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Lawmakers should be allowed to do their jobs

POSTED: April 14, 2014 5:02 p.m.

Gov. Nathan Deal currently is reviewing the hundreds of bills passed during this year’s General Assembly session. He presumably will have everything signed or vetoed by April 30.

Some of these bills were carefully drafted by the legislative counsel’s office, thoughtfully reviewed in committee, and voted on by lawmakers who had time to study the measures and understand what they were considering.

All too many of the bills were frantically adopted by legislators who didn’t have time to read the documents and had no idea what they were voting on. These aren’t minor bills, either —they involve the spending of billions of tax dollars, or could determine whether some Georgians live or die.

This happens because of the longstanding practice of holding back dozens of important bills until the final hours of the legislative session, then dumping them on frazzled lawmakers and demanding that they vote immediately.

If you ever had the opportunity to hang around the Capitol and watch the final days of a session, when bill after bill is slapped together and shotgunned in this fashion, you would be disgusted. Or maybe outraged.

When you conduct the people’s business in this slam-bang manner, you end up with laws that are sloppily written and thrown out in court or contain errors that nullify the bill sponsor’s original intention.

A classic example of this occurred back in the 1990s when a bill was adopted at session’s end that had been erroneously amended. As passed by the Legislature, the measure made it a criminal offense for a nurse to give a patient a shot or for diabetics to give themselves insulin injections.

This year, a complicated bill that allows guns to be carried in nearly every public venue came up for adoption just before midnight on the session’s last day. Needless to say, there wasn’t much time for debate.

This late-session pileup involves not just ordinary bills but the state budget as well. Legislators seldom have more than an hour to read the budget after the final version has been put on their desks. There is little time to analyze properly how taxpayers’ money is being spent before the vote on the budget is being called.

Some lawmakers have recognized the insanity of this process and called for changes.

On the last day of the session, Sen. Nan Orrock (D-Atlanta) warned her colleagues:

“The logjam we have created here is not going to work to the best interests of Georgia. The pressure will be on to race through bills, to call the question, to tell people to take their seat, to cut off debate.

“We have squandered far too much time over these past weeks and months not doing the people’s business, and now today we’ll be faced with a hailstorm of paper without adequate time to debate these bills,” she said.

Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus) proposed a rule change that would have required conference committee reports — the compromise versions of bills worked out by House and Senate negotiators — to be available prior to the session’s final day. That at least would give senators some time during the waning hours to read what they were being asked to pass.

“Anybody who has been here on the 40th day knows the games that get played,” McKoon said. “If you are a legislator who doesn’t know what’s in the bill, how can we expect the public to have any idea what’s in a bill and have any opportunity for meaningful input? It winds up producing bad public policy.”

Although a majority of the senators — 32 out of 56 — signed the proposed rules change, the Senate leadership would not let it out of committee.

The tradition of slamming through bills that lawmakers haven’t had time to read could be ended very quickly by the leadership, headed by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in the Senate and Speaker David Ralston in the House of Representatives.

They won’t do it, of course, because the system allows them to control what passes by holding bills back and then shoving them in front of lawmakers who have no choice but to make uninformed votes.

It is all about maintaining power under the Gold Dome. It is why a flawed process results in bad legislation being passed, year after year.

Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com that reports on state government and politics. He can be reached at tcrawford@gareport.com.

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