Beware The Scorned Public

GOP's pro-bidness stance could prompt voter backlash

When Civil Rights pioneer the Rev. Joseph Lowery stepped to the podium in the Georgia House of Representatives to deliver the morning sermon last Thursday, he took the opportunity to preach populism to the largely unconverted.

"Our priorities today should reflect the common good, not the benefit of the mighty," the 83-year-old Lowery gently reminded the legislators seated before him.

Oops - it's a little too late for that, Joe.

With only a handful of days to go in the first completely Republican-controlled General Assembly in more than a century, this session is shaping up to be remembered as the one in which the Legislature noisily consummated its long-running love affair with big business, corporate interests and rich folks in general.

Bill after bill, advanced mostly by GOP lawmakers, sought to roll back industry regulations, limit corporate liability, strip away consumer protections and create a shroud of secrecy to shield backroom deals between businesses and government from public scrutiny.

That's not to say that the Democratic majorities of old couldn't likewise have been described as pro-bidness. But this session's tilt has been so extreme - coming, arguably, at the expense of Georgia consumers, workers and property owners - that politicians and strategists on both sides of the aisle are already calculating the political costs to state GOP leaders. Gov. Sonny Perdue, who's gearing up for next year's re-election campaign, is seen as particularly vulnerable.

"The unknown and unintended victims of this session are not a constituency - yet," says state Sen. Sam Zamarripa, D-Atlanta. He predicts there'll be hell to pay once the realities sink in with voters regarding such GOP initiatives as the new "tort reform" law, which caps the amount of pain and suffering damages medical malpractice victims can collect.

"We need to re-examine tort reform, because some of the provisions are not in the best interests of Georgia," observes Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, who was among several GOP lawmakers who submitted failed damage-control amendments to the bill.

One of the more egregious Republican measures is Senate Bill 190, which would remove a long-standing legal safeguard against the building of environmentally harmful landfills, incinerators or power plants in Georgia. The legislation, which has passed the Senate and is now up for approval by the House, would do away with the state's so-called "stay rule" that temporarily halts such projects while they're being challenged in court. The bill is a top priority for Southern Co. subsidiary Georgia Power.

"In its rush to embrace the business community as the savior of Georgia, the [GOP] majority feels it doesn't owe the public an explanation," Zamarripa says. "The backlash will come sooner than they think."

In fact, as many battered GOP lawmakers can attest, the initial backlash actually began several weeks ago, when public opposition to the Perdue-backed SB 5 - a measure empowering local governments to hand over private land to developers via eminent domain - became so white-hot that its embarrassed sponsor, Dan Moody, R-Alpharetta, ceremoniously snuffed it in committee.

The GOP squandered even more political capital in its wrong-headed push for House Bill 218, which became known as the "secrecy bill." Coming straight off the Georgia Chamber of Commerce's wish list, that measure would have allowed state and even local development authorities to hide from public view negotiations on any project deemed to promote "economic development."

While some Republicans, under intense constituent and media pressure, opposed those two bills as slaps in the face to the public trust, the bills didn't stop the majority party from advancing - and adopting - a parade of other pro-business legislation that undermines the rights and protections of average Georgians.

Among the litany of non-consumer-friendly bills:

SB 92 by Sen. Seth Harp, R-Columbus, would create a "training wage" for teens, enabling companies to pay seasonal workers less than the federal minimum wage.SB 174 by Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, would allow small businesses to offer less comprehensive health-care coverage to their employees.HB 340 by Rep. Bill Hembree, R-Douglasville, would keep secret the identities of big donors to state universities, including corporations doing business with a school.SB 26 by Sen. Casey Cagle, R-Gainesville, would bar homeowners from filing nuisance claims against large hog farms and animal-rendering plants.Even bills purporting to offer new consumer protections, such as the so-called "Gift Card Integrity Act of 2005" by Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, were crafted largely by corporate interests, in this case the banking industry. Unlike an earlier Democratic version restricting hidden usage fees and outlawing expiration dates, Rogers' bill would simply require Simon malls, Barnes & Noble and other companies issuing gift cards to enlarge the fine print, effectively legitimizing the fees.

Of course, all of these examples pale when compared to the tort-reform omnibus bill, which narrowly passed despite the misgivings of several GOP lawmakers.

Its more controversial aspects include capping the amount of pain-and-suffering damages a victim of medical malpractice can recover at a mere $350,000; virtually denying malpractice victims any compensation whatsoever if their injury was caused in an emergency room; and throwing out Georgia's long-standing "joint and several liability" law that ensured victims of personal injury or faulty products could collect court-awarded damages from big corporations.

Many Democrats are convinced that voters will be left with the impression that the GOP-controlled General Assembly has sold out the public in favor of corporate interests.

"The economic future of Georgia is not just about business, but about quality of life," Zamarripa explains. "Gov. [Roy] Barnes forgot that lesson in his pursuit of the Northern Arc, and it cost him," he adds, referring to the outer-ring highway proposal that mobilized angry suburban voters.

Ex-lawmaker Chuck Clay, a former state GOP party head, attributes the spate of industry-friendly bills to a pent-up Republican desire to help Georgia corporations that were stifled when the Legislature was controlled by Democrats.

"Is it surprising that the Republicans would be pro-business? No," Clay says. "Are there bills that could be used against them? Yes. But I don't think we're at the point where it leaves the impression that we're so eager to support business that we've ignored the average Georgian."

Rep. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, on the other hand, worries that party leaders didn't do enough to weed out some of the more extreme pro-business bills - or at least reduce their sheer number. He readily concedes that he wouldn't have supported HB 218, the "secrecy bill," if he'd read it more closely.

"The intentions of most of these bills were good, but if the perception sticks that we chose business over the public, it'll hurt us," says Millar, adding, "If it comes back to haunt anybody, it'll be Sonny Perdue."