AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

House Rules "judge and jury" speaks softly, senators listen

House Rules Chairman John Meadows calls himself "pretty much judge and jury" on legislation flowing through his chamber. His committee gets to decide what goes to the House floor for a vote. If Meadows doesn't like a bill, or doesn't like the sponsor, chances are good the legislation is DOA when it hits the Rules Committee door.

So when Meadows showed up at the Senate Insurance Committee for a hearing on House Bill 838 last week, he stood at the front of the room but didn't offer any information about the legislation.  The bill - which sets in law a minimum commission for health insurance agents who sell certain policies - was his idea, but it's being carried by freshman Rep. Shaw Blackmon. Meadows, by the way, is an insurance agent.

Meadows didn't need to speak, any more than House Speaker Tom Murphy needed to speak in the 80s' and 90s' when he'd enter a committee room, cigar firmly in his mouth, as a bill important to him was being considered. Members of the Senate Insurance Committee need Meadows and his committee to get legislation onto the House floor over the next two weeks, and they know the last person they want to cross is the insurance man from Calhoun.

It is a delicate political balancing act for lawmakers, particularly late in the session, when work days run long but there are fewer of them left to make law. The session is scheduled to end March 24.

Senate Insurance Chairman Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, who represents the same part of the state as Meadows, has been a star in the chamber almost since the day he arrived in 2011. He was careful when talking to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about Meadows' bill and the possible conflict of interest of a politically powerful agent pushing a commission bill for agents.

Even though they've served the same area together for several years, Bethel said, "I don't know enough about the sponsors' business to have an opinion on that at all. What may be a conflict for me might not be a conflict for you. I don't know enough about any of the sponsors of the bills' business interests to know whether I would consider that a conflict."

Bethel said with a part-time legislature full of lawyers, doctors, insurance agents, pharmacists, engineers and a host of other occupations, it's pretty much impossible not to have lawmakers working in their areas of personal expertise sometimes in the General Assembly.

"My job as a senator or chairman is to look at each bill on its merit," he said. "Certainly you question where a bill comes from, how does it work, where does it fit in. You question all those things, but each individual member and the rules govern issues of conflicts."

The AJC found that lawmakers excused themselves from voting on bills over at least the perception of a conflict of interest about two-dozen times last session. That's out of 236 members voting on hundreds of bills.

Meadows' bill easily passed the House and Bethel's committee had an initial hearing on it  last week. It only took a few minutes and no one spoke against it. It could get a vote Monday, and then move to the full Senate for its consideration.

Bethel said, "I am personally going to give a hard look at anything that sets a price in the marketplace for anything, because I am a believer that markets work better when they are not heavily regulated."

However, he added, "There are times when things do have to be established and set because of imperfections in the market."

Former Democratic state Rep. Tom Bordeaux of Savannah said the issue is clearer than his fellow attorney is suggesting.

"This is counter to everything that is the free market, and that's what Republicans say they stand for," Bordeaux said. "This says, 'I am writing a bill, and this legislation is saying I am going to get paid.' "








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About the Author

James Salzer has covered state government and politics in Georgia since 1990.