Something was different about the night the Legislature shut down, and it wasn’t the hovering protesters or shoving matches among lobbyists outside the chamber.
Nor was it the sneaky, last-minute amendment, or the bottles of oak-aged stimulant tucked inside this cloakroom or that.
No, the most unusual sight on that Thursday evening was Attorney General Sam Olens on the House floor, attempting to push through the last of his four bills.
The measure, intended to stop the spread of “pain pill mills” in the state, didn’t make it. But it was Olens’ only disappointment of the week, which began quite prominently in a pew before nine U.S. Supreme Court justices.
For three days, Olens shuttled between the health care arguments in D.C. and his legislative package in Atlanta. On the far end, simply by witnessing the high-court sessions, Olens established himself as the lead Republican voice – at least, in Georgia, one of the suing states — on the what’s sure to become the hottest political topic of the summer.
In Atlanta, the attorney general successfully pushed through a rewrite of the state “sunshine” laws that give the public access to government documents and meetings.
All in all, the week was evidence that Georgia’s first Republican attorney general styles himself an activist — something the state hasn’t seen in a while. ”I think it’s a fair statement that the AG’s office is more engaged in the Legislature now,” Olens said in a Friday interview.
But first, Olens’ notes from three days of Supreme Court watching:
“The lesson of the first day was that no justice had the appetite to bar the case and not proceed on the merits,” said Olens. He noted that many of the justices, unusually, had given seats to family members – a signal that they, too, expected some history to unfold.
Tuesday was given over to arguments over the new law’s requirement that everyone should buy health insurance. Many viewed that as the most important portion of the argument. “But I’m not sure that’s correct,” Olens said.
Because Wednesday was devoted to another mandate — that states open their Medicaid programs to more poor people, or face a massive loss in Medicaid funding. “Some of the justices that were more reserved on the issue of the individual mandate, were less reserved on their concern about coercion,” the attorney general said. “That’s where you saw the biggest ideological divide.”
This is where, depending on the breadth of any decision overturning the health care overhaul, this lawsuit could have an impact well beyond health insurance. Strings on federal money have become commonplace — for instance, the passage of seat belt laws and legal drinking ages set at 21.
“It could have a huge effect. One of the things we tried to hit home with on this [lawsuit] is that the principle of federalism is on trial here,” Olens said. “This appeal is not about health care. This appeal is on the limits of federal government.”
Closer to home, Olens said he realizes that he’ll have to be careful about how many times he walks from his office across the street to the state Capitol. “While there are some legislators that appreciate us having an agenda, there are others that are not so sure,” he said. “So we need to be respectful of the process.”
His rewrite of the state’s sunshine laws increases fines for violations and allows the state to pursue offending government officials with civil suits rather than criminal prosecution. Both make pursuit of malefactors more palatable. Under the current code, Olens said, “If I went to bring a charge in Chatham County, it cost me more in gas money than the fine.”
In that same legislation, Olens also brokered an end to a longstanding feud between Georgia governors and the state’s newspaper publishers over whether attempts to to lure new industry to Georgia should be kept secret. Gov. Sonny Perdue wanted a lid on such efforts, but was rebuffed. Gov. Nathan Deal had made one a campaign promise.
The governors said they feared competing states would gain real-time access to incentives Georgia offered to companies. Newspapers feared that the costs of those incentives would be hidden from the view of taxpayers.
“The prior proposed bills were so overly broad, that the press correctly, vehemently disagreed with the proposals,” Olens said. And he pointed out that the state’s newspaper concerns had signed off on the new provisions.
Documents relating to economic recruitment projects worth $25 million or more, or involving 50 workers or more, will now be state secrets – until the deals are consummated or abandoned. At which time, the state will be obliged to put all related documents online, without anyone asking.
But Olens, the former chairman of the Cobb County Commission, said he had no intention of supporting an extension of that secrecy to industry recruitment by local governments.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider