Ominously, we may look back on this session with fondness
By Tom Baxter
The frantic last day of every General Assembly session brings with it an overlay of nostalgia, as retiring members make their farewell speeches and the denizens of the Golden Dome enjoy the film-flamorous pageantry of Sine Die. This year that sentiment was especially appropriate.
The legislature which convenes next year will be one that is dramatically less experienced, even more divided along partisan lines, and almost certainly less civil.
The departure of Rep. Calvin Smyre alone wipes out nearly a half-century of institutional memory, and decades more are leaving with him. At a minimum, next year there will be a new lieutenant governor, a new Senate rules chair and a new House appropriations chair, along with several other chairmanships.
Although the new legislative map has been designed to limit their growth, there will probably be more Democrats in the General Assembly next year. But the new map, along with the rightward drift of the Republican base, will have the effect of bringing to the Golden Dome more Republicans eager to champion “red meat” legislation on subjects like banning critical race theory and gun licenses.
The problem for the newly-arrived fire eaters will be that these subjects have all been used as election-year fodder in this year’s session, and with a narrower majority, any future embellishments will be harder to enact. That could also be a problem for House Speaker David Ralston, who could become a target for populist Republican legislators casting about for something to do.
Next year’s legislature and the ones following it are unlikely to enjoy the luxury of working with a budget as fat as this year’s, which was engorged by increased revenues as the state’s economy rebounded from the pandemic. Some $129 million of this year’s surplus will be put to a much-needed purpose: funding the mental health reform bill which Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law Monday. With the speaker’s muscular support, that bill ended up passing unanimously, but it did encounter some blowback from conservative activists who claimed it would make it easier to take away people’s guns and harder to arrest pedophiles.
Not only will it be harder in the future to fund a reform like this, it will be harder to put together a bipartisan effort like that forged by Ralston and Democratic Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver to pass this bill. Problems can seem very obvious once they’re addressed, and consensus can appear to be very easy to arrive at. This isn’t true at all. We may not see an achievement like the passage of House Bill 1013 for a long time.
Smyre, who is departing to become U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, gave his farewell speech Monday. The speech made clear just how much his legislative career was a joint project of the leadership, white and black, of the city of Columbus.
These civic leaders found work for him in Columbus after he graduated college and chose him to run for the legislature before he had any thought of doing so himself. When he lost his job due to a political dispute and was living on credit in the mid-70s, Synovus CEO Jimmy Blanchard hired him for what because a successful executive career. Over 48 years in the General Assembly, he had only three opponents, two Democrats and one Republican. His stretch of 15 elections over 30 years without opposition is a feat that is not likely to be repeated any time soon.
Some may view this as too cozy a relationship, just as Smyre has sometimes faced criticism within his caucus for working with Republicans. But this is much closer to the way the Founders intended for government to work than what we have today. Increasingly, politics is about representing causes, not communities. Smyre represented the community that chose his career and fostered him in it, and he was highly effective.
With the session concluded, the political season takes on a new pace. The May 24 primary — the focus of so much of the political drama this year — is just around the corner. Much of this year’s legislation, like the licensed carry and CRT bills, was crafted with the Republican primary in mind. But these bills will also provide the Democrats will the material they hope to exploit in November.
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