Gov. Nathan Deal employed a nautical theme last week in his session-opening address to legislators about the “ship of state.”
Which, the best I can tell, is dropping anchor until next year.
In theory, this year’s session should be more active than last year’s, not less. Bills left uncompleted in 2015 are still alive. Two dozen study committees appointed last year have met and reported — not counting the governor’s Education Reform Commission, whose recommendations were expected to highlight the 2016 action.
Instead, Deal pulled the education package off the table, and the prevailing attitude among legislators and lobbyists at the Capitol is that, besides the budget, little of consequence will be attempted, much less accomplished.
This is chalked up as good, or at least safe, election-year politics. But I’m not sure how it’s good or safe politics to continue avoiding some of the state’s most pressing issues. And if you’re a Republican worried about a primary challenge because you voted for last year’s $900 million-a-year transportation funding bill, for example, wouldn’t you like to have some other accomplishment from these two years to talk about?
The way things are shaping up, though, this year’s GOP electoral talking points will have to sound a lot like they have in the past:
We still need to tackle tax reform, because we didn’t get it done the past two years (or the 10 before that).
We still need to modernize the way public schools are funded, and give families more options, because we thought the teachers somehow might be less angry if we did it next year.
We still need to pass protections for people of faith, because that topic’s bound to get less controversial over time (yeah, right).
We still … well, you get the point.
Nothing about next year makes it a more promising time for action than this year. Deal will be one year closer to retirement, and his potential successors one year closer to outright campaigning for his job. Any momentum or sense of inevitability behind measures such as the Education Reform Commission’s package will have dissipated. The economy, if it’s still growing a year from now, will be even more overdue for a contraction (and shrinking state revenues), based on post-World War II averages.
And those who have spent years working on some of these issues will be even more prone to wondering why they bother.
This dawdling would be less frustrating to watch if it were a one-off. But this is happening for the second straight election year — and the second time since primary elections were moved earlier in the year due to a court order mandating lengthier run-offs. Legislators by law can’t raise campaign money while they’re in session, although their challengers can, so they’re eager to get out the door as quickly as possible.
Two election years don’t quite make a trend. But this is exactly what some of us a couple of years ago worried would happen.
If so, it’d be better for legislators to cut these election-year sessions shorter than usual, adjourning once they’ve passed the budget even if they’ve used fewer than the 40 legislative days allotted by law. That would be more transparent, and might save some tax dollars.
Or perhaps voters will simply decide to start punishing legislators as much for inaction as for hyper-action.