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No heroes

Legislators squander four months, voter goodwill in do-nothing session

A governor flashing his not-inconsiderable backside at taxpayers. State House leaders throwing a nasty temper tantrum. Senate honchos who prefer playing games to getting serious over the budget.

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These images of Georgia's Republican lawmakers as spoiled, ill-behaved children didn't come from newspaper editorials or even liberal blogs. This is how the people who run our state government described each other as the latest General Assembly ran off the rails, resulting in a toxic spillage of blame.

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It's difficult to assign an overarching theme to the session because little substantial policy-making occurred this year – and then seemingly less by design than by accident or well-timed corporate lobbying. Legislative agendas fell by the wayside as the session dissolved into a chaos of competing personalities, political one-upmanship and stunning lapses of communication of a scale that often ends marriages and starts bankruptcies.

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It's a toss-up as to who came out looking worst: Gov. Sonny Perdue; House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram; Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, R-Gainesville – or the state GOP as a whole.

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In short, the story of the session is not what the lawmakers did, but how they went about not doing it. And while they may have caused damage to each others' – and their own – reputations along the way, there was surprisingly little damage done from a policy standpoint.

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For instance, the state's PeachCare health insurance program for children of working families was an early political football. Richardson spent considerable effort and political capital in trying to cut thousands of kids off its rolls, and Perdue called for a two-week recess in the session while he lobbied Congress for emergency money to cover a PeachCare shortfall. But, in the end, the state covered the temporary funding gap and the Senate rejected any cuts to the program.

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And other legislative bullets were dodged, as well. The NRA's pet bill to prohibit employers from telling workers they can't keep guns in their cars while parked on company property died a well-earned death in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre. Gas-pipeline companies were denied enhanced ability to grab private land with little oversight. An initiative failed to dismantle the state's Certificate of Need law, which would have had a profound impact on regional hospitals. Payday lending is not returning to Georgia.

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And while the budget battle claimed lawmakers' energies in the final month of the session, the tussle was largely substance-free, mostly the product of perceived insults and gamesmanship. Cagle earned the ire of House Republicans when he summarily rejected a routine supplemental budget that was larded with mundane pork. His claim to the conservative high ground was undercut by the fact that he'd given no warning to House budget writers; to some, his stance smacked of a self-serving political stunt.

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To break the impasse, House and Senate leaders opted for the easy way out – a miniscule, feel-good tax cut that reeked of taxpayer pandering.

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Perdue, meanwhile, angered nearly everybody when he awoke from an apparent coma to veto the supplemental budget and its attendant tax break – despite having remained mute throughout the entire budget process. To resolve the matter, he'll call a weeklong special session for next month.

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Say what you will about the cloistered, smoke-filled back rooms of general assemblies during the Tom Murphy era; at least people talked to each other. There were power struggles, to be sure, but they usually stemmed from policy disputes or regional priorities, not poor communication skills.

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From his go-nowhere attempt to gut PeachCare to rumors of an "inappropriate relationship" with a female lobbyist to a House override of a Republican governor's veto, Richardson's political star has dimmed considerably.

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Perdue, who began the session lampooned for a comically limp legislative agenda that centered around "Go Fish, Georgia," was strangely invisible during the following months, puzzling and alienating fellow Republicans.

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Cagle, who won high marks for his bipartisan diplomacy, stumbled in the last days of the session by accepting the House's lame tax-rebate deal, flip-flopping on a gun bill vote and finally weaseling out of taking a position on the governor's veto. The first order of business of the dreaded special session will be to force Cagle and the Senate to confront the veto – a move that will make GOP lawmakers look bad for voting against a tax break, however bogus.

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For the time being, it's difficult to imagine the Republican leadership looking any worse than it already does after an interminable four-month session that did little but provide a public showcase for party infighting and meaningless clashes of outsized egos.



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