Nothing typical about the politics this year at the Capitol

Staff writer Jeremy Redmon contributed to this article.


Coming Sunday

Georgia’s top transportation official expects minimal impact on traffic from a plan the General Assembly just approved to raise nearly $1 billion a year for roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

Also coming Sunday, a chart showing the outcomes for some of the most high-profile legislation proposed during the just-ended session.

The GOP-dominated Georgia Legislature raised taxes, yanked more control over local public schools and shot down “religious liberty” efforts — all while working hand in glove with Democrats.

It was not Republican business as usual in the General Assembly, which finished its work for the year this week.

There are no shortages of examples.

The biggest, and most obvious, was the passage of House Bill 170, the $900 million transportation funding plan that would increase state gasoline taxes by nearly 35 percent, add a $5-a-night tax to hotel and motel stays, and slap truckers and electric vehicle drivers with new annual fees.

Final approval of the bill came on Tuesday, the penultimate day of the 2015 session. On Wednesday, legendary North Georgia GOP activist Joe McCutchen had had enough.

“Looks to me like (the) Georgia Republican Party has left the taxpayers,” McCutchen posted on Facebook. “I have always voted Republican for smaller government and lower taxes. Now if you vote Republican, you get higher taxes and more taxes. I will be voting for very few Republican incumbents. How about you? Sad time for Georgia taxpayers.”

Republican leaders in the House and Senate, however, said the state has a transportation infrastructure “crisis,” and that the new money will allow Georgia to repair and maintain its roads and bridges. Georgia’s Republicans are not alone in doing the unthinkable — that is, raising taxes. Many red state governors and legislatures are doing the same in the search for new money for similar projects.

"Georgians expect us to do the right thing at the end of the day," Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said after the 2015 session ended just after midnight Thursday. "I think that was the right measure to pass. When they see we stepped up to the plate and addressed a need, they're going to approve of that."

The bill originally passed the House only because of votes from Democrats. In the Senate, Democrats voted en masse against the bill — only to turn around and support it on the final vote. In between, Democrats in the Senate won key concessions from Gov. Nathan Deal’s office, including scholarships for minority engineering students, more money for African-Americans and other minority road contractors, and a firmer pledge by the state Department of Transportation to help steer more business toward minority-owned firms.

"The deal got done because Senate Democrats stood together on the first vote and sent the message that we were serious," said Senate Minority Whip Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta.

Among the Capitol’s Republican majority, more than one-third of the 119 House GOPers voted against HB 170 when it first reached the floor March 5.

Many of the “no” votes came from a cadre of young, libertarian-leaning Republicans who have found their voice as as a minority-within-the-majority. It’s because of them that House leaders were forced to reach out to Democrats to make up the difference on HB 170.

The young guns showed their influence on other bills, too, including the governor’s top legislative priority: a constitutional amendment to create an Opportunity School District. If voters approve it in 2016, a new state entity under Deal’s control would be able to take over failing schools and partner with private companies to turn them into charter schools.

The constitutional amendment needed 120 votes to pass the House. It got 121, but not before one Republican lawmaker likened Deal to a dictator for driving the General Assembly’s agenda.

Their influence was felt on smaller bills, too. Senate Bill 139 passed the Senate largely along party lines, with Republicans in favor, Democrats opposed. It would bar local governments from banning retailers from using plastic bags. When it came to the House floor, mainline Republicans and a handful of Democrats supported it, but the young bucks in the GOP and most of the minority caucus banded together to defeat the legislation.

Rep. Scot Turner of Holly Springs was among the Republicans who voted to kill the bill a little more than a week ago. He, and others, said they don't support a ban on plastic bags. They just don't want the Legislature telling local governments what to do.

“If we pass this bill, we are taking a tool out of the toolbox for those local governments to deal with their own problems,” Turner said.

Kerwin Swint, the chairman of the Department of Political Science and International Affairs at Kennesaw State University, said Republican leaders are in a pickle. They both have to address the state’s needs and try to please their base.

“Eventually, even conservative Republicans have to govern,” Swint said. “And there’s going to be some tough choices they have to make.”

Not everyone is convinced.

Rep. David Stover, R-Newnan, one of those young lawmakers with a distinct distaste for deal-cutting, ripped the governor and party leaders after the vote on the transportation bill.

“Yesterday’s passage of one of Georgia’s largest tax increases is just further proof that we cannot trust or follow people that have ‘converted’ from one party to another,” he wrote on Facebook. “Governor Nathan Deal (a former Democrat) twisted arms, threatened legislation and a special session if we did not raise your taxes enough.”