Chamber of Secrets

Session marked by shift from public welfare to special interests

A fitting coda to the 2005 General Assembly occurred in the final minutes of the session, when House Speaker Glenn Richardson, presenting what was left of the governor's battered ethics bill, conceded that legislators had managed to sneak in one last secrecy provision.

Lawmakers in both chambers had been made to cool their heels for hours Thursday night while Republican leaders played a game of legislative chicken, daring each other to declare an ethics impasse as they wrangled over the half-hearted measure.

About 10 minutes before he gaveled the session to a close, Richardson was asked by a Democratic inquisitor if it was true that the compromise bill would allow ethics hearings to be held behind closed doors. In other words, did it mean that legislators could sit in judgment of their accused friends and peers away from the prying eyes of the public?

Yes, the speaker replied from the well, the bill would do just that.

Moments later, the bill was passed by both House and Senate - and the curtain came down on a session likely to be remembered for creating a seismic shift in Georgia's legislative priorities.

From an all-out assault on the state's open-records laws to a series of sweetheart bills for big business to social legislation aimed at endowing Georgia with a Red State moral vision, the first GOP-controlled Legislature in 130 years made clear from the start that it was making up for lost time.

Exhibit A, of course, is the omnibus tort-reform package. The law is so lopsided in favoring the interests of insurance companies and hospitals over average Georgians - including a $350,000 cap on pain-and-suffering jury awards and virtual immunity for emergency-room mishaps - that many Republican legislators predict an overhaul in future sessions.

Ironically enough, tort reform was pitched by its supporters as a consumer protection. The argument, repeated over and over in committee hearings and from the well, held that cutting the number of malpractice lawsuits would drive down medical insurance rates, thus ensuring better patient access to ob-gyn services and saving Georgia's small, rural hospitals from extinction.

But that populist spin was revealed to be a cynical canard when Gov. Sonny Perdue made great show of signing the bill at Northside Hospital, surrounded by lobbyists and insurance execs. Only two days earlier, the well-heeled suburban hospital had launched a $64 million expansion to maintain its standing as the nation's busiest baby factory.

And yet, many other major GOP initiatives were not as extreme as tort reform - in their final forms, that is. Efforts to ban abortion outright, to promote the teaching of creationism in public schools and to expand gun-owners' rights all were hastily swept under the rug.

Enacting a 24-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions arguably represented a mere shot across the bow in the abortion wars, compared to some of the more restrictive changes the pro-life lobby had long threatened. In its original version, the bill by Rep. Sue Burmeister, R-Augusta, would have required doctors to warn women that abortions can cause breast cancer - a specious claim disproved by medical studies - and encouraged a woman's family members to sue her abortion doctor.

(As still more evidence that family values begin at home rather than on the campaign trail, the Augusta Chronicle revealed on the last day of the session that the conservative crusader's 23-year-old son had been charged with molesting a local girl. Although the alleged sexual abuse had been ongoing for the past nine years, Burmeister told reporters she'd learned of the situation only a week earlier. Talk about a "woman's right to know.")

Even though House Speaker Richardson vowed last year to push for the mandatory display of the Ten Commandments in Georgia courthouses - famously calling the separation of church and state "a fable" - the only measure that surfaced was a nonbinding resolution offered by right-wing evangelical Sen. Nancy Schaefer, R-Turnerville.

And the GOP's most aggressive attempt at values legislation, a bill to enact a six-month waiting period for divorces between couples with children, was finally killed by Republicans who rightly saw the measure as meddling overmuch in people's lives.

So the '05 session turned out to be less a glut of value-centric legislation and more a surge of pro-business bills. Certain legislation was so over-the-top in its corporate-giveaway zeal that it was quickly abandoned in the face of immediate opposition, such as SB 5, which would have harnessed the power of eminent domain to enrich private developers.

Other bills, such as HB 218, the so-called "secrecy bill," died only after public outrage scared away enough potential GOP votes. That measure would have enabled local governments to seal from the public the details of development deals on virtually any project from factories to landfills.

In further testament to the shift in political priorities, the Legislature voted along mostly partisan lines to delay reductions in classroom size ordered by former Gov. Roy Barnes - despite the fact that Georgia lingers at the bottom of the educational barrel. Opponents claimed the state doesn't have the money to make the change. Yet lawmakers approved a corporate tax break for Georgia-based companies that's expected to average $100 million annually for the next decade.

Similarly, the GOP majority set rules designed to bump thousands of children off the rolls of the state's PeachCare program, in spite of complaints that 45,000 poor kids were temporarily left without health insurance last year because of a similar rules change.

In fact, an unmistakable theme to some of the most controversial legislation was the implied antipathy toward Georgia's women and children, seen most obviously in the restructuring of child-support rules that critics say favor noncustodial parents - typically fathers - and could mean harder times for children of divorce. Lawmakers also passed a measure to allow small businesses to offer cheaper employee insurance coverage that excludes procedures that affect women. (Burmeister argued that the bill actually helps women by requiring fewer mammograms, which we all know can be so time-consuming.)

Before the session began, Richardson made a now-notorious declaration that successful bills would reduce the size of government, strengthen the traditional family structure, reduce the tax burden and increase personal responsibility.

But in the new, trickle-down world of Georgia politics, where the corporation is king, children are increasingly vulnerable and the public's right to know is under attack, the speaker may need to restate his priorities.