Most of the Georgia General Assembly’s debate consists of politicians “speaking for Buncombe.”
Speaking for Buncombe, a phrase that gave us “speaking bunk,” had its origins in an 1845 floor speech by Buncombe County, N.C., Congressman Felix Walter, who spoke at length with no expectation that his words would matter to the gathered assembly. It was “for Buncombe.”
Rare are the moments when all activity ceases, when legislators are transfixed by the speaker in the well. Such was the case Thursday with state Sen. Robert Brown of Macon, thin, almost frail after a bout with a long-mysterious illness that has been the talk of the Capitol for more than a year.
Brown, the Senate minority leader, rose to oppose a proposed rule change by the Senate Ethics Committee that would have added a failure to pay state income taxes as a reason members of that body could be sanctioned. The penalties for tax deadbeats could include, after a vote by the full Senate, expulsion.
That is a fair penalty for an elected official who intentionally, and sometimes repeatedly, avoids filing income taxes. Due process would have been built into the rules change. The occasional lapse, hardship, illnesses and disagreements over taxes owed would have been taken into consideration.
The principle is, though, that legislators should abide by the laws they impose on the rest of us.
Brown has acknowledged that he has lapses in filing state income taxes. A recently released report by the State Department of Revenue identifies 22 legislators who have not filed state income taxes for periods ranging up to six years. Of the 22, three were identified by name because actions have been taken against them. They include state Reps. Al Williams (D-Midway), Winfred Dukes (D-Albany) and Roberta Abdul-Salaam (D-Riverdale).
Brown is a private man. His decision to stand before the Senate and discuss his personal life prompted colleagues on both sides of the aisle to stop and listen to his “fireside chat.”
“Most about me,” he said, “is none of your business.” During a routine physical in May 2007, a nurse informed him that he had to go immediately to the hospital, he said.
“Two weeks later, I realized I was still in the world.” He awoke to questions: What’s your name? Who’s the president? After three months, during which his weight dropped to under 100 pounds, “I went to rehab to learn how to walk and to talk.”
During that time, he said, his small business suffered a complete turnover in personnel. Records were left in shambles. Unable to get the records together, Brown said he asked for a filing extension.
From that touching personal account of a medical experience that had been the subject of considerable speculation, Brown fell into a rant. “I want to talk about the bloodsuckers for a minute,” he said. Whereupon, he proceeded to play the race card, a ploy that included a giant video screen with an old photo of Ethics Chairman Eric Johnson (R-Savannah) with the former state flag that included the St. Andrew’s cross, with a racial swipe at vouchers, a cause championed by Johnson.
“I have never been as shocked as I am today,” said Johnson after Brown sat down. The debate, he said, was not about political theater, Rush Limbaugh, slavery, vouchers, requests for extensions, the Department of Revenue. “All this is about is that we ask members of this body to do what we ask the people of Georgia to do.”
Members were allowed by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle to vote on the rule without having their votes recorded.
By hand count, 32 favored the change and 16 opposed. A two-thirds vote was required, so it failed. If there was a Democrat who voted for it or a Republican who voted against the change, I did not see them in the chamber.
Brown’s approach is a common one in public policy debate. It is to find an example that tugs at the heart and to represent that as being representative of all.
Ultimately, though, it comes down to this: Those who don’t live by the laws they impose should be gone.