OPINION: It’s alive! Some hijacked ‘Frankenbills’ live to pass another day

When state Rep. Leesa Hagan introduced a bill last year to boost tourism in her little hometown of Lyons, she assumed it would be a simple process. If all went according to plan, the Republican’s legislation to designate Lyons’ annual Southeastern Soap Box Derby as the official soapbox Derby of the State of Georgia should easily pass and be quickly signed by Gov. Brian Kemp.

But not much at the state Capitol goes according to plan, especially for the simplest bills, and Hagan’s bill was soon transformed into a “Frankenbill,” used by Senate Republicans as a vehicle for a sports betting bill that had failed to pass ahead of an internal deadline weeks earlier.

It is a frequently used maneuver by lawmakers to strip, gut, or graft language onto other lawmakers’ bills to get a last-minute vehicle before the end of the annual 40-day session. The process is often harried, occasionally abusive, and nearly always a surprise to the bills’ sponsors.

A stunned Hagan went to the Senate committee last year where her bill was larded up and asked that her soap box derby language be removed. A local derby booster opposed gaming and Hagan didn’t want her hometown bill “tarnished.” In the end, neither the soap box derby measure nor the sports betting bill passed.

Bad blood often follows in Frankenbills’ wakes. This year, state Rep. Omari Crawford, D-Decatur, watched in dismay as his bill to help prevent teenage suicide among athletes was hijacked by Senate Republicans who added four different and controversial education bills on everything from transgender bathroom use to banning sex ed before the sixth grade.

“If you have a piece of legislation that you feel strongly about, debate it on its own,” Crawford said. “Don’t put it into someone else’s bill where, at this point, coincidentally, the language that was added is probably going to exacerbate suicide rates.”

After state Sen. Brandon Beach’s bill to prevent Chinese ownership of farmland was plucked to become a measure limiting new mining near the Okefenokee Swamp, the Republican from Alpharetta was reportedly so steamed he spiked a different bill on timber tax credits just to get back at the bill-swapping House members, who were also Republicans.

But just like the monster in Frankenstein, the underlying bills killed or distorted at the state Capitol in the Frankenbill process can also come back to life, and some stories even have a happy ending.

That’s what happened with state Rep. Teri Anulewitz’s bill in 2020 after lawmakers stripped her measure creating a specialty tennis license plate and replaced it with language to shield businesses from liability during COVID-19. The Smyrna Democrat said freshmen and members of the minority party are often the ones whose bills are pulled apart.

“I feel like when you’re in the minority party that has to be something in the back of your mind,” she said.

But thanks, in part, to the publicity her tennis bill got when it was stripped, colleagues later approached her to add her tennis language to an omnibus license plate bill. It passed.

In 2017, state Rep. Scott Holcomb was the beneficiary of a suggestion from the late Speaker David Ralston that he find a Senate-passed bill to strip and use for his bill requiring mandatory testing for rape kits in Georgia. Unlike less transparent examples, Holcomb discussed his bill with state Sen. Elena Parent, an Atlanta Democrat, who agreed to let one of her Senate bills be used for the effort. Holcomb’s final bill passed the last hour of the 2017 legislative session.

Comedian Samantha Bee later did an entire segment on the chain of events for her weekly TBS program, when Holcomb called the process with Ralston “Schoolhouse Rock on steroids.”

This year, state Rep. Lauren Daniel stripped one of her own bills to add a separate measure to increase fines for drivers passing stopped school buses. With the parents of a young accident victim in the gallery on Day 40, Daniel got an ovation from colleagues when her bill passed.

And, with an extra year of experience, Leesa Hagan not only got her soap box derby bill passed, but she strategically agreed to have a second, larger bill added to it boosting semiconductor manufacturing across Georgia.

“You’ve got an incredibly small, localized economic incentive, with a much larger, statewide incentive in the same bill,” she said. “I’m not sure if it got the soapbox derby bill through, but I don’t think it hurt.”

Hagan’s official soap box derby bill is now headed to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk. And she said last year’s ambush had a surprising silver lining after people from across the country read about the soap box derby bill fiasco and called Lyons to learn more about their Southeastern Soapbox Derby.

And she said she learned a lesson about legislating, even if she learned it the hard way. “I learned don’t ever think something’s going to be simple at the Capitol because you never know what could happen,” Hagan said. “But I think it’s an important process and, as frustrating as it can be, it works.”