State News

March 26, 2013

At the Capitol, last-minute maneuvers rule the day

ATLANTA — It’s an old lesson of Politics 101: A bill isn’t actually dead until the legislative session is over. There’s a related but inverse rule: Just because everybody says they’re on board doesn’t mean a deal will be made.

Both were on display at the Georgia Capitol on Monday as lawmakers began the session’s final week with maneuvers on abortion, labor laws and lobbying rules. A House member, meanwhile, wants to force a last-minute debate on metro Atlanta’s transit system that some senators don’t want to have.  

Resolutions on those issues — along with a final version of the state government’s $40.9 billion operating budget — must be finalized by Thursday, when the House and Senate adjourn.

In the Senate, Republicans used an amendment to drive an unexpected debate on abortion, a hot-button that hadn’t been on the front-burner since lawmakers convened in January.

House Bill 246 initially concerned employee benefits at the Georgia World Congress Center. But Sen. Mike Crane, R-Newnan, wanted to use the bill to bar state employee insurance plans from covering abortion services.  “We have protected the life of a fish,” Crane said. “I expect the same for the life of the unborn.”

Several Democrats in the Senate, most of them women, lambasted the move as bad policy and underhanded politics.

Sen. Nan Orrock of Atlanta reminded Crane of the Missouri Republican, Todd Akin, who lost a winnable U.S. Senate election last year when he justified his opposition to abortion rights by claiming that a woman could not become pregnant by rape. Crane, she told Republican senators, “has not done you a favor by bringing this amendment.”

His initial proposal did not include any exceptions for abortions needed to preserve a pregnant woman’s life or health, but senators added those. The revised amendment — and the bill — passed on a party-line vote.

The partisan division continued as Republican senators used a late amendment to combine a change on paycheck deductions for union dues and limited unemployment benefits for certain temporary workers.

The dues provision, originally in House Bill 361 by itself, would require that workers be able to opt out anytime from agreements to pay dues through an automatic paycheck deduction. Current law calls for an annual decision.

The unemployment provision was a separate Senate bill that had never emerged from the Senate Rules Committee. The provision, from Sen. Fran Millar, R-Atlanta, would block certain temporary education system workers like bus drivers and cafeteria workers from jobless benefits in the summer months when they aren’t working.

The limitation would apply to workers who expect to be rehired again the following school year. It would put into law an executive decision already made by Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler.

“As long as someone has a reasonable assurance of getting their old job back, they shouldn’t get unemployment benefits,” Millar said.

Democrats said the dues check-off provision and blocking unemployment were both a power play by business. “The only purpose of this bill is to kill labor,” said Sen. Steve Thompson, D-Marietta, who mocked the notion that the Georgia Chamber of Commerce plans to use House Bill 361 as one its “scorecard” votes to assess legislators.

“Go ahead,” said the chamber’s longest serving member. “I’ve been elected 17 times.”

Both the abortion restriction and labor measure now must return to the House. If the House doesn’t ratify the changes, a panel of members from each chamber — or a “conference committee” — tries to craft a compromise. The same version of any bill must clear both chambers to become law.

A House Republican, meanwhile, is trying to use last-minute amendments to spur Senate action on proposals to overhaul Atlanta’s transit system.

Rep. Mike Jacobs of Brookhaven is leading the Fulton County Republicans and wants to overhaul MARTA’s governing board and require that many MARTA operations be privatized. The House approved two such bills this session, but they’ve remained bottled up in a Senate committee.

So, on Monday, Jacobs and his Republican colleagues added MARTA changes to an unrelated Senate bill. The amendment doesn’t include privatization, but it would give Atlanta suburbs more control over MARTA. It also would temporarily lift restrictions on how MARTA spends its sales tax revenue.

Jacobs says the move forces senators to deal with his proposals, though it is very likely to force a conference committee.

A conference committee also must navigate an increasingly tense battle between the House and Senate leadership on lobbying rules. Both chambers have approved their versions by unanimous or near-unanimous margins, while lambasting the other side as insufficient or disingenuous.

The House voted Monday on a series of revisions that ban most spending. But they’d allow lobbyists to entertain full committees or subcommittees up to twice each year. They’d also allow lobbyists to pay for job-related travel for members, family and staff — details the Senate has also approved.  

Senators, though, have proposed a $100 cap per official on most instances of spending. But with no time frame attached, that could allow for a considerably higher bottom line.

If the chambers can’t reconcile differences, the existing system — no limits under any circumstance, as long as it’s publicly disclosed — would remain.

Lawmakers resume work Tuesday morning.

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