Golden Sleaze Awards - Creative Loafing’s 2015 Golden Sleaze Awards

Recognizing the General Assembly’s awful, absurd, and asinine actions during the legislative session

Every year, lawmakers from across the state gather at the Georgia Capitol for the 40-day legislative session. Inside the Gold Dome, state reps and senators talk about totin’ guns, cuttin’ taxes, pollutin’ water, and more. Sometimes a piece of good legislation gets passed. That’s typically the exception to the rule.

This year was no different. Despite promises to solve the state’s transportation funding woes, lawmakers squabbled over dueling plans, both of which focused on roads over transit. A bill potentially allowing discrimination under the guise of religious freedom became a major distraction. Lawmakers thought they were better equipped than educators to decide U.S. history course content, threatening to do away with Advanced Placement classes if officials didn’t paint America as the white knights of liberty. Oh, let’s not forget the bill seeking to ban human-animal hybrids to prevent an invasion of mermaids and werewolves! The list goes on. And on. And on. And our heads keep shaking.

As is our annual custom, Creative Loafing has sifted through the most heinous acts and proposals to give our readers a hefty helping of nastiness. We hereby grant the people behind these idiotic, senseless, and deceptive bills Golden Sleaze awards. As is also our annual custom, we’re recognizing lawmakers who thought deeper about issues, stopped bad ideas, and tried to help make Georgia a better state. Those are our Arnies, named after reformist Gov. Ellis Arnall.


The “Jesus Christ, what did you do this year?” Award

Gov. Nathan Deal

Since winning a second and final term last November, Deal has not only broken a campaign promise — remember all that talk about overhauling the state ethics commission? — but also managed to create a new breed of drug mules. Parents of children suffering from seizures pleaded for the governor to give them access to a liquid form of medical marijuana after state lawmakers failed them during the 2014 legislative session. Deal swooped in to the rescue after the session by launching a clinical trial program. This year, when lawmakers tried again to pass a medical marijuana law, Deal sent signals that the bill should be drastically scaled back. A gutted version of the bill passed. And possession of medical cannabis oil will soon be permitted in Georgia. But keep in mind that it can be purchased only in states where marijuana is legal, such as Colorado. Lawmen might not take too kindly to parents smuggling medical marijuana across state lines.

Deal added to his list of terrible ideas with measures that would cut health insurance for school bus drivers and loosen environmental regulations in the name of economic development. The governor hinted to a farmers group that his controversial plan to shift the funding of the independent Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission to the state’s Department of Agriculture and to the Environmental Protection Division was motivated by luring a big business relocation. The commission writes rules on handling runoff from construction sites. That could cause a headache for developers. Even a member of his own party, Rep. David Stover, R-Newnan, called him an “authoritarian.” Thank God for term limits.


The “Choking the chicken (and turtles) of the sea” Award

Sen. Tyler Harper, R-Ocilla

You should think of Harper the next time you see a sea turtle choking on a plastic bag near Tybee Island. The second-term lawmaker carried a bill for out-of-state companies that wanted to ban local governments from, well, banning plastic bags. Excuse us, “auxiliary containers.” Some cities and counties, particularly along the coast, want to rid their waterways and beaches of these harmful plastic monsters. Harper argued his legislation was needed because a variety of local bans could create a patchwork of laws and that only Georgia should enact such a single ban. Apparently that argument doesn’t apply when state lawmakers create their own immigration laws that undermine federal legislation. Put aside the scientific facts — the only things that will survive the apocalypse are cockroaches and plastic bags — and consider the sheer hypocrisy on display by Harper, a self-described conservative, as he tells local governments they can’t decide what’s best for their communities.


The “America, fuck yeah!” Award

Rep. David Clark, R-Buford

Some people won’t acknowledge that America has done a lot of good and bad. Clark sponsored a boneheaded resolution encouraging Georgia’s public schools to make eighth and eleventh graders watch screenings of America: Imagine the World Without Her, a one-sided documentary made by conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza. The film, which boasts an 8 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, aims to put a sunny spin on the treatment of Native Americans, past generations’ unquenchable thirst for Western land, and slavery. Why study history when you can just choose Clark’s agitprop? We’re quite sure the corpses of America’s Founding Fathers would politely ask Clark why he is wasting the taxpayers’ resources with his ridiculous bow to propaganda.


The “Rewrite history for the Gipper” Award[| ]

Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick

Forget about propaganda films. Ligon wants the College Board, the organization responsible for crafting Advanced Placement U.S. History courses, to rewrite its curriculum. The lantern-jawed Republican followed last year’s foolhardy attempt to block Common Core, the polarizing federal education standards, with a resolution urging the board to rid the course of what Ligon calls its “leftist slant.” According to Ligon, the course failed to note the positive benefits of the free-enterprise system, such as, well, we’re guessing child labor and unsafe work conditions? It didn’t portray Manifest Destiny as noble-minded patriots spreading Democratic ideals. Oh, and it was mean to Ronald Reagan. Blasphemy! If the changes weren’t made, Ligon proposed potentially eliminating the A.P. course altogether. Some of his colleagues agreed: The resolution passed the upper chamber. State reps were considering the bill during the session’s final days.


The “McMansions over Mother Nature” Award

Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah

Since long before any human ever saw a heron stalk a fish through the tall marsh grass of what’s now the Georgia coast, trees, plants, and their roots have shielded salt marshes from fresh water and from dirt — and much later, from humans’ trash and chemicals. Too bad a bill that purports to protect those wide bands of trees has got holes in it big enough to drive a bulldozer through. Watson’s bill says marshes need to be protected by trees unless, of course, an angry McMansion owner is sick of looking at them. Anybody with the cash could get rid of the plants and dump a load of rocks and dirt where their land meets the marsh. And pave it over for good measure, critics fear. Finely balanced ecosystem, meet dump truck of rocks.


The “It’s hard to be a white, straight, Christian male in Georgia” Award

Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus

Months before the legislative session, McKoon planned to reintroduce his controversial “religious freedom” legislation, despite opponents’ fears that it could give business owners a license to discriminate on religious grounds. Gay people denied services? Sure. Women denied access to birth control? Possibly. He could have added language into this unnecessary bill to quell those fears. But the Columbus senator demanded his bill remain intact. The bill, which 20 other states have passed and 12 other states have legal precedents providing similar protection, gained Senate approval but was tabled by House lawmakers. Following President Barack Obama’s executive order protecting some undocumented immigrants from deportation, McKoon pushed to make it harder for them to obtain a driver’s license. The bill’s name — “Georgia Road Safety and Driver’s License Integrity Act” — sounds like it should be an insurance policy offering low rates. Instead it denies some minority Georgians given legal protection to stay in the United States a way to get to work.


The “Mermaids and werewolves and centaurs and glow-in-the-dark human-jellyfish! Oh, my!” Award

Rep. Tom Kirby, R-Loganville

Few things in this world are more terrifying than glow-in-the-dark human-jellyfish creatures. Contrary to what the mainstream media is saying, look out because they’re coming! So the Loganville rep introduced a bill on what he said was one of the most pressing issues for Georgians: human and animal hybrid embryos. The measure would outlaw anyone from creating an in vitro human embryo through fertilizing a human egg with animal sperm, or vice versa. According to WXIA/11 Alive, he’s not a fan of artificial mermaids or werewolves either. What about centaurs? “They really have bad attitudes most of the time and we’ve got enough people with bad attitudes as it is,” he said. He’d be fine if humans evolved into “bird-men” because they could solve Georgia’s transportation issues.


The “I’m for the free market except when I’m not” Award

Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta

Martin must have whiplash from his stop-and-go driving of electric-vehicle proposals. He first filed legislation seeking to kill the tax credit propelling the state’s electric-vehicle boom. Then he introduced a bill to give electric-carmaker Tesla Motors exemption from an antiquated state law prohibiting manufacturers from selling cars directly to the public. He says both moves are in favor of the “free market.” But the tax credit is what created Atlanta’s booming EV market, whereas Tesla Motors has largely built itself on the sort of government exemptions that Martin is prepared to give it. His tax-credit position is more nuanced than he sometimes lets on. But here he’s guilty of abusing “free market” lingo. His translation: “Free market means whatever the hell I want it to mean!”


The “Confederate clusterfuck” Award[| ]

Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson

We get it, Tommy. You really like your Confederate heritage. The Jackson County resident introduced a bill that would prevent government workers from storing reminders of the South’s embarrassing past inside their maintenance closets. Benton, if you recall, criticized the state’s decision to move the statue of Thomas Watson, a former Georgia U.S. Senator and white supremacist, from the Capitol’s front steps into a fenced-off plaza across the street. Once again, Benton, a retired history teacher and lifelong member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, attempted to require any monuments that were moved to be displayed at a “site of similar prominence.” Those who moved statues, plaques, or other commemorative trinkets to a hidden location could be charged with a misdemeanor. “I think history is history,” he said.


The “Ballot and switch” Award[| ]

Rep. Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming

It’s no secret Republicans wanted revenge on the issue of voting rights. Before the 2014 election, Democratic officials in left-leaning counties let their constituents cast ballots on Sunday for the first time in Georgia’s history. That savvy tactic rubbed Deal and other GOP officials the wrong way. Hamilton wanted to require all counties to allow Sunday voting. But under the guise of reducing the costs of holding elections for local governments, the Cumming rep’s bill included language that attempted to slash the number of early voting days from 21 to 12. It wasn’t the first time he’s done this, though. In 2011, Hamilton was the lead sponsor for a bill that slashed early voting in half. The 2015 measure, which became a rallying cry for Democrats, did not make it past crossover day. But Hamilton has since attached the bill’s language into another measure, keeping it alive.


The “You can’t spell Gold Dome without G-U-N-S” Award

Rep. Heath Clark, R-Warner Robins

The “guns everywhere” bill that lawmakers approved in 2014 allowed firearm owners to carry their pistols just about everywhere. Most Republicans, keen not to overreach on a hot-button issue, this year decided to turn their attention to transportation, education, and other issues. Not guns. Clark, a freshman lawmaker, was apparently disappointed that he missed out on last year’s fun. He proceeded to introduce a measure that would no longer require the vast majority of gun owners, age 21 or older, to obtain a permit for open or concealed carry across the state. Then came his attempt to restart the Capitol’s debate over whether law-abiding gun owners should be allowed to carry guns on public college campuses. He conveniently added language to guarantee that no guns would be allowed in government buildings, such as the Capitol. GOP vets knew not to make a rookie mistake, however. The bill went nowhere.


The “Wholesale hangover” Award[| ]

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle

The original version of Senate Bill 63, commonly known as the Beer Jobs Bill, should have passed. The GOP-sponsored measure, which was intended to allow breweries to sell beer directly to consumers, would have created more than 1,400 new jobs. Republicans love jobs, right? But craft brewers failed to flood the Guv Lite’s campaign war chest with money. In last year’s re-election landslide, Cagle received more than $130,000 in campaign donations from the wholesalers, distributors, and macro-breweries. Cagle, widely considered a gubernatorial hopeful, pressured Regulated Industries Committee members to delay a vote on the bill. He eventually allowed the bill to move forward and then made sure it was gutted. The version that ultimately passed the Senate was a shell of its former self and doesn’t allow direct beer sales from brewpubs — only free “souvenirs” from breweries and distilleries. As CL went to press, lawmakers were finalizing the amended bill, and Cagle was still counting his stacks of cash.


The “Casey Cagle campaign chairman” Award[| ]

Rep. Jason Shaw, R-Lakeland

Shaw, a South Georgia olive oil farmer and insurance agency owner, has touted his “New Markets Jobs” legislation as a way to boost business development in rural and low-income areas. How would it work? Lots o’ tax credits! The third-term lawmaker originally wanted to dole out up to $240 million in credits, which would be transferrable an unlimited number of times, over seven years. But Shaw, whose bill passed the House, unknowingly may have become finance director for the Guv Lite’s inevitable 2018 gubernatorial campaign. When the proposal crossed into the Senate, Shaw’s bill suddenly morphed into a $55 million cash cow for Invest Georgia, a state-sponsored venture capital initiative that Cagle has spearheaded. Critics have blasted the multimillion-dollar venture capital coffer over its potential to become a slush fund. Nothing screams “Gold Dome” like a bill, originally built for the poor, that’s twisted into a gold mine for the rich.


The “Champion of corporate welfare” Award

Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta

In Georgia, there are more than 150 development authorities that have the power to offer tax incentives to help build projects ranging from hotels to sidewalks to stadiums. Citizens often dispute these practices in court, causing great frustration for the companies that wish to feed at the public trough. Beach’s Senate Bill 85 gutted the existing law specifying what projects were eligible for giveaways and replaced it with a vague paragraph allowing just about anything. “It’s a linguistic change, a modification to streamline the process,” Beach said. One fellow Republican claimed the bill gave unelected development officials “unbridled authority.” The bill also made it harder to argue in court why building a parking deck, stadium, or high-end hotel in a posh part of town shouldn’t qualify for the tax incentives. Props to Beach, head of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce and North Fulton Community Improvement District, for looking out for the little guy.


The “Missing in action” Award

Rep. Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta

Georgia’s House minority leader had a rough 2014. The Atlanta attorney and romance novelist had kept busy raising funds for her voter registration initiative, New Georgia Project. The effort, backed by at least $3 million from donors, attempted to register 120,000 minority voters. But when her group missed its goals, she filed a frivolous lawsuit that was torn to shreds. She’s been tight-lipped on NGP matters amid criticism of her initiative. It wasn’t like she was too busy being an effective party leader either. She’s supposed to be steering the Democrat party back to relevancy. But the House hasn’t picked up seats under her leadership. Has she passed meaningful legislation? Nope. Has she marshaled House Democrats’ meager forces to stop bad bills? Nope. She should be raising hell. There wasn’t pushback against the GOP budget. She did urge caution in passing the school takeover plan. But her opposition was too little too late.


The “Hometeam advantage” Award[| ]

Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem

If only education and health care received as much attention from lawmakers as football. University of Georgia tailback Todd Gurley was suspended in late October after an autograph collector who bought his signature later exposed him for violating NCAA policies. Instead of pointing out the NCAA’s exploitative limitations placed on student athletes, Fleming, a double graduate of UGA, sprang to the rescue with a plan to help future NFL prospects. In November Fleming prefiled one of the legislative session’s first bills — with the same number as Gurley’s jersey — that placed fines on anyone who helps jeopardize the eligibility of a student athlete. They’re still working on that whole make-college-affordable thing, though. When not solving life’s great injustices, Fleming tries to rewrite the rules to help incumbents stay in power. He sponsored a measure that would exempt House and Senate party caucuses from spending caps, ensuring that incumbents enjoy a competitive advantage over challengers.


The “Good job! Oh, wait, never mind ...” Award[| ]

Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs

Normally we’d applaud a lawmaker who proposes killing Delta Air Lines’ sweetheart tax exemption on jet fuel, as the perennial Golden Sleaze recipient has done. But when you propose the measure because the airline CEO urged lawmakers to wake the hell up and consider hiking gas taxes to raise needed transportation funding, we shake our heads. Ehrhart didn’t like Delta CEO Richard Anderson’s comments about the need for new funding. (“We can’t get chicken about it,” Anderson said. “We have to step up.”). After his proposal stalled, Ehrhart snuck it into the House’s transportation plan. Maybe the lawmaker, if he’s so eager to find new revenue, should not introduce a bill that would direct $250 million in tax revenue to private school scholarships? Or cheerlead [|a taxpayer-subsidized baseball stadium in Cobb County?

The “LEED is for losers” Award

Rep. Mike Cheokas, R-Americus

Let’s say you are a Georgia tree farmer but your trees don’t meet international green building standards. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, known better as LEED, is a voluntary program that lets a builder boast that their building is efficient and made from sustainable materials. LEED lumber comes from do-gooder farms that are into stuff like respecting biodiversity. Your tree farm is not a certified do-gooder. But you want to sell your wood labeled as such. What to do? Call Cheokas! His House Bill 255, which he claims is aimed at protecting Georgia jobs, would essentially ban state buildings from seeking the LEED seal of approval. Sure, under LEED, tree-sourcing is worth only one point out of 110. And a building can be certified with as few as 40 points. If Georgia tree farmers don’t like less than one percent of something, he says it should be banned outright. Problem solved!


The “Love the one you’re with” Award

Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro

The idea of a black robe, gavel, and Burke County State Court judgeship sounds great, right? Oh, wait, wait, how about chairing the state Senate committee that handles all bills on criminal law? This is the problem Stone faced in 2014. His solution: seek the judgeship, but keep the Senate in his back pocket. Rather than tell the world of wannabe-state senators that a safe GOP seat might be coming vacant, Stone qualified to run again. Shortly after senate qualifying closed, he also announced he wanted the judge job. Why not do both! So what if he was elected but was then subsequently appointed to a judgeship? A special election at a cost of thousands of dollars! Alas, no one has come to measure him for a robe. After he won re-election, he renounced his judicial ambitions. For now, anyway.


The “Senator for sale” Award

Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, D-Dawson

Georgia Senate Democrats vowed to fight the governor’s school takeover plan. The odds were against them, but not impossible given that two-thirds approval was needed for the constitutional amendment. When it came time to vote, 37 Democrats voted no. But Freddie Powell Sims voted yes. In doing so, the retired principal gave Republicans the one vote needed to pass a measure that creates more bureaucracy, doesn’t add more cash to schools, and fails to address underlying issues affecting student performance. State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, without mentioning Sims’ name, blasted her vote to “sell out constituents for 30 pieces of silver.” Or in Sims’ case, maybe it was a $19 million appropriation for a multipurpose facility at Albany State University. A few weeks earlier, Deal had named her to the Education Reform Commission tasked with retooling the state’s statewide funding formula. Coincidence? We think not.


The “Burn, ethics commission, burn” Award[[| ]

Sen. Rick Jeffares, R-McDonough

With the state ethics commission going down in flames, Jeffares ran right past the extinguisher and tossed gasoline on the fire. His response to a scandal rooted in the sleazy killing of an investigation into Gov. Deal’s campaign finances? Let more politicians off the hook! If passed, Jeffares’ bill would allow candidates to wipe away outstanding fines — imposed by the commission for late filing of campaign and personal financial disclosures — and even to get a refund for fines already paid. The commission is just too screwed up to trust, Jeffares argues. In an astonishing coincidence, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports, one of those late-filers is Jeffares’ own sister-in-law. It’s no surprise that our governor backpedaled on his campaign promise to reform the ethics commission. But the Senate’s passage of the bill shows bipartisan support for dodging the watchdogs.]