Too Much Monkey Business

Politics

While it is certainly true that Georgia's legislators are capable of acting like a bunch of wild monkeys at any time, especially in those chaotic moments near the close of a session, this year our lawmakers actually voted to give monkeys a break.



The House and Senate agreed to adopt legislation that will allow disabled Georgians to legally keep capuchin monkeys that are specially trained to perform simple household chores for their owners.



Given the often perplexing behavior of some of our lawmakers, one could reasonably assume that the next logical step will be to enfranchise these trained primates so that they can run for the General Assembly. They might even be an improvement.



After all, this is a legislature that passed a bill to make a person subject to an additional charge of homicide for killing a woman who is carrying a fetus at the time of her death. Then they turned around and adopted a bill pushed by the NRA that will authorize handgun owners to shoot and kill someone in a public place if they feel they are "physically threatened" by that person.



That prompted one senator to pose this philosophical conundrum that remains as yet unanswered: "What do you do if you feel physically threatened by a pregnant woman?"



Georgia is considered to have some of the least restrictive, most consumer-hostile lending laws in the nation, particularly for finance companies and title pawn operators who make loans to low-income borrowers. What was the General Assembly's response to that situation? Why, to push for a law that would make these consumer protections even more lax.



State law already allows businesses that make small loans secured by car titles to charge up to a 300 percent annual percentage rate. Rep. Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs), whose pockets runneth over with campaign contributions from title pawn lenders, proposed a bill that would have eliminated even that 300 percent limit on interest rates.



In the end, the legislature failed to pass a proposal by Sen. Bill Hamrick (R-Carrollton) to give consumers some protections on these high-interest loans. On the other hand, lawmakers at least did not adopt Ehrhart's proposal to eliminate the interest rate cap entirely. In today's General Assembly, that qualifies as a consumer victory.



Perhaps the daffiest behavior by these fully formed humans involved a bill that Atlanta Gas Light hired a small army of lobbyists to promote. The measure would have allowed AGL to build a $300 million natural gas pipeline to Atlanta while bypassing the normal regulatory oversight of the Public Service Commission and then pay for the facility by slapping a surcharge of $2 or $3 a month on the gas bills of residential and small business customers. Large industrial users, of course, would have been exempted from that surcharge.



The bill had the enthusiastic support of House Republican leaders who insisted that this extra pipeline capacity would reduce gas prices and help the state meet its future energy needs. Those arguments were somewhat undercut by outside experts who testified in committee hearings that there is currently more than enough transport capacity, an extra pipeline is already being built by another company, and the AGL pipeline would do nothing to reduce the commodity price of natural gas.



When one of the bill's sponsors, who visited Trinidad and Tobago during his pre-session research into the issue, was asked directly if there was really a need for the pipeline at this time, he conceded, "Probably not. But we need to plan for 10 to 20 years from now."



The pipeline bill easily passed in the House but came to a halt in the Senate as more and more Republicans started to get nervous about raising gas rates in an election year for a pipeline that might not be needed for 20 years.



House leaders badly wanted the pipeline bill to come up for a vote, and the session nearly collapsed at one point as Speaker Glenn Richardson and Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson figuratively pounded their chests and yelled at each other like a pair of gorillas laying claim to the same territory.



The bill did not pass, as it turned out, and legislators were able to go home with one less thing to worry about while running for re-election. That's something even a capuchin monkey could appreciate.



Tom Crawford, editor of the Capitolimpact.com news service, covers politics for Georgia Trend.



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