Opinion Columns & Blogs

Charlie Harper: Lead, follow, or just go away

Late in the evening of May 20 the picture became clear. House Speaker David Ralston had easily withstood a challenge from a popular local high school wrestling coach, who was in reality a proxy for Atlanta area Tea Party leaders. The governor had dispatched two primary opponents, one of whom shared almost exactly the same slate of backers as those who challenged the Speaker.

In addition, the Speaker held all but one of his chairmen who had withstood primary challenges (with that one being victim more to his own personal financial issues than any legislative positions), while two of his biggest intraparty detractors were dispatched by challengers of their own. In short, primary night was a good night for "the establishment."

The "establishment" moniker is one that frankly chaps the hide of many within legislative leadership. They've been conservative and Republican most of their lives and careers. Just last year, they passed bills that blocked Medicaid expansion without General Assembly approval, approved support for an Article V Constitutional Convention to force a balanced budget amendment, and enacted one of the most comprehensive gun rights laws in the country.

To those on the left they represent the epitome of intransigence. But to some on the right, "conservative" is never conservative enough. These are usually not the people bearing the responsibility of governing. Instead, they often represent organizations or media that thrive more on being part of an opposition minority party than part of a governing majority.

On May 20, those who had had all their demands acquiesced to during last year's General Assembly finished throwing everything they had at the establishment. And they came up empty.

Ten months later, a lot has changed. Georgia Republicans survived a general election without losing a statewide office or a legislative seat. They picked up an additional congressional seat in Georgia 12. The victory against a surprisingly resurgent Democratic Party challenge left some openly questioning whether the resolve to govern after the May primary victories would be quietly shelved away, or if Republicans would follow through with talk of "big and bold" plans to tackle major substantive issues.

The interim between the elections was filled with a joint House-Senate study committee on transportation, which revealed a need even larger than expected. Well over a billion dollars per year was identified to maintain our current system of roads and bridges. Billions more are needed for the "total universe" of statewide needs.

House Transportation Chairman Jay Roberts of Ocilla -- a somewhat unlikely champion for a cause too many view as an "Atlanta problem" -- worked the effort from beginning to end as a statesman. Only one of his study committee meetings was held in Atlanta. The rest reached all corners of the state. No one who wanted to participate was turned away at the meetings. All had their chance to have their opinions heard and considered.

But as has become custom, many of the usual suspects held their participation in the process until after the committee's report was released and subsequent bill was filed. Then, on cue, the Purity for Profit brigade formed the usual bucket lines in order to throw cold water on the effort.

Roberts soldiered on, welcoming anyone wishing to be "constructive," but cautioned that those who only wanted to say "no" had missed their opportunity to contribute. He had time only for those trying to help.

Over the last few weeks substantial changes were made. Local governments will receive a bump in their local option sales taxes to make up for lost gas tax revenue. Schools will be able to keep gas taxes in ESPLOSTS so long as the taxes are used for school transportation purposes. Every effort was made to protect local taxpayers while providing funding to resume road and bridge maintenance more often than once a century.

The opposition continued up until the final vote. The open nature of this "bottom up" process was quite evident when the Majority Leader offered an amendment to cut the tax by a nickel per gallon, and the Majority Whip moved to table the bill before the vote after that amendment failed.

In the end, the bill passed the House 123-46, including support from a majority of Republicans. It will now await the Senate's take, and it's quite possible the bill will see significant changes before it reaches the Governor's desk.

But on this day, it sits as a monument to a Speaker who opened the process by stating the House needed to have the resolve to get this done, and a Transportation Chairman who was strong enough to guide the way while flexible enough to adapt to valid concerns. It also serves as a warning to critics that they will need to approach major issues with more than empty bumper sticker sloganeering and threats if they wish to be part of the process.