AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Passage of $1 billion road tax hike spurs new push for transparency

The late-session, late-night decision to tack a new hotel tax onto legislation raising $1 billion a year for road and bridge projects may spur yet another fight over transparency - or lack of transparency - in General Assembly lawmaking.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, has fought a rather lonely battle in recent years to force the Legislature to slow down a bit at the end of the session, when lawmakers traditionally pass the state's $22 billion budget and dozens of the most important bills in a big rush.

The deal-making is generally hot-and-heavy in the final days, and non-leadership members of the General Assembly - most of the 236 members - often complain that they aren't given enough time to be sure what they are voting on.

Now McKoon is being joined by state Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen, a former Senate Finance Committee chairman on the outs with the chamber's leadership.

In his newsletter to constituents this month, Heath said he hopes to introduce a proposed constitutional amendment during the upcoming 2016 session "to protect our citizens" by requiring that so-called "conference committee reports" - essentially final versions of bills - be made public at least a day before the General Assembly has to vote on the legislation.

He also wants a constitutional amendment requiring a written estimate of how much it will cost each time a legislator proposes raising taxes or creating new tax breaks. Lawmakers are supposed to get fiscal estimates done before bills are passed, but often don't, and Heath has called them out on it in the past.

Last session provided plenty of fodder for Heath's argument, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in detail. Last minute-deals in the General Assembly are legendary, from special tax breaks that benefit governors to attempts to keep some ethics investigations involving politicians secret.

Heath said lawmakers were blindsided by the decision by legislative leaders to include the $5 per night hotel tax in the transportation bill, which also raised gas taxes to pay for road and bridge projects. Some may have been blindsided, but the deal also won the votes of 171 of 236 members of the General Assembly.

The transportation bill, passed on the  second to last night of the session, was brought out by a "conference committee" of six legislators who put together the final plan. Such conference committees are common late in each session, and they are often criticized because they can create entirely new proposals and bring them to the Senate and House in the final hours or minutes of the session. Lawmakers are then quickly asked to approve the reports, and since they generally come with the blessing of House and Senate leaders,  it's hard for members to say no, even if they're not exactly sure what the new bill says.

There is a reason everything is done at the last minute, Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, said at the end of the 2015 session. Orrock should know since she was once a floor leader for Gov. Zell Miller, who helped push through more than a few last-minute bills during his 24 years as governor and lieutenant governor.

“Cramming in hundreds of bills in the waning days and hours of the session is part of a very deliberate plan because it’s the way to get things passed that would not likely survive scrutiny from the Legislature and the public,” Orrock said.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, defended the last-minute billfest.

"You know we do things kind of quickly around here sometimes," he said at the end of the session. "We’re citizen-legislators, we’re limited to 40 days. I don’t think the people of Georgia want us to be here any longer than that. We could stay here all year probably like Washington but they don’t seem to do much better vetting things sometimes.

“On most things, I think we did take our time and get it right.”

Heath would like to give legislators, and the public, a little more time to see what lawmakers are doing before final votes are taken. He said three states - Arkansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska - require legislation be accessible to the public at least overnight before legislators vote for final passage of a bill.

"Legislators are faced with complicated decisions on matters that impact the lives of Georgians," he wrote. "Legislators deserve the opportunity to read the legislation and our citizens deserve responsible action on the legislator's part."



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About the Author

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