ATLANTA --- Politicians have been busy serving up explanations for every major action in the current session of the General Assembly with a spin designed to gain a favorable bounce in this year's campaigns.
With so many districts drawn so heavily to favor one party or another nowadays, the July primaries are a major hurdle for incumbent legislators. Republicans who may find some comfort in the dissatisfaction voters feel toward congressional Democrats over federal health reform and the national deficit, know those same, highly energized voters are ticked with every level of incumbent, and may do it in the primary.
A weak economy always makes a target of incumbents, but tax increases and cuts to popular programs like education only sharpens the anger. So, a volley of press releases taking credit or assigning accompanies nearly every major vote.
Floor debates and press interviews used to be the only forum for such comments, but now the press releases are emailed straight to the bloggers and campaign supporters who would have only received those messages during the heat of campaigns in past years.
One of the most difficult votes so far this session has been on House Bill 307, the measure to levy a 1.45 percent tax on the revenues of health facilities, including hospitals that are already in the red. Gov. Sonny Perdue proposed it, but he hasn't made a lot of speeches around the state justifying it.
That's left lawmakers to explain it themselves to their constituents. Tax increases are rarely popular. Those that Democrats describe as taxing the "sick" are less so.
Senate Democratic Leader Robert Brown of Macon said during debate Thursday, "The sick can't fight back." Add the wrinkle of broken promises, and the challenge for some incumbents is excruciating. A Washington-based group called Americans for Tax Reform is helping to turn the screws.
The group keeps tabs on the 51 members of the House and 18 senators who have ever signed a pledge to never raise taxes. That comes to 28 percent of the House and 34 percent of the Senate bound by a promise they may have made years ago.
"If they want to break their pledge, that's fine. We're going to tell their constituents," said the group's Georgia representative Joshua Culling, who acknowledges having little familiarity with the Georgia budget since he also monitors legislators in 14 other states.
Few states have as high a percentage of legislators who have signed the pledge, making passage of a tax increase nearly impossible without at least some of them.
When the House took up the hospital tax, 67 percent of the pledge signers voted yes. In the Senate, it was 72 percent, or 13 of 18 signers.
All three of the legislators running for the GOP nomination for insurance commissioner voted for the tax, but Sen. Seth Harp, R-Midland, never signed the pledge. Sen. Ralph Hudgens, R-Hull, and Rep. Tom Rice, R-Cumming, did. Those broken pledges could have the same sting as when President George H.W. Bush went back on his "read my lips: no new taxes" oath that cost his re-election in 1992.
Less than 24 hours after the hospital-tax vote, Hudgens issued a press release taking credit for amending it with a trigger that would eliminate the tax on health-insurance premiums whenever the state builds reserves up to $500 million.
"The best thing about this bill is that the increased revenue from hospitals will sunset in three years while the tax cuts will be permanent," he said.
That reasoning might not wash with Americans for Tax Reform because a tax increase with a sunset "is almost meaningless," Culling said, since taxes rarely disappear. That would mean the bill isn't revenue neutral, as the group requires to avoid the label of tax increase.
The hospital tax would raise $160 million or so yearly while the premium-tax cut would lower taxes by just $75 million whenever it kicks in.
Earlier in the session, Harp led the populist charge to cut the pay of university administrators who earn six-figure salaries. But that was only after he found himself in the center of student protests across the state for his suggestion of an additional $300 million cut to higher education spending -- cuts that would include dozens of academic programs, satellite campuses and even the 4-H youth program, according to how the University System of Georgia spun it.
This session is generating a wagonload of fodder for all the campaigns. Even starting the spin machine before the session ends may not be powerful enough to counteract the voter anger for every incumbent.
(Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News and has been covering Georgia politics since 1998. He can be reached at email@example.com or (404) 589-8424.)