The wacky doo legislature comes back to town

By Tom Baxter

In his eulogy for Herman Talmadge, Sam Nunn told the story of a visit to the senior senator’s office not long after Nunn had been elected to the U.S. Senate. Talmadge inquired of his young colleague whether he’d answered all his constituents’ letters, and Nunn replied that he had, with the exception of a few “nuts” who had written to him about tin foil and flying saucers.

Talmadge gave him a stern look and reached for the spitoon he kept by his desk.

“If you can’t win the nut vote,” he said, “You’re not going to carry a county in Georgia.”

That anecdote drew a rollicking response back in 2002. I imagine if a similar story were told at the funeral of some prominent politician today, it would still get a laugh, but it would be a more nervous laughter. The nuts have gone from being key to getting elected, to getting elected themselves.

Our Congressional delegation — with one member who has suggested that Guam might capsize, another who has said embryology is the work of the Devil, and a third who has chosen to revisit the Todd Akin “rape” debacle – has become part of the regular diet of comedy shows and political blogs.

They’re only the tip of the iceberg, which is another way of saying: Welcome back, legislators.

A poll  in Sunday’s AJC said voters want this year’s legislature to focus on jobs as their first priority, followed by education and health care. Boring! A Marietta Daily Journal story about a recent Cobb Republican Party Breakfast, at which one legislator tried to out-wacky doo the other, gives you a better idea what some legislators would rather be about.

State Sen. Barry Loudermilk said the state should control all the fuel taxes it issues and spends, and cut out the feds.

“I’ll take it a step further: we need to start in the direction to where we don’t have a Medicaid system, but we turn it back to the way it was before Medicaid, where there were nonprofit hospitals that provided indigent care to the people, that were run by churches and religious organizations,” Loudermilk said.

Not to be undone, state Rep.-elect Charles Gregory, who has already introduced four gun bills, said the state could get away from reliance on federal grants by printing its own currency.

This was a bit much, even for the likes of Bill Kinney and Joe Kirby, who scolded U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey for dredging up the rape issue in their Around Town  column in Saturday’s MDJ, but gave their Cobb County Republican legislators a real blistering for sitting around talking about the Nullification Doctrine and printing their own money when there is serious business to be done.

“No wonder the party has a hard time appealing these days to minority and younger voters when so many rank-and-file Republicans seem to have their focus on issues that hearken back to the South’s “Fergit, Hell!” days,” they wrote.

Speaking of fergitin’, you have to do an awful lot of it, or just be born too late to remember, to harbor any nostalgia for the way it was before Medicaid and Medicare. That’s why the renewal of the hospital provider fee, or bed tax, is probably inevitable, though Gov. Nathan Deal is to be congratulated for devising an adroit way to frame the issue so the legislators won’t have to say they’re voting for a tax increase. That will avoid at least some of the posturing that’s also sure to come with the vote. The bed tax is only a stopgap and the really hard decisions about Medicaid lie ahead, but just getting that accomplished will be heavy lifting.

The legislature will take up a few more serious subjects, including juvenile justice reform and ethics, and dealing with the bare-bones budget will be a challenge. But it’s on target to waste many of its 40 days on the increasing froth of hot-button issues destined to go nowhere, or in some cases, to federal court.

It’s still the best show in town, but this year let’s hope it doesn’t last as long as “Les Misérables.”

 

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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