in the final days or hours, we would always clear it with the governor’s Office of Planning and Budget and they would say, the governor wants this, that or the other,” Hooks said.

Sometimes they want money for issues that just crop up. Sometimes, as in the case of the $1.5 million to increase the size of the Court of Appeals, a governor will decide to include his own fix to a long-running problem — in this case, a heavy court caseload.

Like the last-minute tax breaks, or the $1 billion transportation plan, much of it never gets fully vetted by the General Assembly and its committees. It gets handed to rank-and-file members at the end of the session as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

“It’s the traditional way the Legislature has done things,” Hooks said.

McKoon said, “A responsible public policy process does not look like what we have.”

A legacy of hurried mistakes

Lawmakers consider hundreds of bills in the final few days, some looking nothing like the legislation they reviewed in committee meetings weeks earlier.

The final days of any session are 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. It can also lead to some questionable law-making.

Late in 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 specialists 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 physicians’ 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 — haunted 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. 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.

With two hours remaining in the 2012 session, 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. After an AJC reporter found out about it and posted it on social media, good-government lobbyists and political bloggers picked up on it, and the House killed the measure.

In 2013, after months of debate, House and Senate leaders brokered an agreement on ethics reform and gave lawmakers little time to review it before the vote. Afterward, several unanswered questions about what they did cropped up. The state ethics commission is still working on rules governing provisions in the law two years later.

When Deal and budget negotiators gave lawmakers a budget deal near the end of the 2014 session, it included a new, $17 million bond item. This is how it read: “Provide $17,000,000 in 20-year bonds for design and construction for structured parking facilities, Atlanta, Fulton County.”

It was the first of two bond additions for a controversial parking deck near the new Atlanta Falcons stadium, courtesy of the taxpayers.

Negotiators also last year approved a $26 million add-on to provide extra money to select nursing home operators. When the AJC reported on it over the summer and the Department of Community Health board balked at the payouts, the add-on stalled. But the governor included the money for the politically-connected industry in next year’s budget, and it passed in the open this year.

McKoon hopes what happened at the end of the session this year, particularly on the massive transportation funding bill, will help him win support in 2016 for a rule giving lawmakers 24 hours to look at final legislation before they vote.

“Legislators ought to be able to read and understand what they are voting on,” he said. “The Legislature deserves it, but more importantly, the public deserves it.”