The little session that couldn’t

By Tom Baxter

Want to hear a good Georgia joke? Last week the Alabama legislature passed a medical marijuana bill and ours couldn’t.

Couldn’t, not wouldn’t. In both states, Republicans sponsored the bill, there was a lot of citizen support and a broad consensus over the issue. But in Georgia an unrelated measure requiring insurers to cover autism therapy for children was amended into the bill, and both causes went down in flames. There were some problems in the bill, but it wasn’t the problems that doomed it. It was the bolloxed nature of the process.

That was common in the session that closed last week. It was a banner year for show-out, red-meat election year bills. But whenever the subject shifted even slightly away from the billboard issues like guns and ObamaCare, this legislature collapsed into incoherence, unsure what it believed about much of anything and incapable of moving forward.

A proposal to allow TSPLOT proposals for a sales tax increase of a fraction of a penny would seem to be a Republican no-brainer in an election year, and indeed the measure had support from both the Cobb Chamber and the Tea Party. But the bill died in the confusion of the final hours.

These fire-breathing Republicans could not even manage to pass a bill prohibiting Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand from personally profiting from  delinquent tax collections. Reason? It just didn’t get called up in the Senate. “That’s just the 40th Day,” Sen. Brandon Beach, an Alpharetta Republican, said.

This session was speeded up to give lawmakers the maximum amount of time to raise money and campaign before this year’s early primary, so a lot of things it might have made sense for them to pass got left on the table.
It’s just a shame that that they found time to pass so much else of potential harm — the bills that have gotten lots of headlines, plus several that haven’t, such as the one which allows for-profit probation companies to shield information from the Georgia Open Records Act, so that we may not even be able to know how many prisoners are under their supervision.

This legislature couldn’t get it together enough to pass a workable law so that victims of seizure disorders could be treated with cannabis oil. But it still found the time to revisit the issue of drug tests for food stamp and welfare recipients, which will yet again face a legal challenge for which the taxpayers will be on the hook. It would be interesting to know what this and the ban on state and local officials assisting citizens in signing up for the Affordable Care Act will end up costing the state.

It’s a sure sign of nervousness about the impact this session could have on the general election that Gov. Nathan Deal signaled that he may step into the medical marijuana issue, perhaps with an executive order to make it possible for the families which have lobbied for its use.

Setting up a legislative trench line to stop the Medicaid expansion and allowing guns in churches and bars may play well in the primary, but the accumulated heavy-handedness of this session gives state Sen. Jason Carter a good source for material as he tries to win over independent voters in this year’s governor’s race. If Deal weren’t worried about that, he wouldn’t be wandering into such strange territory as medical marijuana.

Deal still has to decide whether to trim any of the red meat with a veto pen, and line-item a budget chock full of new tax breaks and a $17 million parking lot for the Falcons Stadium that came as a surprise to many. It was a short session, but it has left the governor with lots of headaches.

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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