When the Georgia Senate passed the so-called “sick tax” earlier this month who knew that the Republican Party would be left battered and bruised?
On Monday Sen. Preston Smith of Rome took the Senate well and confirmed what everyone else has been whispering for days – that he has been ousted from his powerful position as chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Smith, the youngest member of the Senate, made no secret why he lost his position.
It was punishment, he said, for voting against the controversial HB 307, which would impose a hospital tax to help fill a $600 million gap in Medicaid funding.
Despite the fact the Republicans are spinning the bill as a tax cut, Smith said it is obviously a tax increase. He took the well to speak on another bill, but delivered a calm, yet blistering, attack on his party and its leaders.
“In retribution for my refusal to go along with the lieutenant governor and the rest of the Senate Republicans and vote for a tax increase, my role as chairman was stripped away from me by the lieutenant governor, majority leader, president pro tem and senate republican leadership,” Smith said to a hushed Senate. “I take the well today with a heavy heart – not because of a loss of any position – but rather because of what is happening in state government and its larger implication for the legacy of our Republican party and the posterity of our state.”
The conservative Smith said he promised his constituents that he would never raise taxes.
“I wanted to be a different kind of senator – one who spoke his mind and meant what he said. I made that commitment. But the commitment was to my constituents, not to some outside group,” Smith said. “I gave my word – my bond – that I would not come down to Atlanta and raise taxes…perhaps you should take your chairmanship and give it to a puppet who will feel indebted to you and surrender his constituents’ voice. I don’t need your position to have respect. And I don’t need your title to have honor.”
Smith and two other Republicans, Mitch Seabaugh (R-Sharpsburg) and Jeff Chapman (R-Brunswick), voted against the bill that could raise $170 million based on a 1.45 percent tax on patient revenue.
Two other Republicans, Jack Hill (R- Reidsville) and Judson Hill (R-Marietta) were excused from the vote. The bill passed 31-15, but on the day it passed Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle twice stopped proceedings to gather votes.
But Smith said it was more than that.
“He ordered the majority leader and president pro tem to go get the votes and to tell the members that their chairmanships were at stake,” Smith said. “[Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams] used to tell me that he would never ask me to vote against my conscience or my district. But at the meeting, Williams spontaneously called for a motion for a ‘caucus position’ on the bill.”
At that point, Cagle struck his gavel and ordered Smith to, “speak the truth.”
Smith went on to explain that if two-thirds of the caucus voted to support it, all the members of the caucus had to vote for it.
“There was no discussion. There was not opportunity for dissent. He did not even ask for the members who were voting no,” Smith said. “Like a scene from ‘Lord of the Flies,’ we marched back in to the Senate to follow the order.”
Although the Republicans carried the bill, the bloodshed over it was swift and brutal. Seabaugh resigned majority whip. Hill would not comment on whether he had been stripped of his chairmanship of the Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee.
So Smith was left to do most of the talking, and he attacked the leadership block of Cagle, Williams and Chip Rogers, whom he said “used to be a champion of taxpayers.”
“He used to brag that he had never voted for a tax increase. But you cannot claim to be a champion of taxpayers when you vote to raise taxes and then punish those in your caucus who are convicted not to raise taxes,” Smith said.” For the rest of his political career, the Majority Leader will have to face voters who know that he not only sold out to vote for a tax increase but he fired some of his most conservative members because they refused to go along with a tax increase.”
Rogers said he was stunned by Smith’s comments.
“I started my day as a friend of the Senator from the [52nd] and I hope to end the day as a friend of the Senator from the [52nd],” said Rogers, adding that he would not comment on committee assignments.
But Williams said the party needed 29 votes to pass the bill and Republicans who voted no jeopardized the GOP’s position and threatened the bill.
Passage of the bill was actually helped by three Democrats – Ed Harbison (D-Columbus), Ron Ramsey (D-Lithonia) and Freddie Sims (D-Dawson) – who switched over and supported it.
“Twenty-eight Republicans thought it was a tax cut, and at the end of the day, we thought we had most everybody on board. We assumed Sen. Smith was good with the bill,” Williams said. “If we are going to get the job done, we need a team. This is not a business for the weak at heart. There are tough decisions we are going to have to make if we are going to govern.”
Smith said that at 8 a.m. Monday, he was called into Cagle’s office for a meeting, before the GOP caucus meeting.
“He asked me to resign and issue a state of apology,” Smith said. “An apology for voting against a caucus position.”
Jaillene Hunter, a spokesperson for Cagle, said he would not comment on private meetings. She added that the committee on assignments met last week and voted unanimously to “allow the vice chairman of judiciary [Seth Harp (R-Midland)] to serve as chairman.”
Smith is the youngest member of the Senate and is widely considered one of the more popular, visible and outspoken members of the GOP. A rising star.
After his speech on the Senate Floor, Smith walked back to his seat in the back of the Chamber in silence. No one clapped. Occasionally, a senator would come by and touch his shoulder. He then watched three senators, including Rogers, step up to the well to re-argue the merits of the bill. Not one of them commented on the validity of his claims.
The Democrats, were unusually silent on the most drama-filled day in the Senate thus far.
“There is an old African proverb: When Elephants fight, the ants run,” said Sen. Minority Leader Robert Brown (D-Macon), noting the irony of the what the GOP mascot is. “But this is a tax increase, conceived and delivered by Republican leadership. Sen. Smith just confirmed that and we feel vindicated in our position.”
By 6:30 p.m. Monday night Smith had 39 fans on a hastily constructed “Draft Preston Smith for Lt. Gov” Facebook page.