Yes, they’re coming back Monday. But it is easy to anticipate this time will be considerably different, and perhaps milder on the nerves, than what most Georgians have come to expect.
For starters, legislators aren’t going to have to carve out extra time to enjoy the recreational amenities, fine dining and well-stocked bars of the “big city” of Atlanta because the new ethics guidelines have kicked in. While there are loopholes aplenty, the reality is that for most legislators, particularly those not considered sufficiently powerful to be worth the risk of expense account trickery, most “fun” will have to be paid out of their own $173 per diem during the session or their $17,342 annual pay.
Like most folks, legislators can probably be relied upon to be more careful with their own money than that of others. Thus, they have far less reason to hang around the bright lights.
That’s not the only reason legislators are expected to keep their noses to the grindstone rather than the four-star dinner plate. Indeed, this is expected to be perhaps the shortest session ever — starting Jan. 13 and ending at the allotted 40 work days around the second week in March after a nose-to-the-grindstone period of five-day weeks.
No, these political creatures have not actually reformed nor has a lingering dalliance with big-city frivolities and mingling with the all-powerful in public or corporate offices been found unattractive. The reality is that this an election year for all of them — even the guiding-light governor — and they aren’t permitted to raise or accept campaign contributions while actually making decisions, writing laws, picking who gets tax money. In the past, that wasn’t much of a problem, but the first order of business this year is expected to be changing the state’s primary election to May 20. That’s almost two months earlier than the previous mid-July date.
Needless to say, this was not a choice made by the state’s politicians. Rather, a federal judge in 2013 struck down the three-week (21 days) interval between the primary and runoff as of insufficient duration to allow overseas military personnel to participate in the second phase. Hence, the federal standard used in other states of a 45-day interval must now be created. It is expected to be the legislature’s first order of business when its doors reopen next Monday.
If changed and the legislators manage to get done by mid-March, that will leave them two months to wander about with their hands out. Under the old days/dates, even if they didn’t leave until April sometime, there were still three months to ask for and collect campaign contributions. And, of course, while those elected in the past are tied up with the people’s business, their potential opponents are free to go around asking for and collecting campaign money with which to try to unseat them.
Not to mention the old trick of a politician playing coy about seeking re-election to gain free publicity until the last moment is similarly gone. With the elections moved up, so are the qualification/paperwork-filing dates ... to the first week in March.
Additionally, it is easier to predict what will get attention and has the best chance for positive action due to this being an election year. It is, for example, no secret the state has a whole lot more revenue coming in and available for spending than in years past marked by slash, cut-and-burn policy actions.
So will reams of new funding go to repair the so-many clearly broken obligations of state government — protecting children under state supervision, fixing the murderously understaffed prison system, actually supporting the new, so-called community-based juvenile-justice system?
Not to even mention the huge, huge burden thrown onto the backs of local taxpayers by the “community-based” mental-health system that has turned the County Jail into a psychiatric ward? That overhaul was to be state-paid as well, yet, as this newspaper recently reported: “Mental-health professionals regularly visit the jail, but they’re limited to three people who spend a combined total of 12 hours each week.”
It seems more likely, and has already been in open discussion, that the governor and legislators will mend the HOPE scholarship cuts that set many technical-college students adrift.
Abused children, prisoners, juveniles and the mentally limited are not “constituencies” to consider in an election year. They themselves can’t vote or their parents/friends are not numerous enough to change outcomes. On the other hand, schoolchildren number in the hundreds of thousands and have parents/grandparents, not to mention that college students and out-of-work adults needing training in new skills can themselves vote. They are “constituencies.”
Similarly, the only “hot-button issues” likely to get much attention in this rush-rush session will be those with large advocacy groups known to cast votes based on a single topic. Thus, the measure to allow concealed-carry of guns on college campuses, in public buildings, churches, bars and similar will likely be considered ... and adopted.
Items like accepting federal health-care reform dollars, allowing gay marriages, legalizing casinos/racetracks — much less marijuana — there simply “won’t be time for.”
In a sense, Georgians appear to have transitioned away from having to worry about what might be the worst the General Assembly when in session might do. Now they have a new concern, regarding a legislature that might well simply ignore what really needs doing because, most inconveniently, such might take too much time away from seeking re-election.