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Short legislative session will make big waves

Posted: January 12, 2014 - 1:02am

ATLANTA — The legislative session that begins Monday will be quicker than any in recent years, and that will create a wave of changes that will ripple through Georgia.

When the U.S. Department of Justice sued the state for not allowing ample time for voters overseas with the military to get their ballots counted, U.S. District Judge Steve Jones’ decision last year created the tidal wave. He agreed with the DOJ that the primary runoff period wasn’t sufficiently long enough to get ballots from soldiers, sailors and airmen in time to be counted before the runoff voting begins.

Jones decreed that the primary must be held no later than June 3 rather than the July 15 date in state law. So, state leaders wanting to avoid low turnouts during the Memorial Day period picked May 24 as the date they’ll ask the legislature to set into law.

Wanting to get out of the capital to campaign is a major reason legislators are promising a quick session, but a bigger reason is a legal prohibition against fundraising before the General Assembly adjourns. It’s especially troubling for incumbents because their challengers are under no such prohibition.

State Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, tried to amend an ethics bill last year that would have extended the prohibition to challengers, but Democrats sniffed it out and got it stopped. Don’t be surprised if there’s another attempt.

Erasing the prohibition completely is probably too risky politically, especially in a year when a lobbyist gift ban is taking effect and an issue in Gov. Nathan Deal’s re-election will be allegations related to his use of campaign funds in his last campaign.

So, the pressure is great for a quick session. The state constitution limits it to 40 days, but nothing says it can’t be shorter. Indeed, Republicans shaved two days off the session shortly after taking power a decade ago.

The only required legislation is an appropriations bill for the next fiscal year. In the past, lawmakers spent a week in recess hearing from administration officials about their budget needs, a week that didn’t consume any of the 40 legislative days.

This year, there will be no recess, and the administration gets only a single afternoon besides the customary subcommittee hearings. The weeklong recess served three purposes: it gave the majority of the legislature firsthand information on the various agencies’ budgets; it provided a forum for minority legislators to raise their issues during questioning; and it allowed time for new legislators and committee chairmen to move into their offices.

Truncating the appropriations hearings is just one way the leadership will tighten its grip to prevent a runaway session. With less time for any of the committees to meet, chairmen will be less likely to hold hearings on minority bills or those they want blocked.

Such hearings, even if no votes were taken, provided some of each session’s biggest drama with compelling witnesses and occasional protests.

As far as the leadership goes, the whole session could be handled in a couple of weeks. The major bills are usually muscled through the majority caucuses easily enough, and conference-committee negotiations – where the substantive bargaining takes place – typically function smoothest with a deadline looming and other bills in play that can be used as bargaining chips.

But lobbyists and legislators will have to work harder to hammer out agreements on the routine bills.

To eventually adapt to the quickened pace, Georgia lawmakers will likely follow the example of colleagues in other states who pre-file major bills and hold pre-session committee hearings in the fall. Traditionally, pre-filing here has been considered the province of fringe lawmakers, but waiting too late to introduce a bill under the hurry-up agenda will mean being too far at the back of the line to get considered. That also makes it harder to deal with issues that pop up after the session has begun.

Local officials also must act sooner with their requests for local legislation.

Even special-interest groups, from chambers of commerce to social-services advocacy groups, will feel the pinch. Simply trying to schedule a time to bring members to meet with lawmakers means they’ll have to share the attention, so that Nurses’ Day will also likely be Firefighters’ Day, and Savannah Day could also be Brunswick Day.

In addition to a faster tempo, the 2014 session will feature the personal dynamics of multiple candidates for higher office scrambling for attention, some new people in mid-level leadership roles and efforts by a governor and speaker eager to minimize excitement to deprive their challengers of ammunition. It has the makings of an interesting session.

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