By Wyc Orr
The Georgia General Assembly is now well into its annual legislative session — the great process of democracy at work.
But a closer look reveals something far less majestic — too often, the mere illusion of democracy – the steadily increasing disenfranchisement of Georgians by their own state government. Much of what is occurring around the Gold Dome in Atlanta is oligarchy – plutocrats and autocrats, many of them unelected, making major – and costly — decisions, while evading all but the pretenses of the democratic process.
Why so harsh a condemnation? Consider recent decision making in Georgia’s government:
–Four mergers of eight colleges and universities were rammed through around the state, with little opportunity for objection by the public, local officials, “alums” or the schools themselves. Historic institutional names and traditions vanished overnight. The University System Board of Regents – unelected – “knew best.”
–The Georgia World Congress Center Authority’s governing Board – also unelected – is, against polls and public opinion, marching rapidly toward a deal with the Atlanta Falcons that would destroy the just 20-year-old Dome right as it’s paid off, and construct a $1 billion new stadium near the same spot, using perhaps as much as $300 million or more in public money. What’s more, the shell game continues as to who will finance the public debt portion of a stadium — first, the World Congress Center Authority, but now maybe the city of Atlanta – trying to wipe every possible fingerprint of the Legislature and governor from a new stadium. The governor’s spokesman refuses to describe the latest plan. How can even diligent news-following citizens be expected to discern which shell the pea of accountability is under?
–Federal infusion of as much as $33 billion into the state’s Medicaid program over the next decade, enabling as many as 650,000 additional low-income Georgians to receive health insurance coverage, has been unilaterally rejected by the governor – so far without any involvement of the Legislature. The governor could never unilaterally appropriate or spend such a vast sum (approaching twice the amount of the annual state budget), yet he has abandoned it with little fanfare. Now the governor’s bill has passed, letting yet another unelected board, at the Department of Community Health, extend a hospital “bed tax” to deal with the huge shortfall in Medicaid funding.
–The Legislature’s pattern of “let the governor, or anybody but us, do it.” At the outset of this deep recession, the two-year term Legislature shunned a special legislative session and let term-limited Gov. Perdue, ineligible for re-election, cut state expenditures. Letting four-year term governors and unelected boards take controversial steps delays and diffuses accountability and cloaks decision-makers in anonymity.
Such delegation of decision making defeats democracy. Like Steinbeck’s frustrated farmer, powerless to stop his family’s eviction by invisible, far-off financiers in “The Grapes of Wrath,” there’s seemingly no one for Georgia’s voters to hold responsible.
Somehow, one doubts this is what those Georgians who cast off royal government – the “divine right of kings” – had in mind when they raised the Liberty Pole in Savannah in 1775. If this be democracy, wonder what royalty looks like?
Wyc Orr, a Gainesville attorney, is a former Democratic member of the Georgia House of Representatives.