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Fast means slow at the Capitol

Posted: February 5, 2014 - 1:12am

ATLANTA — Here’s irony for you: a faster legislative session means slower action on major legislation.

At least that’s the expectation of lobbyists and Capitol insiders gauging the impact of moving the primary election to earlier in the year. Having the primary in May instead of July prompts lawmakers to rush to get their session over with so they can campaign for re-election and solicit donations.

Although this is the first year of the change, May primaries and rushed legislative sessions will be routine every other year, unless lawmakers agree to end runoffs, which is why a federal judge ordered the earlier election.

The flow of legislation used to be on a two-year cycle, with introduction one year, extensive committee hearings and then passage in the second year. Only minor bills and initiatives by popular governors are exempt.

Complex bills take time for lawmakers to understand. And hearings for interest groups take time. A half-dozen hearings is common for wide-reaching bills; holding two-dozen isn’t unheard of.

There just isn’t time for all of those hearings in these newly compressed, election-year sessions. Election years already make politicians reluctant to do anything remotely controversial

Consider two bills by respected legislators that have widespread public support but would make significant policy change.

One is a bill to expand Georgia’s limited medical-marijuana law to include more than just cancer and glaucoma research to include cannabis oil. It’s sponsored by Rep. Allen Peake, a conservative Republican from Macon.

An InsiderAdvantage poll conducted Jan. 14 showed 51 percent of those questioned favor doctor-prescribed medical marijuana and derivatives, with only 27 percent opposed. The remaining 22 percent had no opinion.

Even Gov. Nathan Deal and House Speaker David Ralston have told reporters they are open to the idea.

Will it pass this year? Peake is the first to admit it is unlikely because of the groundwork needed to bring his colleagues to the point he reached at the bedside of a 5-year-old girl whose seizures are calmed by the cannabis oil.

“I feel very comfortable we will have a hearing, maybe several hearings,” he told the Macon Telegraph.

Another bill that ordinary folks may support is Rep. Mike Dudgeon’s proposal to change the law so that property owners can contract with one company to finance, install and maintain solar panels on their rooftops, which currently violates the law unless they are licensed electric utilities. The intricacies of finance and electrical-grid balancing are tricky enough, but now add to that the competing messages of environmentalists and corporations fueled by the lobbying firepower of the state’s 95 electric utilities.

Dudgeonv R-Johns Creek, just hopes to have a single hearing on it this year, with passage sometime in a future session.

Since the Republicans took control of the General Assembly a dozen years ago, they have usually scheduled three-day work weeks, which spread the 40-day session over several months. That created many opportunities to hold hearings.

The new five-day workweeks, with almost no committee meetings on Mondays or Fridays, greatly reduces the days hearings can be held.

The net effect is that the wheels of government grind that much slower.

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