Hijacked: Georgia bills thought to be dead revived in final days

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

Sports betting finds new life in soap box derby bill

No bill is ever truly dead at the Georgia Capitol during a legislative session — not when it can rise like a zombie at any moment.

Without warning, a bill that would have honored a southeast Georgia soap box derby suddenly transformed last week into legislation to legalize sports betting across the state.

An elections bill abruptly gained several sections that had previously fallen short, requiring more audits and clarifying wording on absentee ballot applications, just before a final committee vote Wednesday.

Obscure tax breaks for special interests could also crop up before this legislative session ends March 29, and supporters of a proposal for “religious liberty” protections are trying to resurrect the bill even though it hasn’t received a single public hearing or vote.

It’s the time of the year when Georgia lawmakers cut and paste language from bills that previously failed into legislation that has survived, a practice that avoids public scrutiny, vetting and transparency in the rush to make laws before midnight on the final day of a session.

Even legislators often don’t see the changes coming on their own bills.

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

The soap box derby measure would have been Republican state Rep. Leesa Hagan’s first bill to pass, recognizing the event in Lyons as Georgia’s official soap box race for tourism purposes.

Instead, she asked for her proposal to be removed from the bill so it wasn’t “tarnished” by sports betting. House Bill 237 ballooned from two pages to 46, and Hagan’s legislation will only become law if it’s attached to a different bill.

“It’s horrible,” said state Rep. Shea Roberts, a Democrat from Atlanta. “The more tricks that are played like this and the more they don’t share information earlier so that people can see what’s before us just causes the public to not trust us.”

But these kinds of legislative machinations are allowed as long as the new bill fits into the same section of state code as the original.

It doesn’t matter whether a totally different bill passed one chamber. Leaders in the the other chamber can change it, without a requirement for public comment or debate. Both the House and Senate ultimately must vote on the same version of a bill for it to become law.

Replacing the language of a bill to include new ideas avoids the General Assembly’s internal deadline for measures to pass their first chamber, either the state House or Senate, by the 28th day of the 40-day legislative session.

Ben Harbin, a former Republican House budget chairman, said lawmakers need ways to push important bills late in the process.

“This time of the year is when you have to prepare for anything to happen,” said Harbin, who is now a Statehouse lobbyist. “Bad bills are still going to be crushed, but it gives one more chance for good bills to be considered by the Legislature.”

Critics of the process say abrupt, drastic changes to bills short-circuit the process, resulting in proposals that benefit well-connected legislators, lobbyists, businesses and organizations rather than the people of the state.

“When things are added at the last minute, they don’t go through that same process. Meaningful discussion and opportunity for input doesn’t exist in the same way,” said Anne Gray Herring, a policy analyst for Common Cause Georgia, which advocates for government transparency. “Sometimes new versions (are introduced) right before a hearing and the public hasn’t had meaningful time to review the proposal.”

Few people can see the revised bills when they’re voted on, sometimes for days. The sports betting bill wasn’t publicly available until Saturday after a Senate committee rewrote it early Thursday morning.

State Rep. Viola Davis, a local activist for DeKalb County taxpayers before she was elected in 2018, said she was “totally surprised” when she first learned that bills could be so dramatically rewritten.

She remembered one bill that originally would have changed the membership of the State Victim Services Commission but later made it harder for some private colleges to finance major construction projects.

“It’s very difficulty to keep up with legislation when bills can be stripped and then a new bill inserted,” said Davis, a Democrat from Stone Mountain. “If you don’t catch it, you might end up voting for something that you think is one bill when in actuality the bill has been changed.”

During the last days of this year’s legislative session, any bill can rise from the grave.

All it takes is leaders in the state’s Republican majority to write it into a completely different bill, followed by approval in the House and Senate.