Monday was April Fools’ Day for most Americans, but at the Georgia Legislature, the mischief probably won’t stop until Tuesday night.
That’s when lawmakers end their 40-day session, when state House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan bang their gavels for the last time this year, yell “Sine Die” and send 236 members of the General Assembly back into the real world, where they are neighborhood funeral directors, insurance salesmen, lawyers and pharmacists, and there are no lobbyists around to buy them dinner.
It’s the day when “Frankenbills” (several bills attached to each other) rise, and when the percentage of legislators thoroughly reading bills before they vote falls.
It’s a time to lean over the fourth-floor gallery railing to stop the clock, it’s time to attach a special-interest tax break that nobody’s ever heard of to a bill that nobody could possibly oppose, and it’s time to kill “good bills” and pass unsure-if-it’s-good ones. All for the sake of what is “good for Georgia,” for “jobs,” “for the chil’ren” or “rural Georgia.”
And then, sometime around mid-April, at least some lawmakers will ask: “What did we just do?”
Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, is one of the most powerful members of the General Assembly because his committee decides what bills his chamber considers. But he hasn’t forgotten his first Sine Die when he joined the General Assembly in 2001.
“It’s kind of a controlled chaos on the 40th day,” Mullis said. “When you are a new legislator, you really don’t understand all the hubbub going on around you that goes into creating the legislation. They are putting good things in and some not-so-good things in.”
Little has changed.
“Oftentimes we have to come back and correct some things we do,” Mullis said. “It’s important that you’re paying attention. There are a lot of unknowns out there.”
Neill Herring, who has lobbied for the Sierra Club for decades, said the final day is a crash course in sausage making.
“Everybody in Georgia needs to come and look at it. You don’t need to stay the whole time, you need to watch it for about 30 minutes and watch your laws being made,” he said.
“Generally, anything anybody is trying to slip through is done on the last day,” he added. “Always. And a lot of time it’s stuff you never saw until the last day.”
Some lobbyists even specialize in closing deals at the last minute. Sometimes they’ve gotten tax breaks for businesses. Other times it’s just a line in a bill — or even a word. Converting a “shall” into a “may” changes something from a state mandate to a friendly suggestion.
Conference committees — groups of three House members and three senators — often get together late on the final day of the session and decide what’s in the final bills that colleagues vote on. The rank and file are brought bills they’ve sometimes never seen before, and they are asked to vote on them. Yes or no. No might be the safer bet, but most lawmakers would rather say yes.
Legislative leaders like the planned procrastination. Nothing gets a must-have bill moving like a deadline. And there is no deadline like being told, “It’s either today or talk to me about it again next January.”
The General Assembly has 40 working days to approve a budget and pass laws — starting each year on the second Monday of January. But a big chunk of the first few months is taken up listening to the Scripture reading of the day, introducing the doctor of the day, and listening to “points of personal privilege” from members. Then there’s the recognition of everyone from Miss Georgia Peach and the Alpha and Omega-3 fraternity to the the AA high school badminton champions and honored guests such as rapper T.I., Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, Smokey Bear and somebody’s third cousin, twice removed, named Bob.
Eventually, committees start meeting, bills are “perfected” and make it to the floor of the House and Senate, and things start happening. It all culminates on Day 40: Sine Die.
Some of this session’s biggies are already out of the way. The $27.5 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year was passed last week. Legislation that would outlaw most abortions passed Friday A new, $150 million voting system was OK’d earlier in the session.
But there are plenty of bills — from taxes on ride-sharing and airlines to medical marijuana expansion — still up in the air as the General Assembly heads toward its annual finish line.
In the end, lawmakers will take more than 100 votes between 10 a.m. Tuesday and midnight.
Sometimes the unpredictable happens. The most famous example occurred in 1964, when state Rep. Denmark Groover of Macon, a brilliant lawyer and onetime Marine fighter pilot, dangled above the House chamber, trying to keep the clock from running out on a legislative session. The clock fell, the lawmaker did not.
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 it made it a felony for nurses to give injections or for diabetics to give themselves shots.
Mullis remembers a bill lawmakers passed early in his tenure designed to stop unscrupulous lenders from taking advantage of the elderly. The next session they had to change it because it also prevented Grandma and Grandpa from getting a loan, he said.
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 sponsor didn’t mention was that it also sealed 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 bloggers picked up on it, and the House killed the measure.
More typical was the last-minute tax break that Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration wanted in 2015 for Mercedes-Benz workers. A state senator tacked onto it a tax break for a private college on whose board he served. When his bill came up in the final minutes of the session, supporters only said it was “good for Georgia.” It easily passed, even if not everybody knew exactly what the bill did.
Bills that give special-interest tax breaks or other financial advantages are of particular concern on the last day because they’ve shown up so often as the clock ticks down. Sometimes they’re called Christmas trees: a fairly benign bill with several ornaments (i.e., tax breaks) lovingly hung on the original legislation.
State Rep. Dominic LaRiccia, R-Douglas, a floor leader for Gov. Brian Kemp, said he is very cognizant of the need for citizen legislators to leave for home having improved the lives of Georgians. But that doesn’t mean he is blind to what can happen on the last day.
“I try to be aware of all the different code sections coming through, because we have to be very alert on these tax code sections because there could be members that either strike or add just a little bit of language to a particular code section,” he said, “and that could have a fiscal impact of hundreds of millions of dollars.
“As a legislator, I am watching these bills carefully.”