Still time for deals, mischief as clock ticks for Georgia Legislature

March 29, 2012 ATLANTA: Rep. Donna Sheldon, R-Dacula, center, throws paper into the air next to Thomas Allison after the House Majority Leader, Rep. Larry O'Neal yelled, "Sine Die, " to end the 2012 Legislative Session at the stroke of midnight on Legislative Day 40 at the Capitol Thursday afternoon in Atlanta, Ga., March 29, 2012. This was the finale of a three-month assignment to photograph the 2012 Legislative Session. I've heard a lot about, "Sine Die, " and enjoyed covering the event. I was focused on the Speaker of the House and waited for someone to react after throwing paper in the air. I saw Rep. Sheldon toss paper in the air and quickly turned to get off a few frames. I was happy to get a few before she put her arms down. Jason Getz jgetz@ajc.com

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March 29, 2012 ATLANTA: Rep. Donna Sheldon, R-Dacula, center, throws paper into the air next to Thomas Allison after the House Majority Leader, Rep. Larry O'Neal yelled, "Sine Die, " to end the 2012 Legislative Session at the stroke of midnight on Legislative Day 40 at the Capitol Thursday afternoon in Atlanta, Ga., March 29, 2012. This was the finale of a three-month assignment to photograph the 2012 Legislative Session. I've heard a lot about, "Sine Die, " and enjoyed covering the event. I was focused on the Speaker of the House and waited for someone to react after throwing paper in the air. I saw Rep. Sheldon toss paper in the air and quickly turned to get off a few frames. I was happy to get a few before she put her arms down. Jason Getz jgetz@ajc.com

It’s been more than 50 years since the brilliant lawyer and Macon Rep. Denmark Groover dangled above the House chambers trying to keep the clock from running out on a legislative session, but Sine Die Day at the Capitol still offers the chance to view both the weird and the dangerous.

Lawmakers scurrying between chambers, desperately hoping to work last-minute deals.

Legislators creating laws without having a clue what’s in them.

Lobbyists working the rope line on the third floor trying to kill or at least maim measures bad for their clients.

Family, friends and staff mingling on the House and Senate floor, raising the din to nearly the level of a fraternity keg party.

Lawmakers and lobbyists taking long dinner breaks and coming back to work having had one too many libations for the homestretch.

It is the day when all the purposeful procrastination of the previous 39 days of a session come to an end, when bargains are reached or fail, when tempers flare, and cool. As former gubernatorial aide and veteran Georgia State University lobbyist Tommy Lewis said, “It’s when things get done.”

Thursday is that day. The 40th and final day of the 2016 legislative session. Sometime, likely late into the night, House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle will slam the gavel down and cry out “sine die,” putting an end to the goings on at the statehouse.

It’s supposed to be over by midnight, although legislative leaders have fudged the deadline a few times in recent years.

Lawmakers vote on hundreds of bills on the final day, often with only a rudimentary knowledge of what’s in some of them. When asked later about something questionable that a reporter has dug up in a bill passed on the final day, legislators frequently say, “I didn’t know about that.” And in at least some cases, that’s true. Issues are brought up for a vote on Day 40 without the General Assembly having debated the matter the previous 39 days.

Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, said it’s impossible to keep up with everything.

“I will be halfway home and think, ‘now, what did I just vote for?’ ” he said.

ExploreSine Die: The last day of the Georgia Legislature is a day to buckle up

Last session one of the last-minute bills was a tax break Gov. Nathan Deal wanted for Mercedes workers. A state senator tacked on a tax break for a private college on whose board he served. When it came before the Senate in the closing seconds of the 2015 session, the senator mentioned neither the special tax break nor his relationship. A friendly senator popped up and called the whole bill “good for the economy,” again without mentioning the college tax break. The bill was rammed through in the midst of the deliberately raucous, deafening environment, with few being able to hear what was going on.

With two hours remaining in the 2012 session, the Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill shielding the identities of people applying for hunting and 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 Atlanta Journal-Constitution 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 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. Gov. Sonny Perdue vetoed the bill, saying the state couldn’t afford to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

Sometimes, in haste, lawmakers do things at the end of the session that make them look clueless. In 1992, the General Assembly approved a bill at the last minute that included an amendment pushed by the doctors 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.

The last day is also often filled with frayed nerves. It’s not unheard of for lawmakers who have shaken hands and backslapped dozens of times over the winter to raise their voice and threaten one another over legislation on the 40th day.

In 2008, House Speaker Glenn Richardson, never one to hide his feelings, urged Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle to “be a man” and publicly called on Georgians to oust the Senate leader because he wouldn’t go along with a plan to eliminate taxes on cars. During a budget fight the year before, Richardson accused Perdue of showing “his backside” and acting childish.

While many high-profile bills have already passed this session, there are still dozens of “vehicles,” or bills ready to be amended and passed on Thursday. Common targets are tax-cut bills, but almost any piece of legislation will do.

The Senate put more than 80 bills on its calendar to consider for the final two days of the session, and they got through about 30 of them Tuesday. The second-to-last bill on the schedule is House Bill 838, a controversial measure to give health insurance agents a minimum commission. The bill is being pushed by powerful House Rules Chairman John Meadows, an insurance agent. Hypothetically, putting it at the end of the calendar means it may, or may not, be brought up before the session ends. The Senate could hold it hostage for something it wants from the House or move it up and vote on it at any time.

Just in case, the House amended it onto another bill and sent it back to the Senate, where it could get a quick vote in the confusing haze of the 40th and final night of the 2016 session.

As far as Groover and his 1964 stunt, the lawmaker didn’t fall, but the clock did. And the session continued.