Taxpayers pay for lawmakers to study the issues

Legislative study committees explode. Expenses could top $120,000.

Georgia lawmakers find plenty of tax money when the economy is good to study everything from doctor shortages, driver-less cars and mold removal to whether there is, in fact, too much government.

And those study committees could cost the state $120,000 or more this year, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis shows.

With the blessing of House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, lawmakers approved the creation of 26 “study committees” over this summer and fall — more than have been OK’d over the previous four years combined.

If those committees meet the number of times listed in the resolutions that created them, lawmakers would be paid about $120,000, an AJC review found. But that only includes the $173 a day legislators receive when they meet. It doesn’t include staff or other travel expenses, which could considerably increase the total cost.

Such committees have a mixed history. Some wind up producing key legislation. Others provide lawmakers with a media forum for pet political projects. Some turn into "listening tours," with lawmakers traveling the state to get input on important subjects like education.

Others are largely busts that cost taxpayers thousands of dollars for lawmakers to find out what they already knew, or wanted the public to know.

“One of the old rules about study committees is you are supposed to be able to write the (final) report before you ever start,” said longtime Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville.

Still, Hill considers some study committees beneficial. “Sometimes you are making a case for something, and sometimes it winds up being the basis for legislation,” he said.

And then there are some like Ralston’s “Red Tape Watch” initiative, with a committee that held four well-publicized hearings around the state last fall to talk about burdensome state rules and regulations. A committee had previously held meetings on the subject during legislative sessions.

Most of the dozen people who showed up to speak at the four hearings last fall talked about other things, such as federal regulations or the need to build awareness of goat meat production in the state. One lawmaker described it as “that committee where they went around the state and nobody showed up.” The committee meetings in Macon, Augusta, Savannah and Valdosta cost the state about $10,000 in legislative per diems and staff expenses, fiscal records showed.

“I don’t think it was worth it, but I don’t think you always know that until after the fact,” said Rep. Virgil Fludd, D-Tyrone, a member of the committee. “The study committee did not confirm what may have been the premise … that there were over-burdensome rules and regulations in state government. I don’t think we learned anything from it.”

Other committees, like one House Education Chairman Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, helped lead throughout the state last year to talk with school officials, teachers and parents, brought recommendations on school funding that wound up in Gov. Nathan Deal's budget.

“I’ve been here a long time. That was one of the most informative, productive, well-attended study committees I’ve ever been involved with,” said Coleman, who first won office in 1992.

This year, lawmakers will study:

  • Common Core school standards and whether the General Assembly should recommend that the U.S. Department of Education be abolished.
  • The much-maligned state child protective services system.
  • The value of creating an "entrepreneur in residence" program aimed at "making sure that government is not an impediment to the success of entrepreneurs."
  • Ways to get senior citizens to use more technology, and another on how to get more jobs in aviation.
  • Whether to recommend changes to the state code of military justice, and one to better regulate the people who perform mold and mildew restoration.
  • How to pay for critical transportation improvements and preserving natural resources.

While Cagle and the state Senate continued to approve study committees during the Great Recession and its aftermath, Ralston clamped down on them, citing the cost. He allowed more last year. This year the study committee floodgates opened.

The committees typically are approved for anywhere from three to 10 days, with three to 10 lawmakers on each. Some do not include a limit on days that members will meet, and Ralston and Cagle can add days at their discretion.

Some are heavily attended by statehouse lobbyists, who are paid by companies interested in legislation or state contracts. Sometimes those lobbyists pay for meals of committee members.

Ralston argues that such committees allow lawmakers to take an in-depth look at important issues without the daily grind of the legislative session. They also allow lawmakers to interact with Georgians on a less formal basis.

Most study committees approved each year require the leaders of the House and Senate — that is Ralston and Cagle — to appoint members. Ralston said he is in the process of doing so, as well as determining how many days each committee actually needs to meet.

“We’re still very sensitive to financial concerns,” he said.

That means that if a resolution creating a study committee calls for up to 10 days of meetings — like the one on aviation jobs — Ralston might only approve five.

“I can assure you that the aviation and jobs study committee will not be meeting 10 days,” he said. “I’m not sure how that got in there. I’m hoping it was a typo.”

Study committees also allow lawmakers to examine controversial issues that otherwise threaten to derail legislative sessions. This year, for example, lawmakers spent considerable time debating — and ultimately not passing — bills that would have limited the implementation of Common Core educational standards, would have created new regulations for ride-sharing programs like Uber and Lyft and would have allowed for limited use of medical marijuana.

All those topics are the subject of study committees set to meet.

“This will allow us, in the calm of a non-session atmosphere, to separate the fact from the fiction,” Ralston said. “And look at what the evidence is to sort of look at the truth of the matter here and sort through the propaganda.”

One of the most unusual, and possibly innovative committee subjects of the summer and fall may come out of House Resolution 1265, sponsored by Rep. Trey Kelley, R-Cedartown, to study “autonomous vehicle technology,” more commonly known as self-driving cars.

Technology giant Google recently announced they’re building a fleet of 100 self-driving cars, that use a series of sensors and gyroscopes to navigate the roads sans driver. Four states — California, Nevada, Michigan and Florida — have laws on the books authorizing and regulating the technology.

Kelley sees driver-less cars less as an expensive luxury and more as a possible solution to the state’s transportation woes.

“Think of the thousands of hours that people lose sitting in traffic, the hours of productivity that’s lost,” Kelley said. “You can either make the commute shorter to get it back or make it so they don’t care how long they’re stuck on the road.”

Kelley said there is also a huge economic development opportunity for Georgia in the autonomous vehicle market. Georgia Tech, he said, is already involved. The committee will explore ways to help advance the industry in Georgia.

Five members of the committee will get up to three days — more if Ralston approves — to study the issue.

Kelley said he is unsure if the committee will travel out West, where the vehicles are being tested. There are already researchers at Georgia Tech studying the technology involved and he plans to ask those experts to speak to the panel. Google, too, already has a presence in Georgia and Kelley hopes to request input from the California-based company.

Rep. Jimmy Pruett, R-Eastman, was given approval for 10 days for five lawmakers to help their colleagues “understand the aviation employment field so we can better serve Georgia industry and Georgia citizens.”

Georgia has a lot of aviation-related jobs and taxpayers will subsidize lawmakers spending up to two work weeks to understand that. Pruett did not return requests for comment. His district happens to be home to Middle Georgia State College’s school of aviation, which could benefit from any attempts to increase the number of people interested in aviation jobs.

Hill, the Reidsville senator, said some study committees are approved as a “salve” for lawmakers who can’t get legislation passed.

A good example this year was a committee resolution approved at the end of the 2014 session for Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Ellenwood, to study the disparity in school discipline. The AJC reported in January that Georgia's black students are suspended and expelled in disproportionate numbers compared to whites.

Jones said many of those students will never get a high school diploma. When Jones filed legislation to set up a new tribunal system to hear student discipline cases, it attracted some school lobby opposition and went nowhere. After going to Gov. Nathan Deal with his concerns about the issue, he got a study committee.

“My hope is to come up with some sensible legislation to address some of these disparities,” Jones said. “It’s shameful and it’s time for it to stop. I am really passionate about it and I’m not going to give up on it.”

The only one of the 26 study committees that appeared to not guarantee lawmakers daily payments for their meetings was one sponsored by Democrats to look at how the state compensates people wrongfully convicted of crimes and incarcerated for years. Current law requires the General Assembly to pass a resolution setting compensation, and in recent years some Republicans have fought efforts to compensate those who are wrongfully convicted.

Rep. Carolyn Hugley, D-Columbus, who sponsored the resolution, said she’s not sure how it was passed without allowing for lawmakers on the committee to be paid, but she doesn’t think it was a deliberate slight.

Fludd, the Tyrone lawmaker, wasn’t so sure. “If a study committee is not funded, that is usually a sign it’s not a priority for the leadership.”