Vote Now, Read Later: A Georgia Legislative Tradition

Jan 4, 2016

Georgia lawmakers gather this month for the 40 day general assembly, but many of their most important decisions won’t be made until the spring -- in the final days, and even hours, of the session.

The last-minute scramble to pass bills is a bipartisan Georgia tradition that some lawmakers say does not allow enough time to review legislation and avoid harming Georgians, let alone assess the potential effects of complicated laws.

Last year, just before midnight on the second-to-last day of the 2015 General Assembly, transportation bill HB 170, which aimed to raise hundreds of millions in tax dollars, appeared before the state Senate for a vote.

The chamber's president, Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle let Republican Rep. Mike Crane of Newnan ask a question about the bill. Crane wasn’t happy.

“Mr. President, isn't it true that this is an unqualified midnight run on Georgia taxpayers?” Crane accused.

Cagle called Crane’s statements offensive, and the bill passed quickly. It was the most discussed piece of legislation during the session, but the version that passed included a $5 per night tax for hotel customers that was added just hours before the Senate voted to approve it.

That came as a shock to lobbyist Jim Sprouse, who leads the Georgia Hotel and Lodging Association.

“We didn't have any heads up, any advance warning, no discussion or opportunity to provide data,” Sprouse said.

Sprouse said the $5 per night tax puts an unfair burden on the industry, and it pushes business to other states. He said he did just about all he could to influence lawmakers before the midnight vote.

“Even when they were on the floor taking the vote, we were trading text messages with them,” Sprouse recalled.

For Georgians without the cell phone numbers of their representatives, communication is essentially impossible amidst the traditional midnight lawmaking.

Republican Sen. Bill Heath of Cedartown called this situation "a disgrace." Heath said that on that late night at the end of the 2015 session, hotel owners in his district did not have time to tell him what they thought about the transportation bill.

“Those people were back in their businesses trying to get people settled in for the night," Heath said. "They weren't down here looking over the rail at the legislature working."

Heath voted against the bill, because he said he did not have enough time to review it.

The bill had come from a conference committee of senators and representatives. Every year, these committees agree on versions of bills that are released to both chambers, sometimes only a few hours before they are up for a vote.

That is what happened to the hotel tax.

“It's a process to get some resolution, but it's a very dangerous process,” Heath said. Heath thinks lawmakers should have more time to review the bills that come from these conference committees, and he will propose a constitutional amendment to require that legislators see all bills the night before a vote.

However, Heath himself admits it would take a revolt of sorts for that to happen.

“Unless a significant majority of the rank and file rise up and complain and say we're not going to do this anymore, the system will pretty much keep going on this way,” said Tom Crawford, editor of the Georgia Report, who has covered the legislature for more than a decade.

Crawford said last minute votes on conference committee bills give the Speaker of the House and the Lieutenant Governor more control and helps them get complicated bills passed.

Those leaders declined to comment for this story.

Crawford also said midnight lawmaking is a bipartisan Georgia tradition. When Democrats controlled the house and senate, they did the same thing.

“The fact that you have the top leadership in the Senate and the House, who do this year after year, is a pretty good indication that this is way the leadership wants the process to run,” Crawford said.

Sen. Nan Orrock said she has seen leaders of the House and Senate use conference committees to slide bills through at the last-minute for years.

“That’s why they say watching laws being made is like watching sausage being made,” Orrock said. “All sorts of things are being thrown in willy-nilly, nobody can tell you exactly what is thrown in, and it’s mish-mash of lord knows what when it actually comes to the floor.”

Orrock recalled a bill that passed in the final minutes of a legislative session during the early 1990s that banned nurses from giving injections, and later had to be undone in the courts.

The public’s interest was not served, Orrock said.

While the events of this year's General Assembly cannot be predicted, it is clear that many debates will not be resolved until the midnight hour.