A flash of transparency lights the end of a dismal session

Late in the last night of this year’s legislative session, in that hour when so much mischief famously has been done, there was a brief but illuminating flash of red which revealed the way things work under the Golden Dome and the potential of social media to disrupt the old order.

You can it watch it, starting at the 3-hour 16-minute mark, on this Georgia Public Broadcasting archive video. (Select House Day 40 PM3.)

With several bigger, more publicized bills still left to be decided, the House took up the conference committee report on HB 875, which had started out as a bill to prevent the release of the personal information people give to obtain hunting and fishing licenses. It had come out of the House-Senate conference committee with a few little amendments, as they say, and had sailed through the Senate already.

A few years ago the legislature prohibited the State Ethics Commission – oops, it’s now the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission — from making any new rules. The newly-amended bill would have changed the law to allow for one exception: the commission would now be able to make a rule allowing it to waive late fees for office holders and lobbyists who fail to meet their reporting requirements. Furthermore, the commission would be prohibited from giving public notice of a late filing for at least 30 days after the deadline, and the commission would be allowed to seal any records related to a concluded investigation in which no violation occurred.

Considering the state was ranked last in the country this year in the State Integrity Investigation’s Corruption Risk Report Card,  not to mention all those freshmen elected on Tea Party votes, it took a lot of brass to try to pass ethics changes like these with no notice or debate, but it came into the House with a head of steam. A couple of DeKalb County Democrats, Mary Margaret Oliver and Stephanie Stuckey Benfield — who had given her farewell speech a few hours before – rose to raise objections, but Democrats had been doing that to no effect on one bill after another.

Voting started on the measure with a confident splash of green – for yes – on the House vote board. Then something happened that you don’t see very often, especially in this robotic session. Empty spaces started to fill with red, and then greens began turning to red, until by the time the vote was finished the measure had been defeated, 143-25.

What was happening, pretty much in real time with the vote, was the spreading awareness across the House floor of Twitter dispatches by the AJC’s James Salzer and Peach Pundit’s Charlie Harper (and perhaps others I’m not aware of). The measure had been put in the internet sunshine, and the reaction was very speedy.

Rapid dissemination of information via social networks may also have played a role in the failure of another late-night project, an attempt to revive the CAPCO bill, which would have funneled as much as $125 million in taxpayers’ money into private venture capital companies investing in the state’s small businesses and startups. Of course, these aren’t the first instances of attempted end-runs being found out and defeated, but technology has made it possible for that process to happen almost as quickly as the voting period.

That victory for transparency was one little firecracker on a dark night for those who celebrated it briefly out in the hall. Oliver and Benfield hugged themselves in disbelieving glee over their successful challenge, then went back inside to get clobbered, along with other Democrats, on the unemployment insurance bill, the abortion bill and the union dues bill, formerly known as the anti-picketing bill until the sponsors regretfully acknowledged the First Amendment and pulled off language that would have outlawed picketing in front of select private residences.

This was a session of Democrats who have not yet learned the power of indignation, and Republicans who seem to have forgotten it. It was conducted a lot more soberly than sessions were in the years of Gov. Nathan Deal and House Speaker David Ralston’s red-faced predecessors, but that in some ways made it even more awful.

Assuming Mitt Romney is the Republican presidential nominee, we can expect to hear recurring charges of class warfare in coming months. This session was a textbook in class warfare, from the bill which reduces unemployment benefits from 24 weeks to as few as 14, to the drug test for welfare recipients, the car tax changes, the anti-union bill and a half dozen others.

When Tea Party and anti-abortion activists sided with the unions over the private-residence picketing bill, it was taken as a political breakthrough, but class-wise, they’re pretty uniform. They are the class that didn’t get the advance word when the tax reform package was rolled out.

The other class is often characterized as representing the interests of business. But this legislature has not been nearly as kind to business in general as it has been to bad business. It has repeatedly encouraged looseness and lack of accountability of the sort reflected in the Senate bill, defeated by the banks (this year), which would have allowed developers to walk away from failed loans. It has ladled out unemployment tax breaks to no measurable benefit to the state, and placed the primary burden for replenishing the depleted fund on the unemployed. (This, by the way, is unlikely to make the state attractive to high-tech startups which have a huge labor turnover.) In the name of business, it has represented the interests of the underwater over the solvent and the careless over the prudent. It has forgiven bad decisions and done not that much to reward good ones.

We are now nine years past the passage of the granddaddy of all these favors to bad business practice, the gutting of the predatory lending bill. You can’t say one bill in one state led the way to a global financial collapse, but if there was one chirping little canary in the long crawl toward the real estate bust, that was it.

Wonder what they’ll come up with on the 10-year anniversary.

About Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.
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4 comments
SpaceyG
SpaceyG

Glad to see my pupils picking up the, uh, smart phones. I have taught them all well. On to the next big comm toy! 

SpaceyG
SpaceyG

Glad to see my pupils picking up the, uh, smart phones. I have taught them all well. On to the next big comm toy! 

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  1. […] to Tom Baxter, the bill was initially designed “to prevent the release of the personal information people give to obtain hunting and fishing […]