Last week, a number of lobbyists — those willing to part with up to $10,000 — were invited up to Adairsville for two days of fun with shooting irons and five irons in the company of Republican state senators.
It’s fair to ask why a group of golf coursin’, shotgunnin’ lawmakers might be important to you and yours. The explanation is complicated, very insiderish — and might require a second cup of coffee.
Got it? Good. Let’s begin.
November will answer two important political questions in Georgia. Neither has to do with the presidential contest. Mitt Romney is an all-but-sure bet to carry this state. The Republican candidate’s problems lie elsewhere.
Control of the charter school movement in Georgia is one piece of the Nov. 6 puzzle — a topic for another day. Control of one-half of the Legislature is the other.
Two years ago, Senate Republicans celebrated Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s re-election by stripping him of most of his authority over the chamber — in part because, months earlier, Cagle had forced a vote to approve a $96 million hospital bed tax to fill a hole in the state’s Medicaid budget.
Republican senators, led by President Pro Tem Tommie Williams of Lyons and Majority Leader Chip Rogers of Woodstock, declared it was time that members of their august chamber were allowed to govern themselves.
And they have done so — somewhat in the manner of the Committee of Public Safety in post-revolutionary France. No guillotines but plenty of chaos. The center of power in the Senate has become so blurry that lobbyists don’t know whose names to put on checks.
Gov. Nathan Deal has tolerated the situation for two years. It is the third year that is most important to a governor, often determining whether he’ll face a primary challenge when he seeks re-election — as Deal intends to do in 2014.
Huge issues await the Legislature in January. Budget cuts by a federal government teetering on a fiscal cliff will have their impact here. Who pays for whose dining and entertainment within the state Capitol has become an even more volatile topic. That hospital bed tax is about to expire. And a GOP revolt may be brewing over the new Falcons stadium.
All this and more has required the governor to develop a healthy interest in who runs the state Senate.
Williams, the Senate president pro tem, has decided to give up the top leadership position. Senators still loyal to the Revolution of 2010 have produced a slate of candidates to carry on, with Bill Cowsert of Athens as president pro tem and Rogers as majority leader.
They were among those who gathered in Adairsville last week for some golf and trap shooting. The beneficiary of the event was the Georgia Senatorial Republican Trust — the campaign-funding arm of the Republican caucus.
This summer, the trust handed $140,000 to an independent committee based in North Carolina so that it might spend unrestricted amounts of cash to defend Republican senators facing primary challenges.
Some senators complained about spending priorities. The lieutenant governor questioned the legality of the maneuver. On Sept. 10, he sent a note to senators saying he wouldn’t attend the golf-and-shotgun event intended to refill Senate Republican coffers.
“We do not have to cheat to win in November,” Cagle wrote. “I believe that my participation in the upcoming Trust fundraiser could hurt our cause by serving to wrongly legitimize conduct and decisions which are wholly unacceptable.”
Lawyers will ultimately determine whether state campaign finance laws were broken. So what did Cagle actually accomplish with his declaration? He turned the Adairsville event into a shoe-leather referendum on his future.
Senate GOP leaders in charge of the event declined all on-record opportunities to say which of their peers showed up or even how many. (A note circulated among senators declared the event would clear about $150,000.)
But as those senators were shooting pigeons and birdies, forces in the state Capitol were lining up behind two alternative candidates for the top Senate slots: David Shafer of Duluth for president pro tem and Ronnie Chance of Tyrone for majority leader. Chance is currently the governor’s floor leader.
Ross Tolleson of Perry, a third candidate for president pro tem, has agreed to be agreeable. “I’m not out of anything,” he said. “But I’m not out to be king of the hill.”
The 35 to 38 Republican senators expected to be elected Nov. 6 will make the final leadership decisions in the days or weeks that follow. Democrats can do little but marvel at the uncertainty.
“We are in an unprecedented moment. The absolute major positions in our state Senate are all in flux,” said state Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur. “The Judiciary Committee gets half of all legislation. Its chairman [Bill Hamrick of Carrollton] has recently left. No one knows who the rules chairman is going to be.
“Overlying everything — you don’t even know who’s going to make those appointments. Because you don’t know what kind of power the lieutenant governor is going to get back, or not,” Carter said.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider