Nothing To Be Done
There always has been a zany, schizoid – dare we say, nutty? – quality about the Georgia General Assembly. Our duly elected lawmakers have a habit of making speeches and casting votes that seem to contradict what they were doing or saying only the day before. Or they simply defy common sense.
Everything about the legislative process that baffles the reality-based mind could be seen early on the 40th and final day of the session when the House was debating a bill that would have made it a criminal offense to sell hemp-flavored candy that is marketed as tasting just like marijuana.
Rep. Barry Loudermilk, a libertarian-minded Repub-lican from north Georgia, pointed out the absurdity of what his colleagues were about to vote upon.
“This in my knowledge would be the first time that a taste has been legislated,” Loudermilk said. “This is simply criminalizing a flavor. In reality, many of you have a product on your desk that is manufactured or headquartered here in Georgia [i.e., Coca-Cola] that was originally made with cocaine. When they took the cocaine out of it, the company went to an extensive amount of research to maintain the original flavor.”
Rep. Mark Hatfield, a lawyer from Waycross, asked Loudermilk if he agreed that the bill contained “no discernible standard by which a jury could decide whether or not a popsicle or candy or what have you fit within the definition of a marijuana flavor.”
“I cannot tell you what marijuana tastes like and I’m sure that many of my colleagues in here also couldn’t, and the fact is, there is no illegal drug in these products, so I think your point is well-taken,” Loudermilk replied.
Rep. Sean Jerguson, a first-termer from Cherokee County, noted that the original version of the bill provided for a fine of $1,000 for each offense of selling the exotically flavored candy.
“A misdemeanor of smoking marijuana is usually punishable by a $500 fine,” Jerguson said. “Am I correct in assuming that we’re going to charge twice as much money in a fine for selling a piece of candy as we are for smoking a marijuana cigarette?”
“That is my understanding,” said Loudermilk, whose understanding was correct. “The smoking of marijuana would actually have less of a penalty than a product that just has a flavor.”
Arguments against passing the bill, as presented by these lawmakers, were eminently clear and sensible. The House voted to adopt the measure anyway.
Let’s turn from drugs and take up drinking.
The Legislature passed a bill that would make it a misdemeanor to sell or use devices that enable you to consume alcohol in an atomized form – basically, a spray bottle that reputedly gets alcohol into the bloodstream faster. Legislators professed that they didn’t know if any establishment in Georgia actually offered this product, but they passed the law anyway.
While it’s easy to make fun of such an exercise in legislative authority, reasonable people could agree that the intent of the lawmakers was good.
And yet many of the same legislators who outlawed alcoholic mists for public safety reasons also voted for a bill that NRA lobbyists slipped through on the last night of the session to open up the state’s gun carry laws.
Gov. Sonny Perdue subsequently signed the gun bill into law, which means that several hundred thousand Georgians who have concealed weapons permits will now be able to carry loaded firearms into restaurants that serve alcoholic beverages, as well as state parks and public transportation conveyances.
The ingestion of alcoholic beverages can create social situations where feelings run high and people react emotionally.
The proposed gun law would make it legal to carry a loaded weapon in these volatile circumstances. The law would also make it legal to carry a firearm on a MARTA train that pulls into Hartsfield-Jackson Airport – a facility where thousands of airplanes take off and land every day.
I do seem to remember that airplanes are a conveyance that have been attractive to terrorists in recent years.
This is the ultimate in mixed messages: We’re going to protect you from the atomized alcohol, but we’re also going to make it easier for persons to carry loaded firearms in situations where guns are more likely to be fired at you.
It brings back memories of the scene in the film, The Bridge on the River Kwai where Major Clipton looks upon the destruction of the railroad bridge and mutters, “Madness, madness.”
No less mad was the way the General Assembly wasted an entire session when it was clear that action was urgently needed on several fronts: finding a way to cope with overly congested highways; finding ways to supply water as reservoir levels reached record low levels; finding a way to upgrade the state’s woefully inadequate trauma care network.
Rep. Vance Smith and Sen. Jeff Mullis rumbled through the session working on a constitutional amendment, SR 845, which would have authorized a regional sales tax for highway improvements. The House passed this compromise with votes to spare at 11 minutes before midnight on day 40. The Senate took up SR 845 five minutes later, but on two consecutive motions fell three votes short of passing it. Those who helped defeat the measure included Eric Johnson, Tommie Williams, Mitch Seabaugh, David Shafer and Chip Rogers.
Lobbyists for the Metro Atlanta Chamber and fellow business organization were sputtering indignantly, but once again they had no funding source for new roads.
Water? The House and Senate passed a resolution, which does not have the force of law, that basically is a plan for state officials to sit down at some future date and formulate another plan to deal with the water crisis. To be fair, lawmakers did manage to pass a bill that promotes the building of new reservoirs – but it would take 10 years or more to build them.
Trauma care? There were several proposals on the table to create a yearly source of funds for the state trauma commission, but none of them passed as the House and Senate got bogged down in a vicious fight over tax breaks, where they also failed to pass anything.
As if the lack of substantive achievements wasn’t bad enough, the session ended, for the second year in a row, with an outraged Speaker Glenn Richardson – like some live-action version of Yosemite Sam – yelling and taunting his counterparts in the other branches of state government (last year it was Gov. Sonny Perdue, this year it was Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle).
“Tell him [Cagle] to stand up and be a man,” Richardson demanded of senators attending conference committee negotiations to eliminate the “birthday tax” on auto tags. “Tell him to come up here; he and I ought to be debating this.”
Cagle stayed put in the Senate chambers and later that night, when the last hopes for tax revision had died, Richardson threw one of his trademark tantrums in a speech to House members.
“When you go home on the tag tax, tell everybody that it has a new name,” Richardson ranted. “It’s called the Cagle birthday tax, and every time they pay it, they can think of Casey Cagle because Casey Cagle solely and exclusively left it on for them. And I hope Georgians by the 9 million will thank him and flood him with emails and tell him we’re sick of Casey Cagle. It’s time to get a new lieutenant governor in this state.”
Clearly, the Legislature has become a system that can no longer function very effectively. Some observers attribute this to the continuing lack of leadership from Perdue, who flew to China on a business junket and was nowhere to be seen as the session degenerated into gridlock. Some put the blame on Cagle for what they call his Eddie Haskell-style maneuverings.
Another group contends that it’s time to elect a new speaker of the House less prone to go ballistic when he doesn’t get his way. There are rumblings that Perdue will use the financial resources of his political action committee to assist legislative candidates who run against Richardson allies this year.
For all the high hopes expressed by those who want to bring down Richardson, there’s no guarantee that it will work. “He picks a new enemy every year, and it enables him to whip the House into a frenzy, keeping their attention on whoever the latest enemy is,” one high-level observer noted.
Another issue confronting lawmakers was the fate of financially troubled Grady Memorial Hospital. In addition to their failure to pass a trauma care funding method, legislators were unable to pass any of the bills that had been introduced to compel Grady’s governing board to restructure the hospital’s management.
Although none of the Grady bills was enacted, the Fulton-DeKalb Authority voted on its own to proceed with the recommended conversion to nonprofit status. That move will, among other things, put the beleaguered hospital in line to receive $200 million or more from foundations connected with the late Robert W. Woodruff, the Coca-Cola magnate.
Thus, the final irony of this year’s session – an Atlanta business leader who’s been dead for 23 years wound up accomplishing more for Grady Memorial Hospital than the governor, lieutenant governor and all 236 members of the House and Senate.
Nothing to be done, as Samuel Beckett memorably wrote. If there’s an epitaph for the General Assembly, that will have to be it.