Deal, House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle all declared the session a success after getting most of what they wanted out of relatively short agendas. Also of interest is whether Deal and Republican leaders can proceed next year, with elections looming, without settling unfinished debates on abortion and guns.
On the premier issue of the session, the two chambers opted to limit lobbyist expenditures to $75 at one time. Individuals would have to register as a lobbyist — and then be subject to limits on their activities — if they are paid to influence public officials or if they accept more than $250 in reimbursement for their work. Deal is expected to sign the agreement.
There are some exceptions to the limits; lobbyists still have leeway to entertain full legislative committees, for example. But the new rules will replace a system that has no cap on lobbyists’ spending, as long as they publicly disclose it.
The final details followed weeks of heated rhetoric as Ralston and Cagle seemingly tried to out-do each other. Each new version from one chamber prompted charges of chicanery from the other.
Ralston, who said he wanted an outright ban on lobbying, repeatedly said the Senate was engaging in “gimmicks” because senators proposed a cap that didn’t have a specific time frame attached or any aggregate limit. Ultimately, the Senate approach prevailed, and Ralston called it a “historic” act that voters should be proud of.
“We kept faith with Georgians,” he said.
Sen. David Shafer, one of Cagle’s top lieutenants in the Senate, said, “This will change the culture at the Capitol.”
Proponents who pushed for tighter rules viewed it as a mixed achievement.
“Overall, we put it at a 50-50. I feel like there’s good that deserves praise,” said William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia. He supported provisions that set some spending limits and restore rulemaking authority to the state agency that oversees enforcement of campaign finance and lobbying rules.
But he added that voters, through non-binding referenda on last year’s primary ballots, supported a hard cap on spending and got a proposed law that would contain many loopholes. “There was no exception in what they voted for,” Perry said.
Budget: The $41 billion spending blueprint for state government is perhaps Deal’s biggest accomplishment. He otherwise didn’t ask for much. He left the lobbying debate to legislative leaders and played a background role on many other policy debates. Deal said he didn’t want to pursue big moves on education this year, and the final document closely tracks his January proposal.
New money will be provided for enrollment increases in grades K-12. There’s more money for HOPE grants at technical colleges — an idea from Democrats that Deal embraced as his own. Pre-kindergarten will return to 180 days of instruction from 170, reversing a savings that Deal imposed during his first year in office. Lawmakers added construction projects and overrode Deal’s proposals to trim payments to health care providers who treat Medicaid patients and eliminate special grants to rural school districts. Cagle secured more money for charter schools. But Deal helped make all those changes possible by agreeing to a last-minute addition of $56 million in revenue. His source was the state’s share of the national tobacco settlement.
It remains true that the governor’s greatest power is money. With slow tax revenue growth, Deal didn’t have much to play with, but he set the agenda with what he had.
Abortion: Despite commanding legislative majorities, Republican leaders did not pursue changes on the abortion issue that is dear to their base. But late in the session, a senator amended an unrelated bill to ban state employee insurance plans from covering elective abortions.
Deal said he supported it. But Ralston said there wasn’t time: “My concern is that some issues are so important I think they are entitled to discussion that, you know, they merit.”
Georgia Right to Life, a force in Republican primaries, plans to push for the limit again. The question in 2014 is whether Deal and Ralston can take a passive approach in an election year.
Guns: Like abortion, guns are a key issue to many Republican voters. And while some states have enacted new gun restrictions in the aftermath of December’s massacre at a Newtown, Conn., school, where a gunman killed 20 children and six adults before committing suicide, Georgia lawmakers were eyeing how to expand gun rights. In the end, though, they avoided final action.
The House supported sweeping changes that would have rolled back restrictions on where Georgians can carry concealed weapons. The main sticking point was what to allow on college campuses. College and university presidents, along with the Board of Regents, want their existing bans to stand. Deal aides say the governor backed a compromise that would have let some students carry weapons, provided they had military training or other safety training. But some senators held their ground until it was too late for a final vote.
Rep. Alan Powell, who chairs the committee who handled the bill in the House, was incensed, accusing senators of “hiding behind the skirt on the second floor,” where Deal’s office is in the Capitol. He said afterward that he wasn’t referring to the governor, but his suggestion was clear: that the administration helped scuttle the bill. Shafer, the Senate president pro tem, said he and other Republican leaders were disappointed that they didn’t pass a bill, though it was clear that if Senate leaders actually wanted a floor vote, they could have had one well before the midnight adjournment.
At GeorgiaCarry.org, the gun-rights group most active in the negotiations, Jerry Henry said he had no interest in assigning blame or trying to punish anyone in the 2014 elections. “That’s secondary to us trying to get our rights back,” he said. “These bills are alive for the 2014 session.”
As with abortion, the question is how Deal, Ralston, Cagle and other Republicans handle the matter in an election year.