Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The New Federalism is Old News
by Tom Baxter
Georgia Online News Service

Don't waste any outrage over our lawmakers' decision last week to suspend business for three months at the end of March, while they wait on the ObamaBucks they hope will save them from making the hard choices none of us really want them to make. All we really have to complain about is that they're not taking their break sooner.

The circumstances this year are unprecedented, but the General Assembly has been slouching in this direction for some time. There was a precursor a couple of years ago, when the legislature marked time until late April waiting for Congress to reauthorize the State Children's Health Insurance Program.

What the decision by House and Senate leaders last week amounts to is an admission – one Gov. Sonny Perdue declined to make in his message to the legislature last month – that a state which can't afford to fix the water fountains in its state Supreme Court building can only hope for a break from Washington to bridge its budget gap. There's still a lot of rhetoric left over from the New Federalism movement of the early '90s, but not a lot of gas.

You'll hear it said that much of the money being dispensed in the recovery package Congress is debating can't be applied directly to Georgia's budget problems, and that's true. It's also true that even as the Republicans in Atlanta were announcing the break, Republicans in the US Senate were successfully paring down the very parts of the package that would help the state most directly.

But until the state has a better handle on what's going to happen in Washington, there's little point in trying to make decisions that will have ramifications several years out.

"Ever read that book, Waiting for Sheetrock?" a Republican legislator with considerable influence in the budgetary process said Monday. "I told somebody the other day, that's where we're at. Waiting for a bailout."

He was a little off on the title of Melissa Fay Greene's book about the poor of McIntosh County, Praying for Sheetrock, but right on point about the reality of the situation the legislature faces. The options are so bad – and they got even worse with the latest revenue report – that putting them off has some virtue in itself.

There's one group which is going to feel considerable budgetary relief from the stretchout, no matter what happens in Washington.

"I call this the Lobbyists' Fundraising Relief Act," a beneficiary of this unexpected break said Monday.

Lobbyists tell tales about how stuffed their mailboxes get in the weeks after a session, when the fundraising letters from every elected official, candidate for office, caucus and cause come rolling in. Because state law prohibits any state elected officials from fundraising before this session ends, the long break will give them a three-month holiday. (This, by the way, is also reason to suspect that if there's an early resolution of matters in Washington. the legislators might change their minds by March 25, when they're supposed to break, and move on to end the session.)

One danger in the stretchout is that it arranges time in a perfect way for a lot of mischief to be done.

The five days allotted for the end of June won't be like a special session, in which the subjects that can be dealt with are limited by the governor's call. Any sleeper bill which has made it through either the House or Senate by March 12, this year's crossover day, has a chance of popping back up in the final, frantic hours.

That means the (dwindling) corps of legislative watchdogs will have an even harder job. But if that keeps checks out of the hands of politicians for three months, it's a reasonable tradeoff.

Tom Baxter is editor of the Southern Political Report and senior vice president of its parent company, InsiderAdvantage, a media and polling firm. He was the chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 20 years.   [full bio]

Editor's note: Hello, Georgia! You've likely heard by now that the Georgia Assembly is planning on splitting the current session. Georgia Online News Service (GONSO) political editor Tom Baxter explains some of the issues behind the split session in today's lead story.

Meanwhile, GONSO reporter Maggie Lee looks at a bill that would grant immunity from lawsuits to Big Pharmaceutical companies whose drugs are approved by the Food and Drug Administration but later turn out to have harmful and lethal side effects.

And, for today's Soapbox, Alan Essig and Sarah Beth Gehl of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute have a suggestion for legislators during the budget crisis: Stop giving sweet tax breaks to special interest groups.

As always, we'd like to hear from you. Send your comments and any story ideas to executive editor John Sugg at john.sugg@georgiaonlinenews.org. You can also call us at 800-891-3459.

Today's GONSO

The New Federalism is Old News

by Tom Baxter
Even as the Republicans in Atlanta were announcing a split legislative session to handle anticipated federal stimulus revenue, Republicans in the US Senate were successfully paring down the very parts of the package that would help the state most directly.
Full Story

Governor's Allies Propose Legal Immunity for Drug Makers

by Maggie Lee
Four state senators are proposing civil immunity for drug and medical device companies that have a major presence in Georgia.
Full Story


Tax breaks: The state should quit playing favorites

by Alan Essig and Sarah Beth Gehl
In this time of crisis, with our most vulnerable Georgians at risk, it’s time that the General Assembly stop giving out tax breaks as if they were candy, and begin to take a cold, hard look at the existing special interest tax breaks. What Georgia needs is zero-based taxation.
Full Story

Tomorrow's Budget
Senate OKs Georgia Power Nuke Financing Plan
by Maggie Lee
What do we call two legislators who have started a witch-hunt in academia? Dumb and Dumber
by John Sugg
Per-student school funding soars as graduation rates fall
by Ben Scafidi

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