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Tom Baxter

On Crossover Day, a Georgia legislature in flux

By Tom Baxter

To the infrequent visitor, there’s a certain Dorian Gray quality to the Golden Dome these days. In the chambers where votes are taken, the senators and representatives seem to be getting progressively younger. Outside in the halls, where deals are made, the lobbyists (to say nothing of the reporters) are growing older and grayer at an alarming rate.

Some hallway veterans will tell you that’s a testament to the importance of institutional memory. As institutional memory declines in the chambers, so the thinking goes, its value increases in the halls.

There’s probably something to that. By my count, 59 of the House’s 180 members are in their first or second terms. That’s a healthy turnover, but it doesn’t fully capture how young the chambers are now, relative to the halls. Of the remaining House members, only 35 go back before 2002, the pivotal year in the Republican takeover. It would take no time at all to round up that many lobbyists who go back that far.

Certainly, institutional memory is at a premium. But I think there’s another reason why the lobbyists, be they do-gooders, corporate hacks or state agency minions, look more haggard than the lawmakers. Their jobs are just not as much fun any more.

It’s not just the effect more stringent ethics requirements have had on wining and dining. That only affected the well-heeled business lobbyists, anyway. Changes in the rules regarding how and when legislation can be amended have taken a lot of the fun out the process itself.

“I’ve been here a quarter century and this is my quietest Crossover Day ever,” one lobbyist said last Friday, on the annual day when a piece of legislation must pass one chamber to live on in this session.

He wasn’t complaining, mind you, but in comparison to some freewheeling sessions of the past, this crossover day had all the electricity of a bank. Lobbyists still flocked to the midday Rules Committee to get the final lay of the land, and lawmakers and aides shuffled between the House and Senate as the hours drew down. But they shuffled quietly, and purposefully, and by the end of the day most of what was expected to cross over had, and what wasn’t hadn’t, with only a smattering of suspense.

“You don’t have characters up here, like you used to,” said another lobbyist, who blamed this on the way redistricting has been refined to make districts predictable for one part or the other. “If somebody wants to run now, all they have to do is win their primary.”

To add more gray hairs to the lobbyists’ heads, this is proving to be among the hardest in what have now been several generations of Republican dominance for them to get a handle on.

“The first generation was, ‘Oh s***, we won,’’’ a third lobbyist said Friday. “The second generation was ‘Yeah, we won, and we’re going to whip your ass.’” And that only covers the first three or four of what have now been seven election cycles since Tom Murphy was speaker.

The latest crop could be described as the second leg of the tea party generation, a sort of revolution within the original Republican revolution. It gets high marks for its earnestness from some lobbyists, and low marks for its tolerance from others. In this session, it has been mostly clearing its throat and going along with the agenda, with the exception of second-termer Dusty Hightower’s successful fight against the Georgia Chamber and the National Federation of Independent Business on a bill giving more clout to insurance policyholders.

But there are clear signs that the newest generation has arrived with a deep distrust of the way business has been done before their coming, and suspicions about what they hear in the halls.

“They don’t like Big,” yet another hallway denizen said.

That could be good news for some of the little folks in the hallways, but many of them have their differences with the new generation on matters of social politics or partisan philosophy. At this stage little about the newest generation seems predictable.

What all this might mean to the fate of this year’s transportation bill is anybody’s guess, but underneath the quiet puttering of this year’s session, there could be bigger changes coming in the future.

Tom Baxter

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.


1 Comment

  1. FredaRutherford March 17, 2015 12:19 pm

    Well, the Senate and House AG Committees weren’t very suspicious of the plastic bag lobbyists that wrote the Ban the Bag Ban. Hung onto their every utterance and couldn’t pass their bill fast enough. Home rule be damned.Report


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