Originally created 03/27/06

Conferences fraught with error, agenda



ATLANTA - It was technically illegal, not too long ago, for a nurse in Georgia to give someone a shot. It wasn't done intentionally; it just kind of happened.

A few years ago, a medical bill was working its way through the General Assembly. Differences between versions passed by the House and Senate required the two chambers to form a conference committee, a group of six legislators meant to hammer out a compromise.

Somewhere along the way, one of the conferees decided to tighten provisions on what types of procedures had to be performed by doctors. The wording inadvertently included shots.

The law was never enforced.

"That was one of those where it was such an egregious problem ... basically, everyone agreed to enjoin it," said Rep. Tom Bordeaux, D-Savannah.

It wasn't the first time, and likely won't be the last, that the hasty and largely unsupervised conference-committee process delivered legislation that was out of kilter with what most lawmakers want. Often, the compromises pass with little advance notice and almost no chance for legislators to read them all.

Conference committees are now meeting constantly in Atlanta as the final days of the 2006 General Assembly tick away, some during the weekend, and most out of the scrutiny of the public or the news media.

Once the House and Senate leadership appoints three members of each chamber to hash out differences between versions of a bill, the six conferees can quickly arrange meetings in out-of-the way offices with no public notice.

"This is absolutely the most dangerous time of the legislative session because these conference committees, with little or no oversight, can completely rewrite the bill, put whatever they want into it and then sneak it by both chambers with little or no discussion," Mr. Bordeaux said.

EVEN SEEMINGLY mundane proposals can become examples of comical overreach in the arms of a conference committee.

Neill Herring, a lobbyist for environmental groups, remembers a bill several years ago that would have authorized the state to spend money on a particular Corrections Department facility in DeKalb County.

The number of projects included in the bill grew along each step of the way, until the conference committee not only had thrown in several additional projects, but also repealed a spending measure the General Assembly had passed earlier that same session.

"That one, we caught them," Mr. Herring said. The "compromise" bill was killed in the Senate.

Because of the tendency of conferees with their own agendas to sneak something in, lawmakers who serve on conference committees have to be on the watch, said Sen. George Hooks, D-Americus.

"You have to know who you are dealing with," said Mr. Hooks, a veteran of dozens of conference committees on the budget and a host of other issues.

Even some of those who have been around the Capitol only a few years know the dangers.

"You've got to really watch conference committees," said second-term Sen. Brian Kemp, R-Athens. "What comes out of them - there may be anything in (the final product)."

THE QUICKNESS with which most conference committees fly through legislation also makes them an attractive target for lobbyists with an agenda they don't want scrutinized.

"Remember, part of the game up here is not introducing a bill and passing it; it's finding a vehicle to slip your language in and pass it," Mr. Bordeaux said.

When a bill is introduced early enough to pass, Mr. Bordeaux said, the public, the media and other lobbyists all have a chance to expose and complain about the unintended consequences or negative effects.

"When, instead, you find a vehicle at the end of the session, the other lobbyists don't have a chance to lobby against it, and the press doesn't have a chance to write about it," Mr. Bordeaux said. The best lobbyists "never have bills. They have vehicles."

Conference committees are attractive to lobbyists for another reason, Mr. Herring said. The final product is just that - final.

"What you get from the conference is so much more important than what you get from everything else," he said. "It's an up-or-down vote."

PART OF WHAT MAKES it difficult for the public to keep up with the committees is that their meetings are unannounced and usually brief. That can leave reporters, lobbyists and anyone interested in the bill scrambling to find out what's happening and when.

When it comes to the budget, those interested in the state's spending plan have been known to camp out in the room in which the conference committee meets for hours on end, reading, talking or doing anything else to pass the time as they await the next conference session.

In 2004, as Georgia Tech made its run to the finals of the NCAA basketball tournament, lobbyists would pull out a television to catch up on the game once the conference committee left the room. The TV would be put away when the panel neared for another meeting.

With even veterans of the Capitol having to huddle around a crowded TV to make sure they don't miss the game or the budget negotiations, the public has little chance of finding out what's going on.

Mr. Hooks points out that most people probably wouldn't understand the legislative details being negotiated even if they were there. And the meetings have to be "whenever" because of all the other activity taking place at the end of the session.

"There's nothing closed-door about it," Mr. Hooks said. "It's just a fact of life."

Mr. Herring said many of the committees don't even meet. One or two legislators will reach a compromise and simply get the other members of the panel to sign on.

"It works," he said. "People get what they need, and other people don't get what they want."

Mr. Bordeaux isn't so sure it's a good way to do business, particularly as he notices members reviewing bills less and less.

"After the final gavel sounds is the only time some people read the legislation that's just been passed," he said. "It's a little too late."

Reach Brandon Larrabee at (404) 681-1701 or brandon.larrabee@morris.com.

KEY BILLS

Senate Bill 86

- Description: Bars use of eminent domain solely to increase tax base

- Status: Passed Senate; sent to House Judiciary Committee

SB 382

- Description: Changes tables used to calculate child-support payments

- Status: Passed Senate; passed House Judiciary Committee

SB 386

- Description: Redraws boundaries of Senate Districts 46, 47 and 49

- Status: Passed Senate; passed House; signed by governor

SB 390

- Description: "Classroom First for Georgia" requires local school districts to spend at least 65 percent of budgets on classroom expenses.

- Status: Passed Senate; passed House; awaiting governor's signature

SB 529

- Description: Denies most taxpayer benefits to illegal immigrants and prevents businesses that hire illegal workers from using wages as state-tax deductions

- Status: Passed Senate; passed House; in conference committee

HOUSE BILL 970

- Description: Suspends half of state sales tax on home heating fuels

- Status: Passed House; passed Senate; signed by governor

HB 1026

- Description: Allocates additional taxpayer money for fiscal year that began July 1, 2005, and ends June 30, 2006

- Status: Passed House; passed Senate; in conference committee

HB 1027

- Description: Allocates taxpayer money for fiscal year that begins July 1, 2006, and ends June 30, 2007

- Status: Passed House; passed Senate; in conference committee

HB 1059

- Description: Significantly increases penalties for most sex crimes, particularly those against children, and calls for closer monitoring of convicted sex offenders

- Status: Passed House; passed Senate; in conference committee

HB 1313

- Description: Places new restrictions on the power of eminent domain by requiring governments to meet certain standards before condemning property and provide extra notification to property owners

- Status: Passed House; passed Senate; in conference committee

- Morris News Service