Opinion Columns & Blogs

Back to work and looking to January

With the passing of Labor Day, we admit that summer is over for all practical purposes. School is long back in session, most white clothing is to be stored away lest we be cited for violation by the fashion police, and it’s time to get back to work.

In political speak, most would assume getting back to work is getting focused on the campaigns at hand. There is, however, a lot more going on in the world of politics than the presidential campaign which gets a majority of airtime and print space.

At the state level, which we deal with primarily in this space, most elections have been decided in the primaries. While the presidential race dominates most headlines, state leaders are hard at work preparing for January.

Campaigns have become a year-round spectator sport, but the act of governing is not limited to the 40 days in January. Our part-time legislators have limited time to become experts on the myriad of issues contained within the bills that cross their desks. There are two features of our current system that enable them to quickly develop the expertise on the matters they will vote: Chairmanships and study committees.

Many casual observers of Georgia’s legislature may presume that the title of Chairman of a committee is an honorary one that is given due to seniority. While that’s not totally untrue, the committee chairs have a responsibility to go along with the honor. They are expected to become subject matter experts over the issues their committees will oversee.

While that may sound obvious, the implication often isn’t. Legislators spend 40 days per year crafting legislation on a vast range of topics. They do this while holding other jobs, keeping family responsibilities, and simultaneously trying to keep a presence in their districts while doing their work in Atlanta.

Their expectation is to know a little about a lot. They need people they can rely on who know everything about something. That is the role of a committee chair. He or she is expected to know everything about a topic, how changes would affect related interests, and be able to communicate this to other members of the legislature as legislation is crafted and voted upon.

The chairs do this with no additional pay, save the extra per diem they are allotted for holding committee meetings outside the 40 business days of the legislature. During the summer and fall, some of these meetings are specially designated study committees. Many of these are occurring now.

Study committees are designated by the House and/or Senate in order to take on a complex topic. They give legislators time to become experts on an issue and craft potential legislation outside the distraction of the multiple priorities which occur during the regular session.

There was a time when study committees were viewed as a way to “kick the can” to the next session. Few paid attention to most of these outside of the various stakeholders and lobbyists directly tied to the matter at hand.

The transportation funding committee of 2014 changed this paradigm. The committee, which included both House & Senate Transportation and Budget chairmen, laid the groundwork that culminated in HB 170 which increased transportation funding by almost $1 billion per year. Six meetings were held publicly and in all corners around the state.

Critics who dismissed or ignored the activities of the committee were caught flat-footed when a bill began to move. Many disingenuously claimed that the bill was crafted in secret back rooms. That was easier than telling their constituents they ignored a very public, very open process.

All of that is to say this: There are various study committees under way over the next few months. They will consider issues such as Medicaid expansion, metro Atlanta transit and other transportation mobility, gaps in rural broadband coverage and delivery, strategies to defend against a potential Base Realignment and Closure Commission, tax incentives for the music industry, and other issues of the day.

These are all public meetings, occurring in the open, with those the House participates in streamed live on the internet. Legislation is being developed, and the time to understand and become an expert on these and other topics is now.

Now is the time to get to work if you’re interested in the legislation that will be considered starting in January. That’s what many of our “part-time” legislators are doing.

Charlie Harper, executive director of PolicyBEST, a public policy think tank, is also the publisher of GeorgiaPol.com, a website dedicated to state & local politics of Georgia.