Payne City and poverty provoke Gold Dome standoff

mlee@macon.comMarch 16, 2013 

ATLANTA -- Like most state capitols, Atlanta has them: impressive statues in marble and granite of some long-dead paragons of statesmanship.

But politics is much rougher than those smooth stone surfaces, and some Bibb County bills are going through a bruising that is fairly common.

Pressure is mounting on sophomore state Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, to sign a bill that would dissolve Payne City into the Macon-Bibb consolidated government. He has so far refused to abolish the tiny city in his district on principle, because by a margin of two votes, Payne City voters turned down the consolidation in 2012.

That pressure is coming in the form of three weeks of Senate inaction on a bill Beverly wants, which would expand the footprint of the Macon-Bibb County Community Enhancement Authority. Beverly authored the bill creating the body last year and now wants to shift its borders to corral several separated pockets of extreme poverty in downtown Macon. Once all the rules are finalized and a board is in place, it’s meant to incentivize investment into those areas.

State Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, wants to dissolve the roughly 200-resident enclave of Payne City, which is part of his district. The cost to run an independent Payne City is a burden on its taxpayers, he has argued. His bill has been sitting in the House after unanimous Senate passage for six weeks.

The clearest way for Staton’s Senate Bill 28 to pass is for Beverly to add his signature to bills of both Republicans and Democrats from both chambers.

Likewise, the clearest way for Beverly’s House Bill 410 to pass is for Staton to add his signature to bills of both Republicans and Democrats from both chambers.

Staton likes Beverly’s bill, but wants the representative to move first.

“I don’t think it’s uncommon to try to have kind of a quid pro quo so you get what you want,” said Virginia Gray, the Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has studied and written on state politics since the 1970s.

“In essence, you change votes to get something done,” Gray said.

Staton laid out his point of view: “There is still time for that important bill (to abolish Payne City) to pass the House,” he said via e-mail, “and should it do so, there is also time for Rep. Beverly’s (House Bill) 410 to pass in the Senate. I support both and hope both will pass.”

Beverly remains assertive on his bill.

“Cecil is a friend and a savvy politician, so this move to block legislation that would give our community some essential tools to help the poor comes as a shock,” Beverly said in a statement. “I’m disappointed in his actions.”

Separately, a bipartisan bill moving through the Legislature already refers to Payne City and its budget as though the enclave were part of the merger. That bill, House Bill 514, makes minor but key administrative changes to the Macon-Bibb County consolidation charter’s authority rules and budget calendar. It needs to pass this year, ahead of the merger.

Politicians consider much besides the merit of a bill when they make their voting choices, Gray pointed out. They take into account what they think their constituents want, what they hear in public meetings or from constituent letters, what lobbyists argue, their own ideas and party identification, just to name a few.

Standoffs are “very common,” said Bob Irvin, a former Republican state legislator from Atlanta who served as minority leader from 1995 to 2001. He has not followed the Bibb County case this year but said, “my general view has always been that members should consider every bill on its merit. When you trade one bill for another, you generally get two bad bills.”

Indeed, both Beverly’s and Staton’s bills probably will go unnoticed by all legislators except the eight Bibb delegation lawmakers because they are so-called “local legislation,” bills that affect only one jurisdiction.

The Bibb legislative team has until the last day of the session, now set for March 28, to figure out a fix, edits or signatures. Otherwise, the stalemate sticks until the next legislative session, which begins in January 2014.

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