Every January, state lawmakers from all corners of Georgia gather in Atlanta for 40 days of grandstanding, shenanigans, and occasional policymaking. This year was no different.
Despite being what's considered the quietest 40-day Georgia General Assembly in recent memory, there were plenty of opportunities for back-scratching and embarrassment. There were proposals to give Georgia gun owners more places to tote their shootin' irons, battles between the state House of Representatives and Senate over how much they could suckle on lobbyists' teats, and efforts to expand Georgia's already heinous immigration law. Lawmakers fought tooth and nail to pass a bill pushed by telecommunications companies that would keep the state's rural towns in the Internet dark ages. And in the eleventh hour, lawmakers unveiled a plan to prevent state employees from getting abortions. Yes, it was quieter than previous years. But it was just as sleazy.
Per tradition, CL sifted through the muck to highlight the bad, the worse, and the unimaginably grotesque. Without further ado, the 24th annual Golden Sleaze Awards.
- Joeff Davis
The "Die, Bambi, Die" Award
Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen
The last time you went hunting, while you were perched high in a deer stand, armed with a long-range scope rifle, wearing night-vision goggles, and slathering doe urine on your face to attract bucks, did you think, "I could sure use an advantage?" Heath, a Bremen Republican, heard those thoughts. This year, he proposed allowing hunters to use silencers. The measure would reduce forest noise pollution and prevent gunshots from scaring off other animals, thus helping hunters cram more kills into their busy schedules. See, it's a win-win. Should you wish to track down Heath to discuss the proposal, don't bother emailing. Or even asking him in person. The lawmaker, frustrated over emails complaining about former Sen. Chip Rogers landing a $150,000 gig at Georgia Public Broadcasting, started responding with form letters. And when TV crews asked him about that standoffish tactic, he ran and hid in a Gold Dome office.
- Joeff Davis
- HIGH-SPEED FAIL: State Rep. Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming, wanted to keep rural communities in the Dark Ages.
The "Dial-Up's Good Enuf for Y'all" Award
Rep. Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming
The Forsyth County Republican inadvertently showed that the Other Georgia — the foreign land lying far outside metro Atlanta — still matters. Hamilton tried to tell small towns that if they want access to Internet service with enough bandwidth to stream an HD movie, they must wait for the likes of AT&T or Windstream to deem them worthy, instead of laying their own fiber. Trying to save citizens from the threat of public Internet, he ignored a parade of small-town mayors, residents and city managers testifying that private companies are failing to offer them Internet fast enough for a single school or hospital. But rather than die waiting for the phone company, Democrats and rural Republicans rejected Hamilton's handout to Big Telecom.
The "Guns at Pep Rallies" Awards
Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, and Rep. Charles Gregory, R-Kennesaw
After the recent rash of mass shootings, Colorado and other states made efforts to restrict easy access to guns. In Georgia, it's just the reverse. In addition to actually making it easier for the mentally ill to get hold of firearms, a Jasperse-sponsored bill would've opened bars, churches, parts of college campuses, and even some courthouses to licensed gun owners. Alas, the milquetoast GOP nixed turning those places into free-fire zones. Gregory, the obvious heir to the late Bobby Franklin's title as wackiest Gold Dome politico, called out his party on its tyranny for failing to protect his God-given right to carry heat pretty much anywhere, any time. Gregory's own proposal — to waive the license required to carry a concealed weapon — went nowhere. Maybe that's because he filed his bill a mere five days after the Newtown school massacre. Too soon?
- Joeff Davis
The "Cell Yes in Your Backyard!" Award
Sen. Don Parsons, R-AT&T
Telecommunication companies and local governments have played tug-of-war for several years over where cell-phone towers can be located. Parsons found a way to give the AT&Ts, Verizons, and Sprints of the world a break — and the ability to silence their opponent with paperwork. Under his bill, counties would need to respond to a telecom company's application to erect one of the eyesores within 150 days. Sounds reasonable. Only in this case, if the deadline wasn't met, the request would automatically be approved. In addition, the bill would limit the amount companies could be charged by counties and cities in consultants' fees. A former Bellsouth executive-turned-telecom consultant couldn't have written a better bill. Oh, wait — Parsons is a Bellsouth executive-turned-telecom consultant. Bet his clients would be thankful for all the help!
- Joeff Davis
The "Meme Machine" Award
Rep. Earnest Smith, D-Augusta
Smith co-sponsored a proposal that would've made it illegal to Photoshop a person's head onto someone else's body that was nude, engaging in sexual conduct or otherwise obscene. If passed, offenders could be charged with a misdemeanor and/or a $1,000 fine. "No one has a right to make fun of anyone," Smith told Morris News Service. "You have a right to speak, but no one has a right to disparage another person. It's not a First Amendment right." Unfortunately, Ernie, it is. The only attention the lawmaker's efforts received came from conservative blogger Andre Walker, who digitally slapped Smith's shiny round skull onto the body of a well-endowed male porn star. A meme was born. When later asked how it felt to be a victim of something he sought to ban, Smith replied: "It's clear that we need to do something."
- Joeff Davis
- LOCK AND LOAD: State Sen. Bill Jackson, R-Augusta, used groundless facts about frying pans and hammers to argue against gun control.
The "1 + 1 = Git Yer Hands Off Mah Guns" Award
Sen. Bill Jackson, R-Augusta
GOP lawmakers have used every National Rifle Association talking point available to fend off gun control. Few waxed more poetically on the issue than Jackson, who proclaimed that more people have been murdered with hammers than with firearms. The Columbia County Republican then shared an anecdote about an assailant who mauled a victim with a frying pan. "If they're going to take the guns, let's take the frying pans and the hammers," he said. In all apparent seriousness. In front of people. Although Jackson was trying to argue that national gun-control calls were a knee-jerk reaction, his groundless claims didn't help. And his figures, as numerous observers pointed out, were entirely inaccurate. (Although they might be true in Jackson's district, come to think of it.) When asked where he got his implausible statistic, he simply couldn't recall. "It might have even been twice as many," he said. "I'll try and come up with it." Still waiting.
- Joeff Davis
The "Slushies Are Tasty" Award
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle
The Guv Lite pulled out all the stops in pushing a pair of companion bills through both chambers that would set aside $100 million over a five-year period toward a shiny new Invest Georgia venture capital fund. If passed, the legislation would create an independent investment board responsible for overseeing the fund, as well as finding additional private investors. Five unpaid board members appointed by Cagle, the governor, and the House speaker would determine which private-sector startups would receive financial support. Theoretically, such a proposal could create more jobs in Georgia. But critics rightly raised concerns about the board's independence, and the danger that Cagle was simply creating a slush fund. More importantly, they questioned whether Georgia should be bankrolling entrepreneurs. The VC fund is rife with risk, but that hasn't stopped Casey from rolling the dice with taxpayer dollars.
The "MINoTaurs are coming" Award
Rep. Jay Neal, R-LaFayette
The LaFayette Republican raised eyebrows with a pro-life bill that prohibited human embryos from being used for anything other than reproductive purposes. (We were told that, during a hearing, Neal showed fellow lawmakers photos of a tortoise, eagle, and fetus, and noted that only one of the examples wasn't protected.) The legislation would also help prevent the spread of "manimals" — human-animal hybrids bred in petri dishes by mad scientists. Biomedical officials said such experiments weren't conducted in Georgia. And most likely never would be.
- Joeff Davis
The "Listen, I'm a Fan of the Indigo Girls" Award
Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City
House resolutions under the Gold Dome are largely ceremonial. Lawmakers create these harmless measures to recognize their constituents for mundanities like outstanding student achievement or special anniversaries. Only two have been defeated in recent memory: one that honored Jane Fonda's charity work and another celebrating President Barack Obama's 2008 election. So what happened when a gay state lawmaker tried to officially congratulate an LGBT music ensemble on its 20th anniversary? Ramsey, the father of Georgia's anti-immigration legislation, blocked it. The resolution, sponsored by Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates, would have honored the Atlanta Freedom Marching Band. The Peachtree City representative claimed that some lawmakers simply had some concerns about the measure. (It passed the next day.) But given how infrequently lawmakers block resolutions, it's hard to imagine any reason other than the fact that it commends an LGBT organization.
- Joeff Davis
- SWISS CHEESE: House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, prevented meaningful ethics reform by insisting on loopholes.
The "All-Expenses-Paid Loopholes" Award
House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge
Ralston introduced two proposals early in the session that sought to address lobbyist gifts and how local government candidates file campaign reports. But his bill had flaws, including expanding the definition of a lobbyist to include just about anyone with an opinion about a cause. He backed a later fix, a $75 cap on lobbyist gifts containing its fair share of loopholes, that didn't apply to subcommittees. It also remained lax on rules about travel for public officials — something Ralston himself has enjoyed in the past. In addition, lawyers would be exempt from registering as lobbyists. Common Cause Georgia Executive Director William Perry told CL that Ralston's initial approach was "completely disingenuous." "[He showed] you can call something a ban and it can be worse than a gift cap." And state senators later called his legislation "opaque" and "shameful" before making major revisions to the ethics reform package. A revised bill still containing some loopholes unanimously passed on Sine Die with his backing.
The "Blame Obama" Award
Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson
Is it really necessary to codify partisan vilification of the Affordable Care Act? Apparently, the insurance agent from Jackson thinks so. Obviously assuming that the new law will raise prices, Jones proposed legislation that would require Georgia insurers to explicitly state at the bottom of bills how much of a premium hike comes as the result of the president's health care overhaul. Further, it would say that the Legislature, governor, and insurance commissioner weren't at fault. The kicker? The law would expire at the end of 2014, giving the impression that it was simply intended to give its author and other Republicans an extra bump in next year's midterm elections.
- Joeff Davis
- ED OR ALIVE: Rep. Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, morphed from a moderate Republican into a right-wing zombie.
The "Walking Ed" award
Rep. Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta
We saw a glimmer of the common-sense Buckhead Republican we once knew when he implored his colleagues to buck the threats of anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and support the bed tax, which could stave off massive cuts to hospitals. Or when he proposed allowing state reservoir funds to help pay for water conservation. We'd like to see more of that person, and less of the right-wing zombie championing legislation that would allow parents to stage coups in schools, shrink Fulton County, or promote the Tennessee-Georgia border dispute as a realistic solution to the state's long-term water woes. And ease off the anti-labor union bills, too. Yes, we know you want to serve in Congress. But step away from the dark side, Ed. You're better than this.
The "Hide in my Bosom" Award
Gov. Nathan Deal
State lawmakers, who serve part-time, have basically two responsibilities: cast votes and kowtow to Georgia Power's commands. The governor only made them do the latter this session. When it came time for the General Assembly to take up a bill to tax Georgia hospitals' net profits, a measure required to pull down vital federal funding, some conservatives started grumbling. They thought the policy would violate a blood oath made to Grover Norquist, the Washington, D.C.-based anti-tax activist who's made a career out of telling elected officials how to do their jobs. Rather than ask lawmakers to do what's best for the state's medical network and risk getting primaried next November for breaking a tax pledge, Deal pulled some administrative acrobatics — and found a way to task an unelected bureaucrat with the responsibility. And when he realized that lawmakers would use a bill allowing up to $300 million in public cash to be spent on subsidizing a new Atlanta Falcons stadium as a grandstanding opportunity, he walked across the street and asked Mayor Kasim Reed to handle the deal. Deal, who essentially gave former state Sen. Chip Rogers — a wing-nut favorite and re-election threat — a $150,000 golden parachute to leave the Gold Dome late last year, is the Capitol's sugar daddy, and we're all the worse off for it.
The "If I Only Had a Friend" Award
Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven
Another year, another bullshit bill beating up on MARTA. Jacobs, chairman of the Gold Dome's MARTA oversight committee, pulled a page from last year's legislative playbook and added a twist. In addition to giving mayors in Fulton and DeKalb counties' predominantly Republican new cities a strong hand in appointing MARTA's 12-member board, his legislation would've mandated the privatization of the transit agency's bus cleaners, payroll, paratransit drivers, and many other operations. MARTA CEO Keith Parker had already signaled that he would outsource some services. But Jacobs wanted to force his hand. In addition, he wanted to tinker with employee pension plans. Union and transit officials warned Jacobs that his moves could run afoul of federal laws and jeopardize federal funding. But Jacobs pressed on. When it appeared his bills were dead on arrival in the Senate, he snuck language into an unrelated bill, pissing off members of the upper chamber. Jacobs got his board appointment changes, but finally decided to retry his privatization scheme next year. He might want to make some buddies in the Senate between now and then.
- Joeff Davis
- FULTON FAIL: House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, pushed numerous proposals undermining Fulton County.
The "Fuck Fulton" Award
House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton
The takers on Pryor Street are so inept that the makers in North Fulton — led by Jones — tried to convince the Legislature in staging a local government coup. One of her many bills aimed at destroying Fulton County government would increase the homestead exemption in the county, shaving an estimated $48 million from the county government's annual revenues, and possibly leading to funding cuts for Grady Memorial Hospital. Another Jones proposal would bar the county from making up the difference by raising taxes. And then there's the GOP-backed county redistricting map that cuts one Democratic seat on the commission. Ironically, while seeking to impose "starve the beast" austerity on the Democrat-controlled county, Jones also penned a bill to allow Milton, the mostly Republican city in north Fulton, to sidestep its charter's prohibition against raising taxes. Where's Grover Norquist when you need him?
- Joeff Davis
- SHHHH: State Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, tried to make details about lethal injections a secret.
The "Georgia Needs a Gitmo" Award
Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville
Last year, Georgia halted its well-oiled execution machine after a death-row inmate's attorneys revealed that the state was obtaining its increasingly hard-to-find lethal cocktail from the back of a driving school in England. Yes, you read that right. The news embarrassed Georgia. But, rather than reconsider the state's obsession with executions, the Dawsonville Republican wanted to cover them up. Tanner, at the urging of the governor and the state department of corrections, slapped an amendment on a bill that would've kept secret the names of doctors and guards involved in lethal injections. It would also make classified the names of the company that "manufactures, supplies, compounds, or prescribes" the chemicals that the state uses in carrying out lethal injections.
The "Bend Over" Award
Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta
Health care costs are rising, says Beach. And it's not because patients are being charged 40 times the cost of an aspirin in hospitals. It's because doctors are making patients take unnecessary tests to protect themselves from malpractice lawsuits. Under Beach's bill, medical malpractice claims would no longer be heard in court but by an 11-member board stacked with doctors, hospital administrators, lawyers and only two "patient advocates." In other words, medical professionals should be able to regulate themselves. Turns out no one, including the Medical Association of Georgia, was in support of his proposal, except for a handful of health care outfits. There's also the pesky issue of the legislation violating the Seventh Amendment. The bill was held in committee to be studied over the summer. We hope the lawmaker consults the U.S. Constitution while rereading his bill at the beach.
- Joeff Davis
The "water boy" Award
Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry
The middle Georgia Republican carried a complex and controversial bill pushed by the state Environmental Protection Division that tree-huggers branded a water-grab in southwest Georgia aimed at helping an engineering firm store and later pump water to metro Atlanta. House Speaker David Ralston shot down the proposal in the final 15 minutes of the legislative session. In addition, Tolleson tried to amend a bill permitting movie crews to film on the state's beaches with language that critics said would have hurt Georgia's stream buffer laws. Earth-loving lawmakers partnered with coastal senators who fought hard to pass the Hollywood legislation to deep-six Tolleson's bill. You'd think the chairman of the Senate environmental and natural resources committee would consider protecting Georgia's streams. Apparently not.
- Joeff Davis
- DAZED AND CONFUSED: State Rep. Dusty Hightower, R-Carrollton, gummed up the immigration bill.
The "budding xenophobe" Award
Rep. Dusty Hightower, R-Carrollton
In the opening days of the session, the Carrollton Republican introduced a bill that would have cut some of the red tape that businesses and state agencies have to navigate to comply with Georgia's stringent immigration law. Then, in early February, the bill somehow morphed into an ugly beast that would've made our state immigration law even more disgusting. Immigration advocates noted that the version that passed the lower chamber could bar undocumented immigrants from receiving some public benefits, including enrolling their children in elementary school. It could even possibly affect citizens applying for a homestead exemption. When asked about the changes by the Associated Press, Hightower sounded befuddled. He apparently didn't understand the ramifications of his bill. But he wouldn't say whether he'd fix the language. Congrats, Dusty. You sound like someone who's eager to please the wing-nuts of his party and who doesn't understand his own legislation.
The "Stonewall Jackson Preservation Society" Award
Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson
Benton, a noted birther who has long advocated hanging the Ten Commandments inside the Gold Dome, this year wanted to wrap his arms around his dead confederate forebears. The Jeffersonian penned a bill to ensure the continued visibility of Georgia's monuments, statues, plaques, or other "commemorative symbols" — including memorials celebrating Dixie. Local governments and even the state could be charged with a misdemeanor if they removed, concealed, or altered them in any way. The stalled bill also would've mandated that such shrines must be displayed at a "site of similar prominence" if moved to another location. "We're not saying they can't move them," the lawmaker told the Atlanta Daily World. "We're just saying they can't just put them in a field somewhere."
- Joeff Davis
The "Deconstructing Druid Hills" Award
Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs
Willard could've upended Georgia's historic preservation code — all for the benefit of a single developer. Druid Hills residents say Willard's bill was intended to pave the way for Atlanta attorney Robert Buckler to develop a seven-unit subdivision, Clifton Ridge, on a parcel currently zoned for only three houses in the historic neighborhood. It would be one thing if Willard had somehow been hoodwinked into sponsoring the bill. But this is the third year in a row that Buckler, a wily Troutman Sanders partner, has used his close ties to state lawmakers, including the Sandy Springs legislator, to get the legislation introduced. Willard's saving grace is the fact that the bill eventually stalled in his own judiciary committee. Given that the developer has failed time and again in his attempts to create the tiny subdivision, why put your name on a stinker idea of a bill in the first place?
The "Dudes in Powdered Wigs are Sexxxy" Award
Rep. Kevin Cooke, R-Carrollton
Cooke and five other relatively newbie lawmakers have spent too many late nights trolling tea party message boards. The gang pushed for a resolution urging Congress to repeal the 17th Amendment, which established that U.S. senators would be elected by popular vote instead of by state legislatures. They argued that doing so would help prevent the next "Obamacare" and other "unconstitutional laws proposed by the federal government." It was the latest outburst by a growing number of Republican lawmakers obsessed with "originalism," the belief that today's laws should uphold the Founding Fathers' initial intent. How about we try passing bills that address present concerns — say, inadequate transportation funding or a broken education system — rather than waste time crying over ships that have already sailed?
The "Subsidizing Homophobia" Award
Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs
Earlier this year, the New York Times told the world some lovely news about Georgia: State money is going to pay for student tuition at private schools that bar gay students. Turns out a popular tax credit program allows parents to donate to private educational foundations that funnel the cash to private schools, some of which have policies that allow students to be expelled just for advocating gay tolerance. While no longer the heavy-hitter he was when former ally Glenn Richardson wielded the Speaker's gavel, Ehrhart decided to increase the tax scholarship program's cap from about $50 million to $80 million. Ehrhart's so shameless in his support for the program that he brazenly called it a "voucher." Speaking of shameless, he also operates one of the nonprofits receiving the donations.
The "Save the Worst for Last" Award
Sens. Mike Crane, R-Newnan and Judson Hill, R-Marietta
Just days before the legislative session ended, an abortion debate finally reared its head under the Gold Dome. Few expected it to happen as the Senate discussed House Bill 246, a proposal to give the Georgia World Congress Center Authority the power to make choices about its employees' benefits. Crane introduced an amendment that would prohibit any state employee insurance plan from covering abortions. He and Hill said it would protect taxpayers from funding what he considered to be an immoral practice. The bill eventually stalled on Sine Die. However, the governor said he might consider taking executive action in the months to come.