Originally created 02/25/03

Lawmakers boast diverse training



ATLANTA - Members of the General Assembly are proud of their status as part of a citizen Legislature, but a look at their biographies shows that not all residents have an equal chance of participating in the lawmaking process.

Indeed, membership tends to be skewed toward those who can leave their full-time jobs to go to Atlanta.

Some are their own bosses, while others can readily put their work on hold or find someone to fill in for them.

This year, 64 of the 236 members of the House and Senate are business people. Other popular lines of work include farming and teaching.

"As a practical matter, it's hard for anybody to come up here and take three months off their job," said Rep. Tom Bordeaux, D-Savannah, a practicing lawyer.

Mr. Bordeaux said he has an easier time juggling his duties than others.

"I can do some of my work by e-mail," he said. Rep. Lester Jackson, a fellow Savannah Democrat and a dentist, "can't look at teeth that way. When he's not at his office, he's not making a living."

The General Assembly's schedule is arranged to suit the oldest form of citizen legislator - farmers. While the Legis-lature now is down to just 11 farmers, it used to be dominated by folks who tilled the soil.

"That's why we meet in January, February and March," said Rep. Tom McCall, D-Elberton, himself a farmer. "There's not much going on on the farm."

Today, small business owners have become the backbone of the Legislature. Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, who runs a grocery store, said legislators who also have to look out for a business' bottom line have a better idea than full-time lawmakers how government affects average people.

"Whatever we pass, we have to live with, good or bad," he said. "That's what makes the citizen Legislature so unique and important."

Lawmakers from the business world often can add expertise on specific issues. Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Martinez, who sells insurance, is an active participant on the House Insurance and Labor Committee, along with several other legislators who work in the insurance industry.

"We bring a perspective from dealing with customers who have complaints about their claims or whose bills are too high," Mr. Harbin said.

Sometimes, lawmakers become chief proponents of legislation involving their professions.

Sen. Don Thomas, R-Dalton, a doctor with a family practice, is one of the biggest supporters of capping jury awards for pain and suffering in medical malpractice cases.

"Primary-care doctors are having a big problem being able to stay in practice (because of rising malpractice-insurance premiums)," he said. "When I get to the floor on an issue like tort reform, I'll have direct knowledge of what it's about."

Freshman Rep. Mickey Stephens also will bring personal work experience to a bill before the Legislature this year. Mr. Stephens, D-Savannah, a technology teacher at Savannah High School, was dismissed late last year from a part-time post coaching girls' basketball.

"It was a real emotional thing for me," he said. "(But) I had no right to appeal it."

Mr. Stephens now sits on the House Education Committee, which is working on a bill giving teachers who have been fired the right to a hearing. Reforms pushed through the Legislature three years ago by former Gov. Roy Barnes did away with "fair dismissal" rights for newly hired teachers.

While the measure wouldn't affect coaches, Mr. Stephens says he is in a unique position to tell his colleagues how it feels to be fired without recourse. Such close relationships between a legislator's personal circumstances and bills they might be voting on inevitably leads to concerns over potential conflicts of interest.

Lawmakers often are in a position to promote bills that would help them personally.

"If we adopted a truly strict conflict-of-interest rule, teachers could never vote on a budget because it contains money for teachers," Mr. Bordeaux said. "A businessman who has an asphalt contracting company couldn't vote on half of the things up here."

Mr. Harbin said that's the price Georgia pays for a citizen legislature.

"We don't ever want to be like Congress, where we're here full time and tend to forget about the community," he said.

LAWMAKERS' JOBS

A breakdown of the occupations of Georgia lawmakers:

BUSINESS: 64

LAWYERS: 38

INSURANCE: 18

REAL ESTATE: 13

FARMERS: 11

TEACHERS: 10

HEALTH CARE: 5

PHARMACISTS: 4

Sources: House, Senate information offices

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 681-1701 or davemns@mindspring.com.