OPINION: Sine Die at the Georgia Capitol: What a mess

An employee of ICS Cleaners cleans the Senate after the legislative session in Atlanta on Sine Die, Wednesday, March 29, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

An employee of ICS Cleaners cleans the Senate after the legislative session in Atlanta on Sine Die, Wednesday, March 29, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

The scene in the House and Senate after midnight on the last day of the Legislative session said it all, with scraps of shredded paper carpeting the chamber floors. It’s an annual tradition for members to launch chopped-up bills into the air to mark Sine Die, the end of the session.

Some do it in celebration, others in exasperation. But the result for the Capitol cleaning crew is the same. It’s a mess.

The House cast more than 50 votes on the final, furious day Wednesday, with more than 20 bills considered after 10 p.m., legislating everything from Uber Eats to online subscriptions to reinsurance and the state budget.

The Senate cast 62 votes, with nearly a third of those in the final two hours before midnight.

The hurry-up of Sine Die followed weeks and weeks of waiting for the House and Senate to hit their strides this year. House Speaker Jon Burns and Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, both new to the top jobs, had to stand up new offices, hire staff, and learn the ropes leading their chambers.

And for the first time in anyone’s recent memory, they agreed in January to a 40-day calendar. The pre-set schedule felt orderly and businesslike. Could the session possibly end as cleanly as it began? Of course not.

Early niceties between the two men eventually gave way to a full-on battle as each Republican pursued priorities that didn’t always align. By Day 40, Jones was still looking for a way to pass Senate Bill 99, the hospital regulation overhaul that he acknowledged in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution op-ed last week he knew would not pass, after questions of conflicts of interest and unintended consequences arose.

Without House passage of SB 99, several high-level Republicans said the Senate bottled up House Bill 520, the follow-on to last year’s landmark mental health care bill, which was an early priority for Speaker Burns.

Although both chambers gaveled in for business at 10 a.m. Wednesday, by late afternoon, those and other major big-ticket items were still unresolved.

“It’s getting close to 4, this is when things start to get weird,” warned Spiro Amburn, the chief of staff to Speaker Jon Burns as he walked into the anteroom next to the chamber floor.

State Rep. Saira Draper, a first-year Democrat from Atlanta, said she used the lengthy downtimes during the early part of the day to get ready for the chaos that she’d been warned was coming.

She said seeing the conference committee process play out, with only senior Republicans in the rooms to hash out differences between House and Senate bills, had been particularly eye-opening.

“It’s like, all of our work for the last forty days doesn’t matter. It just comes down to what three House members or three senate members decide,” she said.

One of those House members making Sine Die decisions was veteran state Rep. Alan Powell, the chairman of the House Regulated Industries Committee.

The Republican from Hartwell said the only thing that’s changed on Sine Die in his 33 years has been the smell on the House floor, without smoke in the chamber and Varsity hotdogs delivered to members’ seats.

And hot dogs and Sine Die have a lot in common, it turns out.

“The old saying it’s like making sausage?” he said. “I would say ‘sausage’ is being very delicate.”

One of the most noticeable features of Sine Die is the crush of lobbyists, expensively dressed and pressed. They’re paid by companies, advocates and industries to get their bills over the finish line — or keep others from passing.

Fal Sabbak, a lobbyist for McGuire Woods, was one of dozens crowded around TV screens with live feeds of the proceedings on the House and Senate floors just yards away.

“Information travels like the speed of light around here, so you have to be on the ground to have the most up-to-date information,” she said. “We’re watching as all of the puzzle pieces are falling together.”

Just after 8 p.m., the House took up a Senate-passed school voucher bill, which Gov. Brian Kemp had suddenly thrown his weight behind days earlier. But to the surprise of GOP House leaders, rural Republicans joined most Democrats to oppose the measure.

The bill failed 85 to 89 just before 9 p.m. to cheers so loud they could be heard across the Capitol in the Senate. And that’s when Gov. Brian Kemp showed up.

As he has in years past, Kemp spoke to both the House and Senate as their business neared the finish. He didn’t mention the voucher bill that had just failed. But he said that the mental health bill, which the Senate had not yet taken up, was a priority.

The rest of the evening saw a flurry of bills pass, but even more languish without action, including both the hospital bill that the lieutenant governor wanted, and the mental health measure that the Speaker and governor had pushed for.

Sports betting, too, in its fifth incarnation this session, never came up for a vote, after a coalition of Democrats, angry over an earlier transgender bill, and Republicans made clear they would not support it.

Just before midnight, state Rep. Matt Hatchett, the chair of the Appropriations Committee, brought the state budget to the House floor for a vote.

Although the Senate had cut more than $60 million from the University System of Georgia, possibly in retaliation for the hospital bill holdup, Hatchett told members it was time to vote yes. “The House does not play politics with the budget,” he said. The bill, the only one lawmakers are obligated to pass, won final approval at 11:56 p.m.

Looking back, freshman state Sen. Jason Esteves, D-Atlanta, called his first Sine Die, “More fascinating than what had been described. Wild. Hot mess. Stressful. Exciting. Distressing. All in one.”

This, Georgia, is how it works.