Golden Sleaze Awards - The 27th Annual Golden Sleaze Awards
The lows - and very lows - of the Georgia General Assembly
In early January, state lawmakers from across Georgia converged on the Gold Dome in Downtown to kick off the General Assembly, a 40-day blitz of bill making and grandstanding. The annual legislative session couldn't end fast enough.
As is the case every year, deals were struck, horses were traded, and chests were beat. Making matters worse, 2016 is an election year, meaning lawmakers, who are banned from raising campaign cash during the session, must make ample use of the hours under the Gold Dome. They compete for headlines. They propose policies beneficial to industries that could pad their campaign coffers. And they sponsor outlandish and extreme bills to appease their bases.
This session, which ends March 24, saw not one but as many as 10 pieces of legislation that proposed some form of "religious freedom" that LGBT advocates warned would open the door to legalized discrimination. Lawmakers debated whether guns should be allowed at college freshman orientation and nearly everywhere else on campus. They even found time to do a bit of revisionist history with a little social group called the Ku Klux Klan.
Meanwhile, a bill to actually expand MARTA's rail network couldn't even get a vote on the Senate floor. Medicaid remains out of reach for people who need it the most. And brunch fans can't chug Bloody Marys until 12:30 p.m. on Sunday.
Per tradition, Creative Loafing slipped into our trusty biohazard suit and slogged through the morass that is the Georgia Capitol. Our mission: recognize the bad, the really bad, and the outright ridiculous. While not an exhaustive list — Sine Die is one week away and our cutting room floor is littered with entries — it's a start. Without further ado, we proudly present the 27th annual Golden Sleaze Awards.
THE "ROCK OUT WITH YOUR GLOCK OUT" AWARD
Reps. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, and Mandi Ballinger, R-Canton
Next time you debate Nietzsche on North Campus with a classmate, make sure he's not packing. Jasperse and Ballinger wanted Georgia's public colleges and universities to join the list of places the dude who really likes hot steel can carry his gun. Under their bill, licensed gun owners could tote their weapons everywhere on campus but frat and sorority houses, dorms, and athletic events. Booze-fueled tailgates are a-OK, however. Never mind that Hank Huckaby, chancellor of the University System of Georgia, and presidents of major colleges and universities, including the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech, vocally opposed the bill. Pay no attention to the fact that student governments also opposed the bill. We're still waiting on lawmakers to allow guns in the Gold Dome. They always seem to omit that from their Second Amendment legislation.
THE "BUCKSHOT OF CRAZY" AWARD
Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus
We once thought McKoon was a by-the-book conservative, an ethics reformer who occasionally introduced some red-meat craziness. This year proved the good bills were flukes and he's catering to the Right-Wing Email Forward Association. McKoon took to the well of the Senate — and at night, the bowels of Twitter — to continue his quixotic quest to pass legislation that would create a legal loophole for wedding cake makers and nuptial photographers to discriminate against LGBT people. Despite the protests of LGBT advocates and big business, and the frustration of other lawmakers, McKoon pressed on. When McKoon pooh-poohed a piece of legislation protecting pastors from being forced to officiate same-sex marriage — the First Amendment already offers such protections — the Speaker's staff lawyer felt inspired enough to publicly call McKoon a "dumbass." When not getting up the hopes of homophobes across the state, McKoon was pushing for a special driver's license for undocumented immigrants protected from deportation. The proposal wasn't needed and was just mean, a modern day scarlet letter and a burden for people legally allowed to remain in the United States. McKoon might be floating these far-right bills to build support among the crazies for a potential congressional run. Please, D.C., take him off our hands.
THE "GOOD GUYS WEAR WHITE ... ROBES WITH POINTY HATS" AWARD
Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson
Benton, after introducing a trio of Dixie-licious bills including a constitutional amendment that would protect Stone Mountain's carving of Confederate generals, took a detour into Angry White Man Land during an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Ku Klux Klan, Benton argued, "was not so much a racist thing but a vigilante thing to keep law and order." The staunch advocate for preserving shrines to the Confederacy such as the Gold Dome statue of racist former state senator Tom Watson didn't disagree or agree with the KKK's tactics, but he said the extremely racist group "made a lot of people straighten up." Yes, we suppose that might have happened between the cross burnings, voter suppression, attacks, and lynchings. After being browbeat by House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, Benton removed his name from the toxic bills, effectively killing them. He was sorry the comments distracted from the policies, but never apologized.
THE "LET THE GAYS NOT EAT CAKE" AWARD
Sen. Greg Kirk, R-Americus
At least state Sen. McKoon pretended his bill was about religious liberty and not just opposing same-sex marriage. Kirk didn't care. His religious freedom bill, dubbed the First Amendment Defense Act, gave clear legal cover to same-sex marriage opponents who refused to serve others. Kirk argued the intent was to protect faith-based groups from being criminalized or losing their tax-exempt status for their beliefs. While the bill would not apply to government employees or elected officials performing their duties — sorry, wannabe Kim Davises — advocates warned that government contractors could hide behind the law and refuse to perform work, effectively using public dollars to discriminate. Workers hired to build a public road could throw down their shovels upon learning it would be named after an LGBT activist. Or a landlord could refuse to rent to a same-sex couple. Or hell, maybe even the Ku Klux Klan could claim it was a faith-based group. When asked by another senator if that scenario would bother him, Kirk, clearly uncomfortable, said "No." Gov. Nathan Deal finally stepped up and said he would veto any bill allowing discrimination, most likely putting the brakes on Kirk's bill.
THE "DON'T HATE THE PLAYER" AWARD
Sen. Donzella James, D-Atlanta
Let us praise Creflo Dollar. When not extolling the virtues of money sweet money to his megachurch congregation, he's begging his flock to buy a $65 million private jet so he can keep the gravy train chugging down the track. James will lift his name on high. Or just slap it on two signs along Old National Highway, the bedraggled stretch of road that runs near Dollar's World Changers Church. Even though the $250 cost to install the signs would have come out of James' pocket, more than a few people wondered why the state was honoring Dollar and his prosperity gospel ethos. When faced with an outcry of frustration over the move, James claimed the pastor, who lives it up in multimillion-dollar homes and cruises in Bentleys, had helped revitalize Old National Highway. We — and some of the people who live and work along the road — are having a hard time seeing it.
THE "PROBABLY A TRUMP SUPPORTER" AWARD
Rep. Brad Raffensperger, R-Johns Creek
We're not quite convinced yet that Raffensperger didn't travel from the past to stain the General Assembly with legislation that was a bad idea back in 2005. In his first term under the Gold Dome, Raffensperger trotted out a constitutional amendment that would allow the well-to-do in Fulton's northern reaches to secede and recreate Milton County. Even Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, was unable to pass the measure in the lower chamber in years past. His crowning achievement this year, however, was a xenophobic hat trick: three bills, only one of which passed enough muster to get a vote (it was sent back to committee twice for much-needed editing), that would put strict residency requirements on people who would be appointed to a board or authority. That's quite a welcoming "fuck you" to the Fortune 500 executive who relocated to North Fulton and could provide valuable insight on an advisory board. America!
THE "HAIL MARY PRAYER WON'T HELP A HAIL MARY PASS" AWARD
Rep. Billy Mitchell, D-Stone Mountain
Poor Mitchell. The six-term lawmaker tried to latch on to the religious liberty fervor and appease some shortsighted preachers with his bill that even he admitted might not pass constitutional muster. Mitchell's "Georgia Student Religious Liberties Act" would allow religious expression by students in schools, including clothing, and set awkward regulations dictating how public prayer could be conducted before school events, such as football games. The only problems: Students are already allowed to pray in schools and some elements of the legislation could leave LGBT students open to bullying. When asked by WABE why he introduced the legislation, Mitchell said he's "had many a minister call" to say they wanted the measure. "Their mantra is 'We've taken prayer out of the schools and look at all the problems that have come into it.'"
THE "TIRED OF SHOVELING SHIT" AWARD
Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta
Beach obviously doesn't like digging in the dirt. Even if it's to protect the state's history. City, county, and state departments building roads, interchanges, and other asphalt projects funded by federal cash must hire firms to conduct an environmental study of a site before crews can start. That's to make sure a backhoe doesn't disturb plenty of the known and unknown historic sites in Georgia. Last year's Transportation Funding Act generated more funding, allowing the state to pay for some projects without any help from Washington, D.C., and its pesky rules. Beach's bill would have done away with the requirement on road and airport improvement projects that cost less than $100 million and don't include federal funding. The legislation jolted environmentalists, historians, and archeologists who rightly argued that environmental studies help locate previously overlooked Native American and Civil War sites and help transportation planners make better decisions about projects. We'd remind the senator it's also just good karma not to upturn a 400-year-old cemetery.
THE "O'DOYLE RULES!" AWARD
Rep. Tom Weldon, R-Ringgold
During a committee meeting, Weldon questioned the need for LGBT people to have protections from discrimination. Hell, a little shove in the locker or outright discrimination might be good for 'em! "Those who get bullied usually are the ones that end up doing well on down the road in life," he said to the sound of thousands of people slamming their heads against desks. Or they're the ones who report higher rates of suicide or have to take time out of their lives for counseling. After asking what gender identity meant, Weldon opposed the amendment to make an anti-discrimination bill include LGBT people.
THE "SHUT UP AND SIT IN TRAFFIC" AWARD
Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell
Many a poor sap wasting time on Ga. 400 during rush hour has glanced at the passing MARTA train and wondered when the line would stretch just a little farther. They'll keep waiting thanks in part to Albers. Albers — he's essentially the Georgia Senate's version of Ted Cruz — worked with the upper chamber's heavy hitters to block a proposal that would have allowed voters the chance to decide if they wanted to pay a half-percent sales tax to fund an $8 billion transit expansion, including rail to North Fulton. Despite polls showing support for such an expansion, Albers preferred not to let his constituents have a chance to vote for themselves. He refused to move the legislation from his committee to the appropriate committee, making the bill's sponsor reintroduce the measure. In the weeks since, he's called a proponent of MARTA expansion a socialist. Sounds like a leader to us!
THE "GIVE THE RICH A BREAK" AWARD
Sen. Judson Hill, R-Marietta
Hill has long wanted to cut Georgia's income tax, a needed and relatively reliable source of funding. This year Hill proposed a double whammy that actually managed to grow legs. Hill fought the battle on two fronts. One involved a constitutional amendment that would lower the amount of income tax the state could collect based on how much it had in the bank. The other was a doozey. Hill hijacked a bill from a previous session continuing a sales tax exemption for the Georgia Aquarium, inserting language that would also cut income taxes. According to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, the cuts would provide a meager benefit to most Georgians but give a big sloppy kiss to the state's richest people. "More than half of the resulting tax cut from [the change] would flow to the wealthiest 20 percent of Georgians if it passes in its current form," the group said.
THE "LET'S THROW OUT THE WHOLE SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE THING" AWARD
Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen
Don't want to see your tax dollars go to help fund religious organizations? Sorry, Heath has other plans. According to the Georgia Constitution, the state can't spend public cash on faith-based groups. Heath thought it was time for a change. Senate Resolution 388 would ask Georgia voters to amend the state constitution to "prohibit discrimination in the public funding of social services," because separation of church and state is so 200 years ago. At a committee hearing on the legislation, an opponent asked Heath how the legislature plans to include minority religions. Certainly taxpayers wouldn't be forced to spend their hard-earned cash on Judaism- or Islam-based programs (the horror!). State Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, suggested requiring audits of the organizations that receive funds, a measure of accountability Heath could not accept. He was still able to scoot the proposal along, however.
THE "ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JASON A DULL BOY" AWARD
Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine
How can we help attract spaceport operators to Georgia? Holes in the ozone layer? No, silly, by passing a law that completely protects the companies from injury lawsuits of space tourists unless their families could prove gross negligence. And that's what Spencer hopes to do with House Bill 734, the Georgia Space Flight Act. But that's not all. Imagine having no one to complain to when you're inundated with noise from fricking rockets launching near your home. Apparently the head of Spencer's own homeowner's association doesn't even want to put up with that. But jobs! Industry! Money! Surely if rapid-awesome-space-launching-21st-century-lookmanohands-greatness doesn't work out in Georgia, Spencer's homeowner's association can just launch him to space instead.
THE "LOOK TOUGH" AWARD
Rep. David Clark, R-Buford
After quarterbacking the House's "welfare fraud" study committee, Clark tried to cut the amount of time poor people could receive financial help from the state. Clark is quoted in "The Blaze" — a right-leaning blog launched by levelheaded person Glenn Beck — claiming the suggested cuts to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families are about "verifying eligibility and closing loopholes." If that is true, then why reduce the program's 48-month lifetime limit to only 12 months? Almost 60 percent of families already receive help for less than 12 months (about 80 percent receive it for less than 24 months), according to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
THE "PLAYING AGAINST THE HOUSE" AWARD
Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah
Stephens pushed for casinos in Georgia by selling the idea it would help the HOPE Scholarship's declining cash flow to college students. The old gambling debate in Georgia received new life when a study commissioned by the gaming industry released last September promised millions (or billions depending on how you Google) of dollars in economic impact, as well as hundreds of thousands of jobs. Stephens relied on the one-sided study to help craft a HOPE "preservation" report to the legislature, leaving out any potential social consequences — addiction, crime, lowered property values — that casinos have been known to cause. House Speaker David Ralston shut down Stephen's bill on Crossover Day by postponing a vote. The speaker always wins.
THE "MARIO KART" AWARD
Rep. Tom McCall, R-Elberton
OK, all-terrain vehicles are super useful out on the farm, so does that mean we should allow them to use public roads in Atlanta? Yes, said McCall. His House Bill 579 would have let ATVs use roads statewide if they are "connected with" agriculture. "This ain't kids up and down the road Sunday afternoon looking for another mud hole to get in," McCall said at a committee hearing. But "another mud hole" is just what critics saw riders making on other people's property. The thing about "all-terrain" vehicles is that they can so easily whip off the road, trespass, joyride, and crash where cars can't go. McCall's bill passed the House but only after he acquiesced to allow cities to ban ATVs, and made it apply to on-the-job farmers only.
THE "MUD KING" AWARD
Sen. Rick Jeffares, R-McDonough
Just imagine a clear mountain river, a nice place to catch fish, swim, and tap for drinking water. Now imagine a bunch of gross mud washing into it, turning it into a dead orange stream. We have laws that tell builders not to let their dirt wash away to avoid this scenario. When somebody wants to build a building they make a plan for corralling the dirt and local government has 45 days to say whether the plan is good enough. So why would Jeffares want to cut that to 14 days before defaulting to automatic approval? Apparently there was no good reason. Senate Bill 326 was an idea so muddled, Jeffares couldn't get it through his own committee.
THE "LETTING THE COLD IN" AWARD
Sen. Hunter Hill, R-Smyrna
Hill boasts in his bio about a 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union. But whatever he's conservative about, it's not energy. He really, really doesn't like Atlanta's plan to tell people just how energy-efficient big commercial buildings are. See, Atlanta thinks people shopping for space might want to know if one building spends more or less than another on energy and water. Hill doesn't think that's a tenant's business. His Senate Bill 321 proposed making a company's utility bills into trade secrets, ultimately rendering Atlanta's project unworkable. A committee modified his idea to allow the city to see such utility bills, though not publish them. The Senate Rules Committee didn't care for what it saw and never scheduled Hill's bill for a floor vote.
THE "FULL DISCLOSURE" AWARD
Rep. Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta
Leaders must set an example. Abrams, the House's minority leader, might want to revisit the old adage. In early March, the AJC reported that Abrams forgot to disclose the $30,000 in consulting fees Michelle Nunn's U.S. Senate campaign paid to a company linked to Abrams. The payments took place shortly before Abrams started leading the New Georgia Project, an ambitious effort to register more than 100,000 voters for the 2014 elections — in which Nunn was running. Despite the voter registration drive coming up short of its goals, Abrams pulled in approximately $170,000 in payments from the initiative. While not illegal — Abrams quit consulting on Dec. 31, 2013, the paper reports — the revelation raised questions about NGP's proclaimed nonpartisan status. It also fueled chatter over whether Abrams, the House's most powerful Democrat, was focusing more on her own goals rather than the party's. Ask yourself: What did Dems in the lower chamber stand for this year? And what did they accomplish?