Golden Sleaze Awards - The 20th annual Golden Sleaze Awards
The 2009 Georgia General Assembly was supposed to be 40 days of restraint and careful action.
The state, stuck deep in a $2.1 billion hole, would barely have scraps for the lobbyist vultures to feast upon. There would be little time to quibble over ridiculous resolutions or political grandstanding. It wasn’t an election year, either – meaning mistakes and accomplishments by these extraordinary men and women would be quickly forgotten. So let’s solve some problems, huh?
How wrong we were. The legislative session produced another outstanding display of ineptitude, lack of vision, and battles between rural and urban interests, topped off with post-election showboating and chicanery. And what it lacked in terms of last year’s theatrics and implosions – a former state representative losing his seat thanks to federal prison, House Speaker Glenn Richardson’s plan to eliminate property taxes – it made up for in idiocy.
Embarrassing national headlines about stem cell research. A bald-faced sweetheart deal for the state’s largest utility company. The usual assortment of divisive bills. The mantra going into such sessions is “do no harm,” but the state’s most powerful lawmakers proved they can’t do anything but.
And because their foibles and foul-ups deserve to be preserved in perpetuity, and no stupid deed should go unnoticed, we hereby proudly present the 20th annual Golden Sleaze Awards. If the list seems short on (um, devoid of) Democrats this year, consider it a reflection of the minority party’s lack of clout – and corresponding ineffectiveness at inflicting damage.
Rep. Matt Dollar, R-East Cobb: Seriously, dude? You’ve spent seven sessions at the Capitol and this is all you’ve got to show for it? For those not familiar with Dollar – and there’s absolutely no reason you should be (that goes for his constituents, as well) – this 31-year-old lawmaker has long been considered the House party boy, a guy so besotted with the perks, freebies and social opportunities associated with his office that he rarely finds the time to actually, y’know, make laws. Well, lightning struck this year. Now “serving” his fourth term, Dollar managed to get a bill through the House for only the second time in his legislative career. What was it? We were afraid you might ask: It’s a measure to create license plates for folks who want to support the Georgia Aquarium and wild dolphins (although, in the latter case, the proceeds would go to an out-of-state marine advocacy group). Last we heard, the bill was expected to sink in the Senate. Oh well, Matt, have another brewsky. There’s always next term.
Rep. Calvin Hill, R-Canton, and Rep. Charlice Byrd, R-Woodstock: A situation that most lawmakers with a shred of dignity would chalk up to an embarrassing misunderstanding proved instead to be an excuse for a week of grandstanding by these two exurban pols. Early in the session, Hill, one of the holders of House purse strings, railed about state universities using public funds to offer classes on such subjects as oral sex and prostitution. Turns out Hill had mistakenly assumed a GSU “experts guide” – a publication colleges routinely send to journalists to promote the breadth of faculty expertise – was a course catalog. Doh! But even after the AJC pointed out Hill’s blunder, fellow Cherokee legislator Byrd posted a YouTube video – at public expense – to bluster about how schools should get rid of professors who “provide services in these ‘so-called’ air quotes hers special-interest areas.” Hill seems content to ride the right wing’s anti-intellectual bandwagon. Byrd, however, is driving the anti-intellect short bus.
Rep. Mark Hatfield, R-Waycross: “I believe this bill will encourage reasonable, rational conduct,” said one lawmaker during a committee hearing on a measure to allow juries to consider seat belt usage when determining damages in personal injury lawsuits. Talk about magical thinking. Moments after the bill passed by a 2-1 margin, Hatfield – who’d sat scowling and whispering throughout the discussion – leapt to his feet with clenched fists and got up in the grill of Judiciary Chairman Wendell Willard, a fellow Republican nearly three decades his senior. “You better back off!” Hatfield seethed before he stormed out, slamming the door behind him. Legislators who witnessed the outburst variously described Hatfield’s behavior as “totally inappropriate,” “out of control” and “off the reservation.” Ordered later by Speaker Richardson to apologize, Hatfield lamely regretted his “overzealousness” – an apology witnesses unanimously described to CL as “half-assed.” If this loudmouthed hothead gets so worked up discussing a seat belt bill, imagine what might happen if he had any real responsibilities.
Sen. Preston Smith, R-Rome: Thanks to Smith, Georgia won’t be turning into the Island of Dr. Moreau any time soon. Of course, nor will we become a hub of the biotech industry. Smith overhauled the anti-“octo-mom” bill by wingnut Sen. Ralph Hudgens, R-Hull, turning a doomed piece of holy-roller legislation into a GOP juggernaut that tells those evil stem cell researchers to steer clear of Swanee. Smith bravely took to the well to inveigh against human cloning and the “creation of human-animal hybrids” – not that anyone has proposed these activities. Then he dropped the N-bomb – Nazi, that is. “I don’t believe in the destruction of human life in the interest of science,” Smith said. “I don’t think it was right when Dr. Mengele did it and it’s not right now.” When outraged Democrats challenged Smith for comparing Alzheimer’s researchers to a genocidal sociopath who performed horrific experiments on concentration camp prisoners, he said, “I’m not making a comparison.” Well, now that we’ve got that straight, let’s get back to building that wall to keep out science.
Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, and Gov. Sonny Perdue: Our famously teetotaling governor just doesn’t understand why anyone else might want a little nip now and then. Still, despite Sonny’s standing threat to veto Sunday alcohol sales legislation, a bill allowing us to buy booze on the Sabbath looked like it had a decent chance of passing this year. It’s a no-brainer proposal that has the vocal support of an overwhelming majority of Georgians. Unfortunately, simple popularity is rarely enough to overcome political cowardice when the Christian Coalition is counting votes and taking names. Shafer, who chairs the committee in which this hot potato landed, delayed a vote once, then couldn’t muster a quorum at a follow-up meeting. When the issue was scheduled for a third attempt, one GOP legislator was rumored to be hiding in the bathroom while others were “running late.” Finally, the bill’s disgusted sponsor pulled his legislation, indicating that Shafer – a lieutenant governor wannabe who can’t afford to piss off the Baptist Temperance League – had sabotaged the vote.
Rep. Mark Burkhalter, R-Johns Creek, and Rep. Jan Jones, R-Alpharetta: It’s astounding that, even after successfully pushing through legislation to create two new gated communities, er, we mean cities, in north Fulton County, Burkhalter and Jones came back with a plan to pull their ‘hoods out of Fulton entirely. Guess they didn’t feel like moving to Forsyth. Anyway, history buffs will recall that the old Milton County went bust in the Great Depression and begged to be annexed into Fulton. Now, as we lurch toward another depression, these two want to resurrect Milton – their paradise lost, you might say – by ripping the top off Fulton. Their argument is that breaking one big government into two smaller ones will – against all logic and historical evidence – somehow result in cost savings and efficiencies. But the hidden message is that the best government is that which is closest to the people – in skin tone.
Rep. Chuck Sims, R-Ambrose: For years now, Sims has been pushing to repeal the sales tax exemption for groceries – a measure that would shift the tax burden squarely onto the backs of poor folks. This session, he sweetened his regressive proposal with a good, old-fashioned swipe at illegal immigrants, rewriting his bill to allow good, honest Georgia taxpayers to claim a state income tax credit for the groceries they bought – providing they submit a year’s worth of Kroger receipts. So, not only does Sims want to raise taxes on foodstuffs during a period of severe recession and soaring unemployment, he wants to exponentially increase the workload at the state Department of Revenue at the same time Georgia is slashing government overhead. His bill again stalled in the House. Perhaps, as a licensed funeral director, Sims will finally give it the burial it deserves.
Sen. Chip Pearson, R-Dawsonville: Developers have a friend in the man with a fuzzy upper lip and well-earned reputation for treating Mother Nature like a piñata. The senator, who dreams of gaudy strip malls built atop every waterway from Hiawassee to Jesup, is himself a developer. You see, “Dirty Sanchez” here understands how pesky environmental regulations can get in the way of a quick buck. Take “stream buffers,” important rules that dictate how far new construction must be situated from waterways. Stream buffers are vital to protecting the supply and quality of the state’s water. After many years of giant defeats and little victories, Pearson this year finally gave his pro-growth buddies something to smile about with a successful bill that muddies the legal distinction between a ditch and a stream, potentially placing many of the latter at risk. Add a perennial fascination with bills that would prohibit offenses yet to occur in Georgia – mandatory implantation of microchips, “sanctuary cities” that harbor illegal immigrants – and you have the man many Gold Dome insiders have unlovingly branded “the environmental anti-Christ.”
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville: It takes big reactors and a lot of money to generate nuclear energy. And it takes big balls to push a bill so favorable to Georgia Power. That legislation, Balfour’s Senate Bill 31, was a game-changing maneuver that would allow Georgia Power to start charging its customers years in advance for two new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle near Augusta. Apparently the only people in favor of this $6.4 billion fleecing were lawmakers who were wined, dined and coached in talking points – “It’ll create jobs!” “Georgia Power is a good corporate citizen!” – by more than 70 lobbyists. The utility handpicked Balfour, the chamber’s Rules chairman, to carry the legislation, and it was no coincidence they pushed it in the Senate. The chamber’s doe-eyed president, Lt. Gov. Cagle, is eying a 2010 governor run and would dare not anger the state’s most deep-pocketed carbon belcher. Political bloggers of all stripes blasted lawmakers and called for their scalps come the 2010 elections. But it was no use. The bill passed both chambers and now awaits the signature of Gov. Sonny Perdue – who, it should be noted, enjoys the service of a former Georgia Power lobbyist as his chief of staff. You should remember Balfour’s name when you start seeing the charge on your power bills come 2011.
Public Service Commissioner Stan Wise: Stancil “Stan” Wise worked hard this session to solidify his reputation as one of the most trusted members of Georgia Power’s nod squad. In February, the commissioner testified before a U.S. House energy subcommittee and sang a sad song: Proposed federal regulations for renewable energy generation would cripple poor, poor Georgia. Wise bemoaned, Won’t you please consider adding nuclear energy to the mix? Never mind that clean energy experts said Wise bungled an opportunity and was wrong. And when Georgia Power’s boondoggle of a bill faced a state subcommittee, Wise personally spoke for it, though he said he wasn’t entirely sure what it entailed. It appears that the constant nattering of utility lobbyists – Wise has a well-earned reputation of being cozy with the utilities he regulates – have penetrated the good commissioner’s melon. Maybe a couple of lessons from his colleague, Commissioner Bobby Baker, that last fair-minded member of the agency, would help.
Rep. James Mills, R-Gainesville: This year, Mills picked up the Georgia GOP pastime of making the lives of illegal immigrants – and even legal immigrants – a living hell. One of Mills’ many legislative masterpieces, House Bill 45, tried to masquerade as a tool to fight voter fraud. The boneheaded bill would require Georgians to provide proof of citizenship before registering to vote. Opponents said it was unnecessary, as illegal immigrants aren’t exactly out trying to get caught, and that it would be an indirect poll tax on low-income and elderly residents who may not have access to their birth documents. Mills followed up this crowd-pleaser with a bill that would allow people to adopt embryos. “I do not believe that an embryo, especially a frozen embryo, should be compared to a Popsicle or an ice cube in the refrigerator,” he said to the Augusta Chronicle. That’s a dumb enough quote as it is – everyone knows Popsicles and ice cubes fare better in freezers.
State Rep. Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain: We should commend Smith, chairman of the House’s Transportation Committee, for offering a possible solution to the state’s congestion woes. But we won’t. The Columbus-area lawmaker proposed a 1 cent statewide sales tax – which would generate an eye-popping $25 billion – to pay for a laundry list of projects, many of which would please metro Atlantans longing for rail or an alternate route around gridlock. But alas, the AJC reported some of Smith’s proposed roads were beholden to heavy-hitting GOP donors – notably Mercer Reynolds III, a one-time business partner of former President George W. Bush and a major GOP coin-collector. Another project on the list, an interchange that would lead to a proposed mega-development in the middle of Bryan County, was twice called unnecessary by the Georgia Department of Transportation. Although neither Reynolds nor the Bryan County developer directly slipped a Benjamin in Smith’s campaign piggy bank, both donated heavily to GOP campaigns, and PACS and lobbyists that wooed Smith. When asked by the AJC exactly who cobbled together these asinine asphalt proposals, Smith would only say “eight to 10 industry and government officials.” No further comment or names. Noble intention, poor execution.
Gov. Sonny Perdue: Halfway through his final term as the state’s chief executive, Perdue couldn’t resist peeking his head out of his office and fucking everything up. The state’s chief executive, who just months prior bestowed praises upon the Georgia Department of Transportation’s 13-member board, made an about-face and decided to snip the agency’s jewels. His new plan: Create an entirely new transportation agency, one helmed by a sophisticated-sounding – and Perdue-appointed – “secretary” and a board handpicked by the state’s leadership. Perdue, who reportedly considers this rearranging of the deck chairs a legacy move, promises to block any transportation funding proposals unless he is given his new toy. He even considered paying for phone call and e-mail blasts to sway on-the-fence lawmakers. And while Gold Dome insiders haven’t been able to determine why Perdue proposed the plan, they agree it was unnecessary and a distraction.
Rep. Clay Cox, R-Lilburn: If you have to ask a journalist for advice on a piece of legislation, you obviously haven’t thought it through. Cox admitted as much after an AJC reporter asked him to explain House Bill 622, a legislative Hail Mary that would’ve curtailed the authority of the regulatory council that oversees private probation companies. Accompanying legislation would’ve eliminated the council. Cox, you see, makes his living by asking people to pee in cups. (If you’re on probation in Gwinnett County, you help put food on his table.) And his firm, Professional Probation Services, recently had a run-in with the regulators. Cox, who hadn’t notified any other companies about his intention, was red-faced. (“Do you want me to pull this bill?” he asked the reporter.) After the news hit the papers, Cox decided to withdraw the bill.
Rep. Roger Lane, R-Darien: Common-sense legislation might satisfy the most red-blooded and thick-skulled of constituents, but it never really seems to make sense. Lane should remember this before he wastes everyone’s time introducing bills that would earn him two seconds of kudos on Fox News yet ultimately turn Georgia’s correctional institutions into debtor’s prisons. Earlier this session, the Charles Bronson-esque Lane introduced a bill that would charge the state’s incarcerated souls $40 a day – a meager $14,600 a year – for their luxurious room and board. Health care? Pay up. Can’t pay the tab? Can’t leave till you can, hoss! Lane obviously doesn’t understand that the black market for cigarettes and girlie magazines in the joint isn’t what it once was. That, and the fact that many people who get sent to prison weren’t exactly ballers prior to the cell door slamming shut. Lane’s bill, which he said was aimed at white-collar criminals, is collecting dust.
Rep. Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla: It’s not uncommon – or always unethical – for lawmakers to propose or tinker with legislation that affects their paychecks. The Gold Dome is filled with bankers and lawyers – hell, even nursery owners – who debate tax bills, legal issues and water conservation. But Roberts got a bit too specific. He introduced a bill that was like the Equal Employment Act for industrial-manufactured homes. Roberts’ legislation, House Bill 516, stated that a city or county couldn’t prohibit manufactured homes within their jurisdictions. Sounds fair, right? Mass-produced homes need love too, don’t they? You wouldn’t know it from reviewing his campaign website or legislative page, but buried deep in Roberts’ campaign finance forms, the lawmaker’s employer is listed as Georgia Modular Systems, a maker of – you guessed it – industrial-manufactured homes. Roberts said the bill wouldn’t benefit his company – his company doesn’t sell too many homes in Georgia, he claims. But it was enough to raise eyebrows.
Sen. Eric Johnson, R-Savannah: If this is what folks gotta do to win the GOP primary in this state, we could do with a little less ambition around here. Johnson spent the session sucking up to any special-interest group he thought might help his chances for becoming the next guv-lite. He offered a ridiculous bill to give home-schoolers access to public-school honors programs; he sponsored Senate legislation aimed to help create Milton County, even though his own district is four hours away; and he pushed a measure to release the names of lawmakers who have disputes with the state Department of Revenue – possibly in violation of privacy laws. By the time his pet school voucher proposal – a blatant attack on the public school system, by the way – was ready for a vote, Johnson’s fellow GOP senators were so fed up with his antics, they torpedoed the bill.
Sen. John Douglas, R-Social Circle: Douglas enjoys the reputation for having the sourest temperament in the Senate, which is saying something. Simply put, the guy’s a tool. But don’t take our word for it; consider his legislation. As the Senate’s most enthusiastic xenophobe, Douglas pushed a bill to provide for the rapid deportation of illegal aliens who land in Georgia prisons. Problem is, since only the federal government has deportation authority, Douglas’ wrong-headed bill may wind up making deporting state prisoners more difficult legally. He also penned a bill to prohibit registered sex offenders from serving on school boards – in reaction to a man who unsuccessfully ran in Newton County. Frankly, if parents are willing to elect a registered sex offender to the local school board, that’s their choice – just as Douglas’ constituents have to deal with their own lapse in judgment.
Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs: It just wouldn’t be a proper Golden Sleaze without an entry relating the shenanigans of the deceptively jovial House Rules chairman. The state’s most egregious bills don’t always have Ehrhart’s name on them, but they often bear his fingerprints. For some reason, Ehrhart has decided to go after city and country governments in recent years. His most blatant elbows to the face this session were failed bills to screw cities out of cable TV franchise fees and exempt the state from having to pay certain utility charges to local governments. But much of his efforts have been focused on devising a way to advance a bill by Rep. Tom Rice, R-Norcross, that would deny federal road grants to any city or county that doesn’t verify the citizenship of all its workers – even those hired by private contractors and subcontractors. If that sounds like a near impossible undertaking for local governments ... well, now you’re getting the idea.