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Georgia View: Casey Back At Bat

 

The outlook wasn’t brilliant on the Senate line that day.

The score stood two to one, with but 10 more days to play.

And then when Williams stood down first, and Rogers did the same…

A quiet moved across the Chamber floor as Casey regained his game.

This is a story best viewed as a lesson in leadership and exerting political power. During the 2010 General Assembly, then-Gov. Sonny Perdue attempted to rally his GOP legislative team in favor of a new hospital bed tax, to close a growing state budget gap. Perdue asked House Speaker David Ralston, new to his job, and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle (well into his second term) to secure the votes necessary, with support from the powerful Georgia Hospital Association (GHA), to establish a 1.45 percent excise fee on gross hospital revenues to help close the Medicaid spending gap. 

These new “fee” dollars would in effect create “free” federal money matching the revenues generated by the state tax. In the Senate bullpen, several members were bristling at the idea of a GOP majority calling for a tax increase of any stripe, even with a three-year sunset and the matching federal windfall. Cagle first asked nicely, and then on the second swing, he threatened reprisals to those who broke rank. Two opposing senators held their ground, and in the process lost their committee chairmanships.

Prior to convening the next General Assembly, a majority of the GOP Senate Caucus stripped Cagle of many of the vestiges of power, which the Office of Lieutenant Governor had collected over time and via tradition. Overnight, Cagle’s office was relegated to the same ceremonial role given to former Democratic Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor after the chamber’s majority first became Republican.

The following sessions brought instability and indecision to the Senate, a body formerly known for its deliberation and generally smooth flow. The governor, house speaker and many a lobbyist were sometimes confused about whom to ask and how to seek guidance on the flow of Senate legislation, amendments, conference committee appointments and the like. The new Senate leadership team claimed that this flatter structure would bring government closer to Georgians, as they could now deal directly with legislative committees.

At the close of the 2012 session, well-regarded State Sen. Tommie Williams (R-Lyons) announced his plans not to seek re-election to the post of president pro tempore. State Sen. Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock) faced an intra-party challenge for his seat, which he beat back largely with the support of a resurgent anti-T-SPLOST Tea Party. Rogers had earlier supported and voted for the T-SPLOST, but saw that his constituents weren’t with him. The heat was building, and it was clear that he might not survive re-election as majority leader. He stepped aside, clearing the way for the ascension of State Sen. Ronnie Chance (R-Tyrone), already the governor’s floor leader in the Senate, to become majority leader. Within months, Rogers would resign and return to private citizenship  and a job at Georgia Public Broadcasting with a very generous compensation plan.

Gov. Deal needed that same hospital bed fee extended, or come July 2013, there would be roughly an $800-billion hole in the state budget. But this coach demonstrated a more savvy way to manage his franchise, playing to the strengths of his players.

Within the first weeks of the General Assembly, the governor, state house and newly resurgent state senate leadership team delivered the votes and legislation granting authority to assess the excise fee in question to the Georgia Department of Community Health.

In effect, the General Assembly gave away one of its greatest powers, to tax, spend and set the budget, in an effort not to go on the record for increasing spending or taxes. Almost over-night, normalcy appeared restored, and the office of lieutenant governor is well on its way back to controlling the business day and legislative flow of the state senate.

So somewhere in north Georgia, the sun is shining bright.

The glisten beams on the smooth glass lake as it welcomes in the night.

Somewhere critics may be laughing, and somewhere former cronies pout …

But there is again joy in Gold Domeville, cause the Senate has been set right.

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