Georgia legislators have some problems when it comes to telling time.
This weakness has been evident for decades and was most famously displayed in the 1964 General Assembly session, when lawmakers were trying to redraw the state’s congressional districts.
On the last night of the session, the House of Representatives was debating a redistricting bill as midnight neared. That was an important deadline because the Georgia Constitution only allows the General Assembly to convene for 40 days.
Rep. Denmark Groover, a wily lawyer from Middle Georgia, hung from the railing of the House visitors' gallery and tried to stop the hands of the wall clock before they could show twelve o’clock. The clock crashed to the floor of the House chamber.
Someone took a photo of Groover as he dangled from the gallery. That photo was picked up by the wire services and published in newspapers around the world, becoming one of the best-known images of Georgia politics.
The same issues of time and a 40-day limit have cropped up in the past two legislative sessions.
Last year, the Senate extended a debate after the midnight deadline as senators considered a bill granting a lucrative tax break for Mercedes-Benz executives. It was well after twelve o’clock – after the 40th day of the session had ended -- before senators finally voted on the bill.
The problem was even worse this year. As the midnight hour rolled around on the final day, there were numerous bills still awaiting votes.
House Speaker David Ralston decided there really wasn’t a problem after all. At 11:48 p.m., he announced to the House: “We have been advised by legislative counsel that we do not have to end at midnight. We’re gonna go a little past midnight.”
Legislators once again ignored their legal deadline and continued to vote on bills for another 30 minutes before adjourning.
March 24 was designated as Day 40 of the session. Most people would agree that March 24 ended at midnight, at which point March 25 began. The Legislature thus was voting on bills during the 41st day of the session, which is supposedly prohibited by the state constitution.
Obviously, legislators weren’t going to let silly things like “clocks” or “calendars” or “constitutional limitations” keep them from voting.
Some of the lawmakers also weren’t going to worry about such antiquated concepts as “ethical conduct.”
Near the end of the session, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution broke the story that Rep. John Meadows (R-Calhoun) was trying to get a bill passed that would require insurance agents to be paid a minimum 5 percent commission when they sold health plans.
Meadows, the powerful chairman of the House Rules Committee, happens to be an insurance agent. There are rules that provide a legislator can refrain from voting if he or she would possibly benefit from a bill. Meadows didn’t do this. He voted with other House members to pass the agents’ commission bill.
Before the Senate could consider the measure, the story about Meadows’ conflict of interest hit the newspapers. Senators backed off from voting on the bill and it failed to pass.
Another legislator with a potential conflict of interest was Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford). She works for an insurance company that holds a lucrative contract with the state to provide managed care services for Medicaid patients.
The state budget that provides the money to pay Unterman’s employer came up for a vote twice in the Senate. Unterman did not excuse herself -- she voted for it both times.
These episodes all illustrate the arrogance that persons can acquire when they serve in the General Assembly for a long enough time to accumulate political clout.
You get so used to lobbyists begging you to pass bills that you start feeling special and privileged. You believe that you don’t have to comply with the rules and laws – those things only apply to ordinary people.
That’s how you end up with legislative sessions where constitutions are violated, ethical lapses are laughed at, and corruption sets in.
As retiring lawmakers made their goodbye speeches on the final day of the session, Rep. Al Williams (D-Midway) delivered the most accurate summation of the current legislative ethos.
“I’m not leaving,” Williams said, “but I will accept the right package.”
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an internet news service at gareport.com that reports on state government and politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.