Musical Selections From Senate Rules Meetings

Rules panels take stage as finale nears

With AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” blaring from the speakers, Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis entered the Georgia statehouse committee room to handshakes and hugs, a heavyweight champion entering his very powerful legislative ring.

Monday was the last chance to get on the Senate voting calendar of bills for consideration this year, and the smiling Mullis was the star of the show with lawmakers, lobbyists and even the governor’s top staff in attendance to see who made his committee’s final cut.

“Welcome to the last and final Rules Committee meeting,” Mullis told the crowd. “We have 105 bills to consider. You know, not every one is going to make it.”

Most did. Almost two hours later, the show was over, and more than 80 bills were picked to make the Senate floor Tuesday and Thursday, the final two days of this year’s legislative session.

Lengthy late-session meetings of the committees that decide what makes it to the House and Senate floors — complete with groveling lawmakers and overcaffeinated lobbyists — are as much a legislative tradition as the start of the session’s Wild Hog Supper and last-minute special-interest tax breaks.

Many of the most controversial bills — including the upcoming year’s state budget — are held for action until the end of the session. So are many routine bills. Months of planned procrastination lead to legislative horse-trading that goes down to the final hours.

Bills that make the chambers’ calendars don’t always get a vote before the session ends, and many of the final measures will be worked out in backroom negotiations before winning approval late Thursday.

Still, the House and Senate Rules committees become increasingly important in the final days, and both held meetings Monday. The difference is the Senate probably won’t have any more get-togethers, so the area around the meeting room was a mob scene.

Some had shown up an hour or two early in hopes of getting a seat before state troopers determined the room could hold no more. Dozens of activists, lobbyists and reporters crowded the halls outside, watching on two television screens as the meeting they’d been kept from attending progressed.

Mullis’ opening music was the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” House members were desperately hoping to get some Monday.

Next came AC/DC, and after being announced, Mullis, a Republican from Chickamauga, entered from the back of the room, waving to the crowd and wading through House members hoping to win his — and his committee’s — favor.

Sen. Bill Jackson, R-Appling, a member of the committee, opened the meeting with a prayer, describing the House supplicants as having “come with bills they think are the most important things in the world.”

House members tried humor, friendly greetings and flattery to win over Mullis and members of his committee.

“I still think the South would have won at (the battle of) Chickamauga if you had been in charge,” said Rep. Tom Rice, R-Norcross.

Rice got little reaction, although one of his bills made the cut.

A few senators were given the first shot. First up was Sen. Tyler Harper, R-Ocilla, who asked colleagues to consider House Bill 423. “This is the raccoon bill,” he said.

The legislation would allow raccoons to be used in sanctioned dog trials. “This does not kill the raccoon, it does not torture the raccoon,” Harper assured committee members. No sale. It didn’t make the cut.

Rep. Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, talked up one of his bills as something that couldn’t wait until next year. That drew a response from Mullis. “Are you taping a commercial?” Mullis asked. Lindsey, after all, is running for the U.S. Congress this year. He made the cut.

Rep. Greg Morris, R-Vidalia, asked the committee to put House Bill 772 on the calendar. He didn’t bother telling the panel what the bill did — it would require drug testing for food stamp recipients. He didn’t have to. The chairman put it on the calendar.

Meanwhile, outside the committee room, lobbyists and regular citizens complained about the sound (nevermind that many of the lawmakers making pitches for their bills did not bother to use the room’s microphones). They shuffled side to side lost in their smartphones and weaved in and out of a standing-room-only crowd that swamped the open-air hallway and pushed around the corners onto the House’s side of the Capitol.

Although the technology exists and is already used by the House, the Senate still refuses to broadcast its committee meetings. In order to know what’s going on, you have to show up in person. Even if there’s no room.

And it’s not just the public or paid lobbyists who struggle with that restriction. Disgruntled lawmakers who had squeezed into the room only to see bills they opposed getting a favorable response from committee members were quick to bend the ear of their allies: “It’s like putting a tutu on a pig,” one said. “At the end of the day, it’s still a pig.”

Inside, the committee members took turns picking bills to make the calendar. Once all the bills the governor was interested in had made it, Deal’s chief of staff and chief operating officer got up and walked out.

After nearly two hours, the committee adjourned. Mullis invited them to a lunch, sponsored by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, Georgia Power, UPS, the nursing home lobby and other special interests, some of whom had paid advocates in the meeting.

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