Neely Young: The Chosen Few

My friend Marion Pope Jr., who served in the legislature and later as both a Superior Court and Appeals Court judge, maintains that of all the 236 members of the Georgia General Assembly, only a fraction really decide what laws will be passed in the 40 days they are in session, which this year began Jan. 11.

Gov. Nathan Deal really has the ultimate power. In the first stages of lawmaking he sits on the sidelines because he cannot formally introduce a bill, so he works through his floor leaders to push his legislative initiatives. At the session’s end, he can veto or sign a bill into law.

As speaker of the House of Representatives, David Ralston from Blue Ridge is the second most powerful person in the state. He is responsible for appointing committee chairs, upholding House rules, calling bills up for discussion, recognizing members who wish to speak on a bill and bringing order if tempers get hot during the debate. If a House member runs afoul of the speaker, his bill will most likely die.

The next person in the power chain is Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who as head of the Senate runs that body in much the same manner as the speaker runs the House. He is the second-highest elected official in the state and has great influence on state policy and spending priorities.

Leaders in the Senate – President Pro Tem David Shafer, Majority Leader Bill Cowsert and Minority Leader Steve Henson – and in the House – Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, Majority Leader Jon Burns and Minority Leader Stacey Abrams – also wield power in their chambers.

A lot of power resides in the various standing committees of both houses, but especially in the Appropriations Committees that develop the state’s budget – chaired by Terry England in the House and Jack Hill in the Senate.

As of press time, the 2016 Appropriations subcommittees and chairs in the House of Representatives are: 

• Economic Development, Penny Houston;
• Education, Tom Dickson;
• General Government, Amy Carter;
• Health, Butch Parrish;
• Higher Education, Earl Ehrhart;
• Human Resources, Katie Dempsey; and
• Public Safety, Andrew Welch.

In the Senate, the subcommittees and chairs are:

• Agriculture, John Wilkinson;
• Community Health, Dean Burke;
• Criminal Justice, Chuck Hufstetler;
• Economic Development, Jeff Mullis;
• Education, Lindsey Tippins;
• Fiscal Management, Mike Crane;
• General Government, Bill Heath;
• Higher Education, Frank Ginn;
• Human Development and Public Health, Renee Unterman;
• Insurance, Judson Hill;
• Judicial, Charlie Bethel;
• Natural Resources, Bill Heath;
• Public Safety, John Albers; and
• Transportation, Steve Gooch.

Additionally, each chamber has a roster of other committees covering areas like Banks and Banking, Higher Education and Transportation.

When a local legislator has an idea for a new law, he or she has it checked by the Office of Legislative Counsel, which helps draft the bill. Next, the bill is filed, formally introduced and given a first reading; then it is assigned to one of the standing committees.

Bills that are reported favorably out of committee are placed on a general calendar, then the powerful Rules Committee selects those bills that will be presented for floor consideration. John Meadows chairs the House Rules Committee, and Jeff Mullis the Senate.

If a bill is approved by a majority in one legislative body, it goes to the other for a vote. If the second body also passes the bill, it goes back to the first along with any changes; if the first chamber refuses changes, a conference committee may be appointed. Once the committee report is accepted by both chambers, the bill is enrolled and sent to the governor.

The governor may sign the bill or simply do nothing and it becomes law. Or he can veto the bill, which means it dies unless two-thirds of the members of each house vote to override the governor’s veto, something that doesn’t happen very often.

The legislative process is a long and complex one – with a lot of horse-trading at every step of the way. While all 236 members of the legislature exert considerable influence on the affairs and laws of Georgia, the above named are the chosen few that, as Judge Pope suggested, really run the state of Georgia and control what future laws prevail. 

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