ATLANTA — It may seem there are few moderates in the General Assembly this year after glancing at the bills making headlines.
One day, the lead story is about a bill that prohibits abortions after 20 weeks because that’s when a fetus is supposed to sense pain. The next day features news of a bill that spoofs the abortion proposal by attempting to regulate vasectomies as a way to show male legislators how intrusive government can be when it deals with reproductive issues.
Blocking illegal immigrants from public colleges and the election of the fourth openly gay legislator also captured media attention. Such attention grabbers are common under the Gold Dome.
The anti-vasectomy bill is authored by Rep. Yasmin Neal, D-Riverdale, a freshman who is also a Clayton County homicide detective. She wore her police uniform to a hearing recently dealing with legislation by another freshman, Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine, that would allow anyone who can legally own a gun to carry it out of sight without getting a concealed-weapon permit, arguing in terms of basic Second Amendment rights.
Spencer said afterward he viewed the uniform as an attempt at intimidation but was unfazed by it.
Neal and Spencer are not the only junior legislators pushing philosophical agendas.
Other examples on the conservative side include freshman Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, with bills to stall Indian casinos and to require “personal growth” courses for welfare recipients; sophomore Rep. Michael Harden, R-Toccoa, who proposes drug arrests be reported to welfare agencies so recipients can be stripped of their benefits if they fail a drug test; and freshman Rep. Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville, who introduced a bill to prohibit Muslim-based sharia law from being applied in Georgia courts.
On the liberal side of the ledger are Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates, and her proposal to require universities and state government to hire regardless of sexual orientation; and Rep. Simone Bell, D-Atlanta, with her bill to grant an income-tax credit of up to $250 to families with incomes up to $75,000 for their gas and electricity costs.
Many, but not all, of the more doctrinaire authors are early in their legislative careers. That could be for two reasons.
First, recent crops of freshmen are the result of both the Tea Party movement and redistricting practices that result in increasingly lopsided districts that are either predominately liberal or conservative but rarely divided. So these newcomers may be accurately representing their constituents’ wishes.
Second, the gray heads around the Capitol have turned their attention to more pragmatic issues as they get older and more mellow. They may have tossed a few ideological bombs early in their tenure, but now they’re focused on balancing the budget, complying with federal mandates, and passing administrative measures at the request of state agencies – the nuts-and-bolts legislation that stirs few passions.
This year’s elections are likely to thin the moderates’ ranks. Redistricting that leaves some moderates paired with other legislators naturally results in at least one of the pair being removed. Districts that include lots of new territory also prompt veterans to retire rather than work to win over voters who don’t know them.
On the other hand, some veterans have reacted by proposing their own splashy legislation. Critics point to the fetal-pain bill as an effort by Rep. Doug McKillip, R-Athens, to endear himself to social conservatives after his party switch cut him off from his former base. Similarly, veteran Rep. Tommy Smith, R-Nicholls, is pushing a bill to limit lobbyists’ gifts that his detractors say is designed to catapult him to the lead in a gubernatorial race.
Of course, there are also those who have risen to the heights of leadership who keep faith with their philosophical roots with occasional bills. The charter-school constitutional amendment is an example of the deep conviction that parental choice in schools not only serves parents and children but also sparks competition that makes all schools improve. Such are the stated motivations of House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, and Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock.
Another example is Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, and his bill to impose random drug tests on welfare recipients. The chairman of the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee, Stephens normally focuses on the dozens of tax bills he introduces to spur job creations for one industry or another.
The 2010 election brought an unusually large number of freshmen, and this year’s could be as large. With them will come their enthusiasm to advance their philosophy.
There have always been some bills responding to populist trends. For years, long-term House Speaker Tom Murphy, D-Bremen, took the heat for sitting on them to spare the Legislature the long, heated debates they bring as well as the obligation lawmakers felt to vote with their constituents’ preference on proposals that may not have been entirely practical.
The current speaker, Rep. David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and Senate leaders haven’t played that role as often. They’ll get the chance this session and more so as the next one rolls along.