Welcome to the Georgia General Assembly, where legislative leaders make the rules and the state’s open records laws don’t apply.
How a bill becomes a law will be as important as ever when this year’s legislative session begins Monday, filled with proposals on expanded gun rights, book bans, tax cuts, teacher pay raises and election rules.
Hannah Joy Gebresilassie, who experienced the legislative process for the first time in the fall when she testified on redistricting bills, came away disappointed.
“Things were being pushed out of committee at lightning speed,” said Gebresilassie, executive director for Protect the Vote, a voter engagement group founded last year. “Legislators should aim to make the process more accessible and easy for your regular Georgian.”
One day after it was made public, a new map for Georgia’s 14 congressional districts passed its first committee in November. The bill flew through the entire legislative process in just five days.
The General Assembly made a notable upgrade in recent years by livestreaming committee meetings, a practice it emphasized when the coronavirus pandemic kept many people at a distance. But subcommittee meetings, where many of the key decisions are made and where you can often find which special interests are behind legislation, sometimes remain offline.
“We have a very transparent system in the House right now. We livestream all our committee meetings and bills are online rather quickly,” said House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge. “A click of a mouse gets you a lot of information about what we’re doing. I’m always open to make improvements, but I think we have a pretty good system.”
Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
Georgia trails other state legislatures when it comes to public access, according to government watchdog and advocacy organizations.
Some states publish reports summarizing bills, amendments and votes as they move through the process. Others post written testimony online. Several legislatures are covered by open records laws, including those in Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Pennsylvania and Utah.
It’s not uncommon for Georgia lawmakers to circulate amendments to bills in advance of public hearings, sometimes changing key pieces before members of the public have a chance to review them.
Rapid changes to bills are especially frequent on the most contentious legislation, such as Georgia’s voting law passed last year, and its abortion law approved in 2019.
“You’re asking your constituents to show up and testify, to take time out of their busy days, and they don’t even know what they’re testifying about,” said Viki Harrison, director of state operations for Common Cause, a government accountability organization. “All that does is make the public think that politicians are not real people and are not looking out for our best interests.”
Limits on public participation disempower the voters who elected their state representatives and senators, said Susannah Scott, president of the League of Women Voters of Georgia.
“They work for us,” Scott said. “People need to know what our legislators are doing, how these bills are going to impact them, and if their legislators are actually representing them in a way they want to be represented.”
By exempting itself from Georgia’s open records laws, the General Assembly prevents access to a variety of documents that other government agencies must provide, such as communications with lobbyists, emails to constituents and harassment complaints.
Lawmakers have fought the issue all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court in recent years to protect keeping that exemption. Two members of the court are former legislators.
“The fact is, the Legislature should be able to meet the same requirements of open government that every city, county and school board in the state has to follow,” said Richard Griffiths, a spokesman and former president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. “When the citizens are informed, then the government can be held accountable, and that’s when government works at its absolute best.”
Ultimately, legislators who lead committees get to decide how they operate. Committee chairs are given broad authority after they’re appointed by the leaders of the House and Senate from the majority party.
Some post detailed agendas; others don’t announce what bills they’re considering until the committee meets. Some make copies of amendments available to the public before votes; others give copies only to legislators.
Chairmen can and do also limit the amount of time members of the public have to comment on proposed legislation, frequently giving people only a few minutes to have their say on complicated and far-reaching legislation. Meanwhile, lobbyists pushing, say, a tax break for a client may be given all the time they need to make their case.
“There’s no rules that say those decisions of the chair shall be consistent,” said state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Democrat from Decatur and the chairwoman of a committee responsible for MARTA oversight. “There’s a lot of opportunity for improvement on these issues, but I don’t hear much discussion about it.”
How to follow the Georgia General Assembly
- The full state House and Senate meet for 40 business days each year, but its schedule isn’t set. Announcements of floor sessions and committee meetings can be found on the General Assembly’s website at legis.ga.gov.
- Committee meetings are where most business gets done. Members of the public are usually, but not always, allowed to speak for or against bills.
- Bills can be found on the General Assembly’s website the day after they’re filed. Amended versions are available online the day after they pass committees.
- Legislators can be contacted by phone or email. Their contact information is listed on the General Assembly’s website.