Late nights and legislative vehicles: welcome to the Gold Dome

By Maggie Lee

In a few days, the staff of the Georgia Capitol will be lining up to eat some catered supper or pizza from plastic plates, a bit of fast food energy for a few more hours’ bleary-eyed work. Some will just bolt energy drinks where they stand.

April 2 will be the last day of Georgia’s annual 40-day legislative session, and there’s no reason to think it will be any different from most living memory: a frenzy of last-minute votes accelerating toward midnight, or past it. Tired, or maybe just exasperated legislators will be voting, having been in session more than 12 hours.

Georgia's state Capitol. Credit: Kelly Jordan

Georgia’s state Capitol. Credit: Kelly Jordan

Out in the hall, some of the lobbyists will be worried; some will be planted in chairs or holding up walls, listening or half-listening to the chamber broadcast.

There are liable to be conference committee reports: where a delegation of House and Senate members go hammer out (or weld together) some bill on the last day, in the last hours, of the session and present it to their colleagues.

Plenty of people will vote on such bills without having read them. Day 40 is not exactly a good day for concentrating on reading.

Going by the trend of 14 years, expect the House and Senate combined to make between 150 and 200 votes on the last day. The typical Day 39 workload is more like 90 to 100 votes. Except for a busy mid-session deadline day called Crossover Day, it’s unusual for the workload to be above 30 votes.

On the last day the Senate, it’ll probably be too loud to hear anything toward the end of the evening. In the House, the Rules Committee will probably meet multiple times, adding things to the House to-do list at the last minute.

Brinkmanship is already upon us. Take aviation.

There’s Senate Bill 131. It would have the state take over Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Senators — Republican senators, that is — have embraced it and approved it. It’s not moved in the House, however. And Atlanta has vowed to fight it in court if it becomes law.

Then there’s another: House Bill 447, writes into law a tax break for jet fuel, worth about $40 million to Georgia’s general fund by 2024. The biggest beneficiary would be Delta. It was carried by state Rep. Dominic LaRiccia, R-Douglas. He’s one of the governor’s floor leaders — an official liaison in the Legislature for Gov. Brian Kemp. If LaRiccia is carrying a bill, you can be sure it has Kemp’s support.

But LaRiccia was surprised by what appeared in his bill in a state Senate Committee.  Instead of a tax cut, it was a big tax increase for all kinds of aviation fuel. Oh, and plus that airport takeover bill.

That’s the Senate Finance Committee trying to make a legislative “vehicle:” a bill that’s had the sponsor’s luggage taken out of it, and somebody else’s put in.

Kemp has been neutral on the airport takeover, content to let the legislative process play out, said LaRiccia.

“But once they attached that language to his jet fuel tax exemption, the gamesmanship was probably to try make him have a position” on the airport takeover, LaRiccia said after that vote. “That’s not how it works with the executive branch. … if they force something to him, he can veto it.”

LaRiccia said he and the governor support the original bill: the tax cut.

So, put aviation is one of those unsettled and maybe high-dollar things that are getting pushed further into the frantic season. That’s including hospital regulation, or the chance of boosting rural transit or allowing medical cannabis cultivation.

The disputes are not “partisan” in the traditional sense; both the House and Senate are majority-Republican and the governor is a Republican too.

But consider some good-natured taunting of the House by the state Senate Rules chairman last week.

“I would ask the House members to be mature and to move Senate bills forward instead of just sitting on them trying to make a point, trying to drag it out … I guess trying to feel more important,” said state Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, standing at an ornate podium in the state Senate. The message  was meant for folks across the building in the House, who don’t see themselves as hostage-takers any more than Senators do.

Because part of what’s underneath this is a state House-Senate rivalry that’s real.

Certainly there are relatively few bills that are subjected to being held hostage or being made a vehicle. But even so, the House and Senate stay jealous of each other, like rival cross-town high schools. And this time of year, when time is running out, if one’s own bills aren’t moving, it’s tempting to try and use trading or force to move them along.

As the session gets closer to that Day 40 deadline, expect more mentions of how many House bills have been heard by the Senate and vice-versa.

But part of what’s underneath the scramble and quasi-chaos in the last days are rules and practices that allow it: moving bills without knowing the cost, hitching up legislative vehicles and working late at night.

So should lawmakers meet more than 40 days per year?  You won’t hardly find anyone who will answer “yes” to that.

 

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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