Opening Pandora’s Box

The Late Unpleasantness – no, not the Civil War; we’re speaking here of the last Georgia legislative session – turned up yet another avenue for state lawmakers and governors to dodge their responsibility. Let the people vote!

Gov. Sonny Perdue, our populist Republican governor, has set the precedent for moving Georgia toward becoming a public-initiative state. He insisted on “letting the people vote” on a new state flag. After much wrangling and finger pointing, Perdue won his way.

Though no Georgia flag has ever been changed by referendum, the history-challenged Perdue threw one temper tantrum after another until the Legislature finally said, in effect: “OK, OK, OK. Here’s your pacifier – a referendum.”

The lawmakers may have established a tradition they will live to regret – or maybe not.

Throughout much of its recent history, the Georgia General Assembly has been noted for ducking tough issues and letting other institutions do the dirty work.

In the 1960s, the state Legislature sat mostly on its collective hands while the federal courts struck down volumes of old segregation laws. A braver lawmaking body might have simply repealed them.

In three out of the last four decades, the General Assembly couldn’t agree on constitutionally acceptable redistricting maps. So the federal courts, insulated by appointment from the people’s anger, have drawn the new maps.

Govs. Zell Miller and Roy Barnes handed down stacks of executive orders dealing with everything from massive transfers of state funds from one department to another to expanding the governor’s line-item veto powers. The guvs plainly stepped on the legal prerogatives of the Legislature. If the state House or Senate issued an outcry of protest, we didn’t hear it.

In one notable case going back a half century, a governor promised to let the people have the last word on whether they wanted a gigantic tax increase. Gov. Herman Talmadge, acting much like Gov. Perdue, made a campaign promise for a popular referendum on raising taxes to repair Georgia’s dilapidated infrastructure. The people voted overwhelmingly against the tax. Talmadge and the Legislature ignored the outcome of the referendum and promptly approved Georgia’s first sales tax, claiming much of the money could be used to avoid school integration.

However, the General Assembly acted a bit out of character on the flag issue in 1956. When the Legislature adopted the Rebel-cross flag in 1956 to protest racial desegregation, not a single elected lawmaker officially suggested the idea be put to a popular vote.

Yet protests against adopting the St. Andrews flag were loud and substantial. And at least 40 legislators declined to vote on the issue one way or another.

So says former Gov. Carl Sanders, a member of the House at the time and one of the losing “nay” votes in the 107-32 adoption of the flag of defiance.

A review of the official House Journal of the legislative session of ’56 reveals the names of the remarkable coalition who unsuccessfully fought to retain Georgia’s old flag, which was similar to the Confederate national Stars and Bars.

As has been reported widely, the late Rep. Denmark Groover, D-Macon, managed the proposal for the new flag in the all-white, all-Democratic, all-male state Legislature. Groover later confirmed the St. Andrews cross was chosen as a medium of protest against equal opportunity for blacks.

Arrayed against Groover were Sanders, who would be elected governor in 1962; DeKalb Rep. Jamie Mackay, later elected to Congress; Rep. George L. Smith II of Swainsboro, on his way to becoming House speaker; Rep. Roy McCracken of Augusta, law partner of arch-segregationist and political kingmaker Roy V. Harris; Rep. John Sognier of Savannah, later a member of the Georgia Court of Appeals; Rep. Johnny Caldwell of Thomaston, who went on to become state insurance commissioner; and Rep. Bill Gunter of Gainesville, later a close adviser to Gov. Jimmy Carter and a Carter appointee to the Georgia Supreme Court.

Many of those “nay” voters played major roles in Georgia’s progressive future. Though they knew the forces of Gov. Griffin and Rep. Groover had them outgunned by a mile on the Rebel flag issue, not one tried to escape voting by promoting a public referendum on the matter. And neither did the Griffin crowd demand a “vote of the people” to ratify their actions. Too bad that kind of courage and devotion to duty has vanished from the modern-day Gold Dome.

When Georgians hold a referendum on the flag next year, you can bet Gov. Perdue and his pals will begin demanding additional referendums on new taxes, highway projects, school reform, revised clear-air rules and a myriad of other topics the current crew in the statehouse would just as soon avoid.

Categories: Political Notes