By Tom Baxter
It’s probably the most iconic image in Georgia legislative history: Rep. Denmark Groover, putting a long and legendary career briefly at risk, hanging precariously over the railing in the House balcony, trying to slow down the clock as it ticked toward midnight at the end of the 1964 legislative session.
The wackiness of Groover’s position contrasts with the solemness of the custom he’s trying to circumvent: That on a dead certain hour, no later than midnight on the 40th day of business, each year’s session must be brought to an end.
That’s what makes the conclusion of this year’s session last Friday night, all too routine in many other ways, so shocking.
There’s nothing in the Georgia Constitution that says the final legislative day has to end by midnight, but it’s a custom that is even cooked into the architecture of the building. As the closing moments approach, the doors of the two chambers are thrown open, dramatically revealing the sight line between the lieutenant governor and the House speaker, as both raise their gavels in adjournment.
The midnight deadline has been observed “for time eternal,” as a disapproving House Speaker David Ralston said after learning the Senate was prepared to ignore the clock if necessary to have its last vote.
What had hung the Senate up was House Bill 202, a big tax bill with a little something in it for a lot of folks, including, thanks to a last-minute insertion, corporate newcomer Mercedes-Benz. Through one of those artful pieces of snookery, the bill gave employees of the luxury car maker which has moved its American headquarters here a break on state and local car taxes, without specifically mentioning that it was Mercedes-Benz that it was all about.
The bill negotiated by a conference committee arrived on the senators’ desks shortly after 10 p.m., a big problem because the senators are supposed to have a copy of a bill at least two hours before a vote. You can see what unfolded, starting before the two-hour mark in this Senate video archive. If you notice people tearing paper into strips while important votes are being taken, they’re making confetti to fling in the air the moment the session ends.
As the second of two unsuccessful attempts to vote to waive the two-hour rule was being held up with about 10 minutes to midnight, an impatient Cagle made it clear this was not your ordinary legislation, caught in the horns of the closing minutes.
“We can wait until 12:02 to take it up, if you like,” Cagle said, flouting legislative tradition in his determination to bring the final version of HB 202 to a vote. In fact, it was 12:04 when the voting board was opened and the bill passed overwhelmingly.
“Unfortunately, I think the House has already left us. What’s new?” Cagle announced shortly before the final vote was taken. So the old tradition of watching confetti thrown from both sides of the building came to an end, and the Senate threw its own confetti and that was it.
This may seem a small infraction, or technically no infraction at all, in a body which spends billions of dollars of your money. But when other safeguards have failed — and they all have at one time or the other — there has always been that cold blade of midnight to sever the politicians from the trough.
This was in several ways one of the most productive legislative sessions in years, with breakthroughs on medical marijuana, solar financing and other issues as well as the big, purgative transportation bill. But in its closing hours it took on the frenzied attributes of all legislatures, plodding toward the finish line with money left to be spent.
This year, it took a few extra minutes to do its business. It might not occur to anyone to compare Cagle’s willingness to bend the rules with Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s last-minute reversal on that state’s Freedom of Religion law. But both instances illustrate the power of some powerful corporations — Walmart in Arkansas and Mercedes in Georgia — to change even the most hallowed of rules.