‘A day to put your seat belt on’: Sine Die at the Capitol

In 1964, state Rep. Denmark Groover, D-Macon, nearly fell over the state House railing trying to adjust the hands of a clock to keep it from reaching the mandatory hour of adjournment on the last day of the legislative session. The clock ended up falling. The lawmaker did not. Joe McTyre / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In 1964, state Rep. Denmark Groover, D-Macon, nearly fell over the state House railing trying to adjust the hands of a clock to keep it from reaching the mandatory hour of adjournment on the last day of the legislative session. The clock ended up falling. The lawmaker did not. Joe McTyre / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

BOOMER MUSIC REFERENCE ALERT: A Georgia General Assembly session pretty much follows the rhythms of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

It starts with a slow dance that lasts months and eventually speeds up to a pulsating, life-affirming wall of sound. The crescendo (sans the Jimmy Page guitar solo) comes on the 40th and final day of the session. The House and Senate leaders end it by slamming down a gavel and yelling “Sine Die,” not, “And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.” But you get the picture.

Monday is the 40th day.

“It’s one of the most fascinating days that I’ve experienced,” said Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, who will be doing his 48th and final Sine Die dance this year. “This is a day to put your seat belt on. Sine Die, there’s nothing like it.”

It’s a time when the practiced procrastination of three months becomes free-wheeling chaos as lawmakers vote dozens and dozens of time before the clock strikes midnight, sometimes making decisions on legislation they haven’t read or seen. They have to trust the colleague standing at the front of the House or Senate to let them know what they are voting on.

Often it’s little more than: “This is a good bill. Helps the children, creates jobs and levels the playing field. The people in the hall (lobbyists) all agree on it. I’d appreciate your support.”

For Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, who hasn’t been around quite as long as Smyre but was elected when Ronald Reagan was president, the final day is a time to stay super alert. It’s a time when measures of dubious purpose suddenly show up about 11:47 p.m., when all 236 lawmakers are antsy to get on the highway heading home.

Especially this year, when most of them have to start campaigning for reelection.

“The train wreck at the end allows a few people behind the curtain to get their agendas done with a minimum of transparency,” Orrock said. “They want to get the fish to the freezer before it starts stinking.

“You have to watch your back and look at the road in front of you.”

Members of the Georgia Senate throw torn paper in the air following Sine Die, the end of the General Assembly's 40-day legislative session. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

icon to expand image

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

A lot of work already done

Maybe more than in most years, a lot of the heavy lifting has already been done.

With state tax coffers overflowing, Gov. Brian Kemp — in the midst of his own reelection campaign — and lawmakers had more money to spend than ever.

They passed a record midyear budget that included big raises and bonuses for 300,000 state, university and k-12 school employees, promises of cost-of-living raises for state pensioners and a host of other funding increases for crime fighting, mental health and pretty much every area of the government.

Kemp signed that budget into law earlier this month. He also signed legislation to refund about $1.1 billion in state surplus money to taxpayers and another bill to suspend state gas taxes to lower fuel prices.

The General Assembly last week sent him House Speaker David Ralston’s top priority — an overhaul of the state’s inadequate mental health system. They also sent to Kemp’s desk — and he signed into law — legislation that allows parents who don’t want their children wearing masks as precautions against the coronavirus to opt out of any school district mandates.

The General Assembly gave final approval to legislation that would change the process for removing books from schools due to parent complaints about obscenity, and another bill that would give parents the right to see the curriculum used in their child’s classroom. The Republican majority also won final passage of a bill that would let Georgians carry handguns without first getting a permit.

Many of the bills that have gotten through — and will be debated at the session’s end — aim to shore up the Republican base. Kemp has embraced the agenda this year as he faces a primary challenge from former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who is backed by ex-President Donald Trump.

The former president doesn’t have a lot nice to say about Kemp because he wouldn’t agree to illegally overturn the 2020 election in Trump’s favor. So Kemp isn’t leaving anything to chance for the May primary.

Democrats, in the minority, have limited chances to pass legislation, but they’ve spent plenty of time pointing out the bills they feel are meant more to play up to GOP primary voters than solve problems, real or imagined.

On the final day, lawmakers still have to pass a state budget for the upcoming fiscal year and will try to figure out how big of an election-year income tax cut they want to offer.

GOP legislators will want to give final approval to a measure to ban certain ways of teaching about race in schools. They will debate legislation to make more changes to election laws after last year’s rewrite, which passed following Republican losses at the polls in the 2020 vote. They may look at legislation to finally ignite Georgia’s medical marijuana production program and could consider a bill to ban women from receiving the abortion pill through the mail.

And then there will likely be proposals few have heard of except the people who came up with them.

Dazed day

For House Ways and Means Chairman Shaw Blackmon, R-Bonaire, whose committee passes tax breaks coveted by business lobbyists, this will be his eighth 40th day. He describes them as “very intense.”

“You have to be hyper alert. I think it’s kind of how you approach it, because there is a lot of stuff going on,” he said. “If you do your homework ahead of time, it’s not as chaotic.

“What you have is a lot of people who are heavily invested in legislation that they want to see get across the finish line and everyone is jockeying to get that. It’s a lot of pushing and pulling.”

Last year, members of the two chambers combined to take about 200 votes on the final marathon day.

House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones waits for a late afternoon Rules Committee meeting to begin. It's the panel that decides what legislation will get a floor vote. BOB ANDRES  /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

icon to expand image

Credit: Bob Andres

The last day of a session can just be a long slog. But the unexpected also can and often does happen.

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. He didn’t fall, but the clock did.

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 poorly that it made it a felony for nurses to give injections and for diabetics to give themselves shots.

Retiring Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, remembers a bill lawmakers passed at the end of one session that was designed to stop unscrupulous lenders from taking advantage of the elderly. They had to fix it the next session because it also prevented Grandma and Grandpa from getting a loan.

With two hours left 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 it also sealed the records of some ethics cases filed against politicians. After an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter found out and posted it on social media, good-government lobbyists and bloggers picked up on it and the House killed the measure.

One of the unique features of the 40th day is that — while it occurs in late March or early April — it usually is celebrated with a “Christmas tree.”

That’s what lawmakers call tax break legislation that has a bunch of other tax breaks — the ornaments — attached to it. In more recent years it’s also been referred to as a “Frankenbill.”

Bills that said one thing in January are stripped and amended to become something else entirely. In his variation on “It’s not over until the fat lady sings,” Mullis told colleagues last week, “The fat lady is not in the building, so life’s not over for anything.”

Lawmakers like to say they always know what they are voting on. But Neill Herring, who has lobbied at the Capitol for the Sierra Club for decades, doubts it.

When it comes to the proposals that pop up late into the night, Herring said: “Anybody that knows what they are voting on is in on it. And there aren’t that many people in on it.”