In session’s final days, real work begins at Georgia Legislature

The past 2 1/2 months of the 2017 General Assembly have been a mere dress rehearsal for state lawmakers.

They’ve filed bills, debated occasionally weighty issues, schmoozed with lobbyists and given final approval to little of importance beyond the one thing they are constitutionally mandated to do, pass a budget.

All the other heavy lifting — if there is any — will be done in the final two days this week. It will be last-minute, just as it was before state Rep. Denmark Groover famously knocked the clock off the back wall of the House trying to stop time from running out on the 1964 session. And just like it was before the Republican majority decided midnight on the 40th and final day of each session was a flexible deadline.

It’s the time when a fishing license bill becomes a way to seal records of ethics allegations, when adoption legislation becomes a fight for religious freedom, and when tax breaks only whispered about by a few in dark corners of the Capitol become law.

“Anything can happen in the last few days,” said Don Cargill, a Capitol lobbyist for 46 years.

And it’s not always good.

“It’s all just a big red flag,” said state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, who has tried unsuccessfully to slow the end-of-session chaos. “In the next couple of days, legislators are going to be put in a position of voting on things that — not only have we not read — but that we don’t have in front of us to read.

“To me it’s about avoiding those pitfalls and not making a bad vote because you don’t have all the information.”

This year, the final countdown gives lawmakers even more time for mischief, since they’ve already approved the $25 billion spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year, something that used to not happen until the last day and in some cases the last few minutes of sessions.

Some of the political gamesmanship has already begun.

The Senate Judiciary Committee took a bipartisan bill to modernize Georgia’s adoption laws and added language that would protect private adoption agencies that receive state money but don’t want to place children with all families.

The move would essentially protect agencies that may have a faith-based mission and do not want to place children with same-sex couples, although it could be applied broadly. Gov. Nathan Deal has already voiced his opposition.

On Thursday, the House Ways and Means Committee tacked a bill to give owners of giant yachts a tax break if they get their boats repaired or retrofitted on Georgia’s coast, along with another measure to regulate and tax daily online fantasy sports leagues, onto legislation that would allow DeKalb County voters to decide whether to adopt a 1-cent sales tax for roads, bridges and other transportation improvements.

“The Senate overlooked two very good bills we sent over to them earlier,” House Ways and Means Chairman Jay Powell, R-Camilla, told his committee.

Both the yacht and the fantasy sports bills passed the House, as well as Senate committees, but had yet to be acted on. The yacht bill, on its own, might have trouble passing the Senate.

But the message was delivered.

State Sen. Fran Millar, R-Atlanta, the sponsor of the DeKalb bill, had planned to vote against the fantasy sports bill and hadn’t taken a position on the yacht bill. That all changed Thursday, and he said he’d back both as long as the House let his bill move forward.

“I previously indicated I was going to be voting no on fantasy sports. I’ll be voting yes now,” Millar said. “If I want to control $300 million in DeKalb County over the next five years, I’m going to have to vote for fantasy sports.”

A host of other bills will be tacked onto more popular legislation to make sure they get through. Supporters of the yacht tax break had earlier tried to tack it on a more popular tax break that they thought would help it pass in the Senate. In the end, state Sen. Rene Unterman, R-Buford, spotted the ploy and senators separated the bills.

In the final days, lawmakers frequently pass what’s known as a “Christmas tree,” typically an innocuous, uncontested tax bill that gets other tax breaks attached to it, like ornaments on Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree.

Lawmakers have bills that would cut state income taxes, sales taxes on taxi and limo rides, and taxes on people who lease cars and own mobile cement mixers. They have legislation that would raise taxes on many Georgians who buy used carsthat would make it clear that e-retailers have to collect taxes on their online sales, and that would give tax breaks to people in the music and video gaming industries, to investors in rural businesses and, of course, to yacht owners.

Few if any of the tax bills have reached final passage, and if they finally do, they could look a lot different by the time the last gavel falls on the 2017 session.

Sometimes bills that aren’t really debated suddenly appear on the last day or so.

In 2015, one of the last-minute bills was a tax break Deal wanted for Mercedes-Benz workers. That same year, a state senator tacked on a tax break for a private college on whose board he served.

When it came before the Senate in the closing seconds of the session, the senator mentioned neither the special tax break nor his relationship. A friendly senator popped up and called the whole bill “good for the economy,” again without mentioning the college tax break. The bill was rammed through in the midst of the deliberately raucous, deafening environment, with few being able to hear what was going on.

It is not, of course, just tax bills that wind up looking much different than when they started.

Senate Bill 153 this year began life as a measure dealing with the sale of hearing aids. A House committee stripped that language out and added a controversial bill allowing optometrists to make injections around a patient’s eye. Ophthalmologists have fought to preserve their sole right to perform those procedures, and the battle between the health care professions could go down to the last day.

House Bill 474, sponsored by state Rep. Carolyn Hughley, D-Columbus, was originally about putting out information on how to interact with police during traffic stops. Now it’s filled with other car bills, and it has been considered as a “vehicle” to tack on legislation mandating that the state stamp “illegal alien” or “noncitizen” on the driver’s licenses of non-American citizens.

Industrial loan lobbyists are worried that lawmakers will try to resurrect a bill — already voted down in the House — that they say would let title pawnbrokers create a loan program with 200 percent interest payments.

Bills like the one to allow casinos in Georgia pop from the legislative graveyard with little warning.

The bonus of all this is that after spending months and untold hours honoring high school football teams, beauty queens, 4-H members, local officials, celebrities, heroes, visiting politicians and pretty much anybody who happens to walk off the street and get past the heavy Capitol security, lawmakers vote on more than 100 bills in the final hours of a legislative session that begins in early January.

Because “conference committees,” six-member teams of legislators, are often working out final deals on the fly, lawmakers frequently have little time to read what they are voting on, if they are so inclined. Sometimes, they complain, they are voting without actually having all the paperwork explaining what they are voting on. Almost every year legislators answer reporters’ questions about at least one bill by saying, “I didn’t know it did that.”

More than a decade ago that was a common refrain when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that a noncontroversial bill included a tax deferment that benefited Gov. Sonny Perdue. A few years ago the AJC got the same response when it reported that select nursing homes — some politically connected — would get a $26 million boost in payments because of language included in the state budget.

A classic example of the last-minute messing around occurred in the final two hours of the 2012 session, when the Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill shielding the identities of people applying for hunting or fishing licenses.

What the Senate sponsor didn’t mention was that legislative leaders had reshaped the bill to seal the records of some ethics cases against politicians. On a raucous Senate floor crowded with lawmakers, family members, friends and staffers, few were even listening to the senator describing the measure.

Within minutes of the Senate vote, an AJC reporter found out about the changes and posted what happened on Twitter and Facebook; good-government lobbyists and political bloggers picked up on it, and the House killed the measure.

But a lot of things don’t get caught because so much is going through so quickly. Combined, members of the two chambers voted about 200 times on the final day of the 2016 session, the last vote held at 12:27 a.m.

That’s 27 minutes after midnight struck on what is supposed to be the final day, but the General Assembly leadership has determined that the 40th and last day of the session doesn’t really end at midnight.

McKoon has fought an often lonely battle to change how things are done in the final days. He’s tried to persuade legislative leaders to give lawmakers at least a day to read and study the final deals on bills before they vote. Such “reforms” are unlikely to pass because it defeats the art of the last-minute deals that top lawmakers have spent years perfecting.

“We could have a process that is orderly, where the last few days were about finishing up bills that needed perfecting and go home at a reasonable hour,” McKoon said. “But the thing is, the process empowers a few people to funnel everything to the last couple of days and use the conference committee process in an abusive way that basically puts 200 of the 236 legislators scrambling to figure out just what we are voting on.”

State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, a 28-year veteran of the General Assembly, used to be one of those leaders. He served as chairman of the House Rules Committee, a position of immense power over what bills lawmakers get to vote on.

He finds the final days frustrating.

“I come from a world where you come in, you do your business and you leave,” said Ehrhart, a co-CEO of LakePoint, a sports tourism complex in Bartow County.

“Sometimes its fun,” he said of the final days. “Sometimes it’s aggravating, sometimes it’s silly season, where it’s more about people running for office.”

Although he’s never backed down from a good political fight and still has legislation he’s trying to pass this year, Ehrhart is philosophical about his chances in the final few days of the session.

“If you have no expectations,” he said, “you have fewer disappointments and a lot less heartburn.”

Staff writers Kristina Torres and Aaron Gould-Sheinin contributed to this report

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