When the confetti flew early Friday in the ornate chambers of Georgia’s House and Senate to mark the end of another legislative session, the celebratory atmosphere masked an unspoken sentiment: Not a whole lot got done this year.
To be fair, dozens of bills passed and made their way to Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk. Among them: the annual state budget. A plan to expand the state’s medical marijuana program also overcame obstacles to pass on Thursday’s final day. And lawmakers adopted rules to allow firearms on college campuses.
But the budget is the one thing lawmakers are required to do. Medical marijuana and gun bills are perennial favorites at the Gold Dome.
Where were the big, bold initiatives that typically define legislative sessions in odd-numbered years, when lawmakers don’t face voters and often tackle major policy changes? Think transportation funding in 2015, ethics in 2013, immigration in 2011, transportation governance in 2009.
“We were disappointed in missed opportunities,” said Kelly McCutchen, the president of the conservative Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
While pleased with the success of a charter school bill and a few health care bills, McCutchen said the long-promised attempt to revise how the state funds public schools never materialized and efforts to improve school choice were few.
There were major policy bills introduced this year. One, to allow the state to sanction low-performing school districts that refuse to implement turnaround plans, actually passed. But even that was a watered-down version of Deal’s original vision. From casino gambling to the first update of the state’s adoption laws in a generation, most weighty bills stalled or barely got out of the gate.
The reasons are many. There are only 40 days in the Legislature’s annual session, and in the first year of a two-year session both chambers have organizational duties at the beginning that take several days if not weeks.
But there are also self-imposed obstacles and personality clashes that leave agendas in ashes as tempers flare. Throw into that mix Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s expected 2018 gubernatorial bid and the possibility House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, joins him as a candidate and you have a stew of tension that does not mix well with the legislative process.
Conflict between the House and Senate will always exist. McCutchen, of the Public Policy Foundation, remembered when then-Lt. Gov. Zell Miller and then-Speaker Tom Murphy, D-Bremen, clashed over Miller’s plan to create a state lottery. Miller called the House “Murphy’s Mausoleum,” or the place bills go to die.
The barbs thrown this session and the general animosity emanating from both chambers seemed worse than any session since 2008, when then-Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, challenged Cagle to “be a man” and publicly called on voters to elect a new lieutenant governor. For his part, Cagle accused Richardson of being “blinded by ego and unwilling to come to an agreement” on a tax plan.
“The inability to work together seems to have gotten worse these last few years,” McCutchen said.
“We had fewer bills than other sessions in the last 10 years, and yet we’re still here past midnight and some of the most major issues of this state were handled with little debate in a hurried and unprofessional manner,” said Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker.
It wasn’t just Democrats lamenting the session’s end.
“Sometimes you’ve got to try, and we tried,” Ralston told reporters moments after he gaveled the House to adjournment early Friday. “I think we’ve had a good session. It had a disappointing finish, obviously.”
Ralston’s disappointment stemmed from the Senate’s failure to act on the adoption bill, a measure that became the House’s top — and really only — priority after passing the state budget bill in record time.
State Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, has spent past two years quietly crafting a bill designed to speed the adoption process, give judges more flexibility in determining custody, streamline the path for foreign adoptions, and more.
It seemed noncontroversial, and it was until the Senate Judiciary Committee added language that would have allowed private adoption agencies that receive state money to refuse service to anyone the agency believes conflicts with “the mission of such child-placing agency or organization as evidenced by its written policy, statement, or other document.”
Critics, including the state’s top business organizations, LGBT activists, Deal and Ralston, interpreted that to mean an adoption agency could refuse to place a child with a gay family. The fight was on.
Senators refused to budge, but they also did not advance the bill. An angry House began to stall Senate leaders’ top priorities and then actually voted down one, Senate Bill 1, Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert’s attempt to strengthen and broaden state domestic terrorism laws. (A different version of SB 1 later passed.)
A last-minute effort in the Senate early Friday to pass the original version of the adoption bill failed on a procedural motion.
“We’ve worked with our leadership,” said state Sen. Bill Ligon, R-Brunswick, who led the effort to add the controversial amendment. “And there was a consensus it needed more time. I think it’s proper for the Senate to be able to have that time to look at it and have its input. I mean, we are one-half of the Legislature.”
House members weren’t buying it. State Rep. Trey Kelley, R-Cedartown, said the House went along with the Senate’s decision to move Crossover Day, the general deadline for a bill to move from one chamber to the other, from the 30th day of session to the 28th to give each chamber more time to consider bills from its counterpart.
And, he said, the House “stayed an hour past midnight (Thursday) hoping the Senate would do the right thing.”
“Unfortunately for Georgia children,” Kelley said, “they didn’t.”
Seconds after the bill died in the Senate, Cagle picked up a phone and called Ralston. The two spoke for maybe 10 seconds, and moments later the session was over.
Ralston would not divulge what the two said to each other but ended the long last day of the session with an olive branch to Cagle, his potential rival for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.
“He and I are friends,” Ralston said. “I respect him.”
Still, he added, “”I feel disappointed.”
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