Charlie Harper: Atlanta’s Capitol Isn’t Washington’s
Friday, January 13th, 2023
I made the move to writing columns for print newspapers and online publications 12 years ago this month. The goal, then and now, was to try to bring a view of state government’s operations and workings to Georgia’s voters, citizens, and taxpayers.
Inherent in that goal but spoken less frequently is to differentiate the difference in how state government works from our Federal government in Washington and from our local cities and counties. Our attention span for these kinds of matters is growing narrower by the year, and too many Americans view all government as a one stop shop.
Each level of government has their own areas of primary responsibility. More to the point of this column, each also works very differently.
It’s easy to assume that because the federal government and Georgia’s state government both have an executive branch, two chambers combining to form a legislative branch, and a judicial branch, that they operate the same. In many technical ways, they do. In most practical applications, they’re night and day apart.
Those who govern us at the state level have burdens those in Congress do not. Specifically, states are forbidden to print money. They must balance their budget. Every year.
They’re also given a deadline to do this. There are no Christmas Eve omnibus bills passed months after the fiscal year has started in Georgia. Legislators have 40 business days, ordered at their choosing, to conduct their business.
The budget process is generally open and transparent. The Governor submits his budget request during the first week of the legislative session.
Hearings are conducted over several days by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, where each Agency publicly defends their requests. All committee meetings are livestreamed with recordings available anytime later as well on demand. It’s a permanent public record of these activities.
The House will then pass two budgets. The first is generally called the “supplemental” budget, also known as the “amended budget”, and it adjusts the budget passed the previous session for the current fiscal year. The State’s new year begins July 1st.
The amended budget adjusts spending up or down if needed based on actual tax revenues, as well as for unforeseen but immediate needs that were not known when the budget was set the prior year. The House will later pass the “big budget”, which is where most new spending and major adjustments are made.
The Senate then takes their turn, making adjustments to both the Governor’s plan and the House’s passed versions. Once each chamber has passed their own budget, a conference committee is formed with usually 3 members each of the House and Senate, and they work out their differences.
It’s a linear and predictable process. It gets the state’s major priorities funded and has kept the state with a AAA bond rating, the highest credit rating available, for the 25th consecutive year.
The sum of all this is that Georgia not only has to directly solve problems in education, transportation, and public safety, but it has to balance the books while doing so. Washington, on the other hand, gets to play a gridlock game in perpetuity while each side makes hyper-partisan speeches hoping to win the next election…to oversee more gridlock.
There is a much less wonky way to demonstrate the differences, as both the US House and Georgia House had to elect Speakers over the past week. Too much ink was spilled over the US House’s process, where Republicans couldn’t even unite behind their own candidate while Democrats cheered on their own nominee.
In Georgia, the nomination of Jon Burns within the House Caucus last month was the result of a contested election, but there was no drama from within the caucus when his name was placed in nomination before the full House. Nor was there drama from Georgia’s House Democrats.
Instead, Minority Leader James Beverly moved to elect Speaker Burns by acclimation. Thus, Jon Burns was elected Georgia’s Speaker unanimously, in bipartisan fashion.
That doesn’t mean that Democrats are weak, nor that there won’t be partisan fights in the near future over legislation and issues. It just means that when the goal is to get things done, picking a fight – even a symbolic one – just for the sake of it doesn’t build the good will that is often needed on both sides of the aisle to get real problems solved.
Washington could learn a lot from the way Georgia and most other states operate. I’ll settle for more citizens turning down the rhetoric they learn on the cable news channel of their choice, and watch and engage government at lower levels that function much better – and affect their lives more directly.