Originally created 02/22/06

Question time extends debate



ATLANTA - When is a question not a question?

Sometimes the line gets blurred at the General Assembly.

From the moment a lawmaker finishes presenting a bill dealing with anything from child-support payments to sales tax exemptions, the questions start rolling.

But those "questions," called "parliamentary inquiries" in legislative jargon, are often part of the debate as lawmakers try to make points rather than seeking information.

Essentially, any statement can be uttered by a lawmaker under the guise of a parliamentary inquiry as long as it is prefaced by, "Is it not true that ..." or words to that effect.

"Wouldn't it be true that a lot of us would feel that our local school boards should handle this measure?" asked Rep. Georganna Sinkfield, D-Atlanta, during a debate over a bill allowing parents to tell a school not to allow their children to join certain clubs.

Most lawmakers see the daily quizzes as a way to make a brief point without giving a longer speech.

It's a method anyone who watches the British prime minister's Question Time on C-SPAN will be familiar with.

"I think most of them are like lawyers in court," said Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, R-Savannah. "You know the answer before you ask them. ... They're just trying to plant that question in someone else's mind."

And speaking from one's desk - where questions are asked - can keep a lawmaker from being open to the grilling themselves, said Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem.

"Sometimes a person asking a question may not want to be subjected to the questions as well," Mr. Fleming said.

So, do the questions make a difference?

Occasionally, Mr. Johnson said, a question raises a valid point that had escaped notice. He remembers when the Legislature was considering a bill that would make animal cruelty a felony. Sen. Michael Egan, R-Atlanta, asked whether some forms of spousal abuse were a misdemeanor. The answer came back "yes" - meaning someone could face a more severe penalty for abusing a dog than for abusing his or her spouse.

"It killed the bill," Mr. Johnson said.

But some debate-style questions have begun to draw unfavorable attention from those running the show.

Since taking over last year, House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, has tried, mostly in vain, to limit "parliamentary inquiries" in the minute or two before the vote.

In recent years, lawmakers have taken to using the inquiries as a last-ditch effort to get their point across even as the vote was being taken.

"The time to argue the bill has passed," Mr. Richardson said in a recent exchange with House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin.

Those late questions, Mr. Johnson said, aren't likely to change anyone's mind.

"By that time, I think the votes are all but cast," he said.