By Tom Baxter
The dramatic highlight of the Georgia General Assembly’s first day in session Monday was Sen. Don Balfour’s brief speech to the Senate on the occasion of having been cleared of all charges related to the misuse of his legislative expense account in a jury trial last month.
It was the most bipartisan moment under the Golden Dome in years. The former Rules Committee chair wasted no opportunity to insert the phrase “Republican and Democrat” into the list of those he thanked for their support. He noted that a former Republican governor, Sonny Perdue, and a former Democratic governor, Roy Barnes, had testified for him.
In a pointed reference, he thanked his lawyers Ken Hodges and William Hill, even though “at least one person didn’t appreciate my pick of lawyers.” That was an apparent reference to Attorney General Sam Olens, who defeated the Democrat Hodges to win his position.
Balfour thanked everybody from his wife to Waffle House, his employer, but just as Olens declined to apologize for bringing the case against him, Balfour made no effort to patch things up between the two Republicans other than a reference to the bitter rivalry between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson which mellowed into a late-life friendship.
“Trust can be restored, but there should be a line between political gamesmanship and trying to destroy someone’s life and take their personal liberty away from them,” Balfour said.
Thus began a legislative session that was intended to be not much longer or more controversial than a public service announcement.
In one sense, this year’s session has been shortened by court order. Legislators always want to get out of town quickly in an election year, but federal court orders moving the primary date back in two long steps from mid-July to May 20 in order to allow time for overseas ballots to be counted have added to the urgency this year.
The shortened calendar has cut to the quick the time left after the session for campaigning and, most important, fundraising before the primary. So the traditional week of budget hearings has been cut back to an afternoon, off-days are out, and the plan is to avoid controversy, loosen the tap on education spending, move things along as efficiently as possible and go home before St. Patrick’s Day.
At least that’s the plan. The case for wrapping things up quickly is so compelling that the session is likely to end close to the leadership’s target, but it may not come without some bruises.
As Balfour was speaking to the Senate, the first contingents of the Moral Monday movement was gathering in the halls for a day of activities. Their plans for weekly demonstrations are unlikely to slow down this Instagram session, but they will bring attention to the issue that looms over the legislature this year: the potential impact of the state’s refusal to accept the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion.
As a possible road jam, there could be more to worry about from a rancorous fight over whether guns should be allowed on campuses in the state. House Speaker David Ralston has voiced his support for this year’s version and the word is the legislation will be taken up fairly early in the House, setting up the inevitable standoff with the Senate.
For the lobbyists, this is the kind of year that’s good for killing bills, not promoting them, and defense is a vital part of the lobbyists’ game. They are also on the cheap this year thanks to the new ethics rules, and less numerous in the halls, continuing a trend of several years duration. Nobody wants to make any trouble this year, but sometimes, you just can’t get around it.