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Bills show need for leadership

ATLANTA --- Two statements regarding leadership have echoed repeatedly throughout the Capitol over the past four months.

One was praise for the cooperation and collaboration among the leaders of the House, Senate and the governor. The other was the observation "I haven't heard anybody say they miss Sonny Perdue."

To be fair to Perdue, the Gold Dome crowd was just as happy to see his predecessors, Roy Barnes and Zell Miller, retire. Corralling independent adults, who are leaders in their own communities, sometimes requires the lash, and a change in the governor's office offers hope that the new occupant will use it less often.

Indeed one difference in the 2011 legislative session was the meager budget. A lack of money for pet initiatives left leaders without a powerful tool to coerce followers through threats of cuts or promises of rewards.

A second difference was the operating style of Gov. Nathan Deal.

"I'm not generally confrontational," he said in an interview with Morris News Service 12 hours after the session ended.

"I try to treat people with respect. I try to listen to their opinions. I try to articulate my opinions so that they understand where I'm coming from."

Veteran legislators predict that Deal will veto few bills because those conversations eliminated much guesswork. He didn't agree with all their proposals, but he was open about discussing his reasoning without anger or pettiness.

Lobbyists credit him with having a well-organized staff tracking the legislation. There was no question who spoke for the governor or what his position was.

Frequent meetings among Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, House Speaker David Ralston and other legislative leaders kept the lines of communication open.

"It's about relationships, personalities and the quality of folks that get elected to these offices," said Tommie Williams of Lyons, the Senate president pro tempore. "The speaker and the governor are two of the very best."

Ralston earned his reputation for collaboration in 2010 and built on it this year.

Three bills this year illustrated the importance of leadership: immigration, the HOPE Scholarship reforms and the tax overhaul.

One passed early with bipartisan support. One limped along until the final moments, hounded by partisan bickering and public protests at every turn. And one never left the starting gate.

Deal quarterbacked the HOPE bill. He apparently picked up some pointers in his 30 years as a legislator and congressman. One was to bring House Democrats to the table while the bill was being drafted and to incorporate some of their ideas.

As a result, House Democratic Leader Stacey Abrams became an ally, speaking for the bill and standing at his side during news conferences.

Not as well led was the quest to impose further restrictions on illegal immigrants. It was typical of most bills in that individual legislators initiated it rather than the leadership. The leaders were slow in marshaling the effort, leaving the two chambers to haggle back and forth over whether to require small employers to use a federal database to verify the citizenship of workers.

The House wanted verification, and so did Senate Republican Leader Chip Rogers, but not Williams, who represents south Georgia farmers. Because of the divided power structure in the Senate, agreement did not come until the final hours of the session.

The Senate's internal power struggle figured in the failure of the tax reform as well, and so did the decision to keep Democrats in the dark as it was drafted.

Abrams, a tax attorney, singlehandedly derailed the bill simply by listing the impact on middle-income taxpayers, a point she would have surely made during drafting and which could have easily been addressed had she been present. After recovering from that embarrassment, the House and Senate leaders ended up jettisoning the whole bill when staff analysts kept revising their calculations for the last-minute deal.

Ralston, explaining how the Senate power struggle figured in, told reporters it was impossible to assemble a package and gauge its impact because senators kept changing their position.

"We can't have 36 different leaders, or however many they have over there on any particular day," he said March 31.

In four months, the General Assembly reconvenes for the most contentious exercise in politics, redistricting. The partisan wrangling will seem tame because Democrats just don't have much power anymore and because they'll enjoy some protections from federal restrictions against minimizing black voting strength.

On the other hand, Republicans are likely to have plenty to fight about among themselves. They'll have a new congressional district to put somewhere, with plenty of ambitious legislators wanting it near them. And they'll have to move perhaps six House and four Senate districts from south Georgia to the faster-growing north end of the state.

Those federal protections for black voters mean 10 GOP legislators are likely to be sacrificed, and they probably won't go without a fight.

If ever there is a need for effective leadership, it's in tough times. It remains to be seen whether the lessons of these three bills will sink in before the Aug. 15 start of the special session. The leaders, especially those in the Senate, have four months to study and prepare.

(Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News Service. He can be reached at or (404) 589-8424.)

Web posted on Thursday, April 21, 2011

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