The biggest naysayers in the Georgia General Assembly aren’t Democrats. Instead, they’re die-hard conservatives within the state’s Republican majority.
Seven of the 10 legislators who vote “no” most often are Republicans, according to an analysis of voting records over the past two years by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Republicans control almost two-thirds of the seats in the Georgia General Assembly, but they don’t always vote in lockstep. Some Republican lawmakers fight their own party’s leaders when it comes to votes on issues such as taxes, transportation, spending and the size of government.
Overall, Democratic legislators oppose bills about twice as often as Republicans — 12 percent to 6 percent. But taken individually, several Republicans stand out.
No one votes against more bills than state Rep. Matt Gurtler, a North Georgia Republican who opposed 40 percent of legislation. He won his primary last month even though Gov. Nathan Deal and House Speaker David Ralston campaigned against him because of his resistance to Republican priorities such as the state budget and education funding.
“People want real conservatives in the House. They know I’ll stand up and vote for what’s right and against the establishment if necessary,” said Gurtler, R-Tiger, who faces no opposition in the November election. “They spoke loudly and clearly in this election.”
Voting no can come with a cost. None of the lawmakers who most frequently oppose bills holds a committee chairmanship or much power to push his or her priorities through the legislative process.
Meanwhile, those who most often vote in favor of bills are rewarded. Republican legislators in leadership positions almost always vote yes — 97 percent of the time or more.
“You can move up the ranks really quickly if you don’t hit that red button,” said retiring state Rep. John Pezold, R-Columbus, the second-most-frequent no voter. “If voters keep sending someone back to serve at the Capitol who votes however they’re told, shame on the constituents.”
Because minority Democrats have little power in the General Assembly, their votes carry less weight. If the Republican majority sticks together, it has the votes to pass bills without Democrats’ support.
State Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Democrat who served in leadership before the party lost its majority in 2004, said principled opposition is tolerated. But outright obstruction can cross the line, he said.
“When you’re in the minority, your role is often to be in the opposition,” said Smyre, D-Columbus. “At the same time, you still have to collaborate and come together on major issues that affect quality of life.”
It’s important for Democrats to vote no based on their ideals, said state Rep. Park Cannon, who voted against bills 21 percent of the time, the fifth-highest rate in the Legislature.
For example, Cannon said she couldn’t support a bill to allow alcohol service before noon on Sundays because it could mean longer hours for lowly paid servers who survive on tips.
“Somebody had to vote no and stand up for workers’ rights,” said Cannon, D-Atlanta. “It’s in situations like these that I’m proud to be a Democrat who votes no in a political sphere where those in power would prefer a unanimous vote.”
Unlike in Congress, where the conservative House Freedom Caucus negotiates with other Republicans before voting on bills, the dissenters in Georgia don’t hold as much sway, said state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus. The agenda in Georgia is set by Deal, Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who serves as the president of the state Senate.
“It’s comparing apples and oranges to compare what happens in Washington with what happens at the Georgia Capitol,” said McKoon, who ranks seventh for voting no. “Of course there’s pressure always, especially when you’re in the majority because you have to govern.”
Republican leaders understand that representatives must cast votes that reflect their conscience and the viewpoints of their voters, said House Majority Leader Jon Burns, R-Newington.
Still, Burns said House Republicans should be united in their vision for Georgia.
“Personally, I don’t see a reason why a Republican member of the House would oppose fully funding k-12 education, providing lifesaving insurance coverage to firefighters or strengthening our rural communities,” said Burns, who votes yes 99 percent of the time. “Such opposition runs counter to our values.”
Legislators’ first responsibility is to represent their very different districts, said state Rep. Scot Turner, the ninth-highest no-voter. Republicans from the most conservative parts of the state are more likely to oppose bills than those in more moderate Atlanta-area districts.
“It doesn’t take a whole lot for somebody to lose their seat if they’re not voting their district,” said Turner, R-Holly Springs.