Capitol comes back to life with start of new session

mlee@macon.comJanuary 13, 2014 

ATLANTA -- Most of the year, the oil paintings and statues in the state Capitol stare at little but shifting shadows in a vast building as quiet as an elementary school in July.

Then the second Monday in January, early, people start filtering in. By 10 a.m., a few hundred people, mostly but not overwhelmingly men, stand nearly shoulder to shoulder, talking, shaking hands, slapping backs and waiting for what’s about to start.

That is, lawmaking in Georgia.

“You can’t really sleep the night before,” said state Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon. He’s one of 180 state representatives under Georgia’s Gold Dome. There are 56 senators.

All the other people are there to focus on the lawmakers, talk to them, follow them and sometimes fight them.

There are nearly 800 active registered lobbyists in Georgia representing nearly 3,000 organizations. Besides them, some of the lawmakers have family or aides in tow, and both chambers have staff and aides.

Retirees-turned-doorkeepers police the passages that separate the House and Senate floors from the racket outside. Schoolchildren take turns running messages between the chambers and constituents waiting in the hall. State troopers patrol, sometimes with Atom, the bomb dog. The governor’s office spreads over parts of two floors downstairs.

State Rep. Matt Hatchett, R-Dublin, like many of his colleagues, was up early. “The first thing I do is I text my wife, and she calls me and I talk to her,” he said.

Legislators from outside Atlanta commonly rent an apartment or a condo during the session to use at least a few nights a week.

The first business for most lawmakers is reading emails, news, texts and Facebook. Beverly started with a three-mile run before work.

“This is probably the most organic thing I’ve ever been a part of,” he said of the unpredictable way bills and ideas develop and change in the Capitol.

Or even turn around and bite back. In Capitol lingo, it’s called “perfecting”: when a committee makes a few tiny edits that thwart the original point of a bill.

State Rep. Robert Dickey, R-Musella, a peach farmer, said the session is much more stressful than the harvest.

“Peaches will work to plan,” he said. “But this is so dynamic and fluid.”

At 10 a.m., the bell rings, a signal to lawmakers, staff, reporters and the audience to settle down in the chambers.

After prayer in both houses, business was relatively short for the first day. They set their schedule for the next nine days. John Balfour, a Gwinnett senator, just acquitted of charges of filing false expense reports, gave a speech attacking a few fellow Republicans who had asked for the investigation.

Meanwhile, a crowd of a few hundred gathered on the paved plaza outside the building for an Addiction Recovery Awareness Day rally, organized by the Addiction Recovery Coalition of Georgia. They advocate for funding for addiction treatment, prevention and recovery. They’re the first of dozens of organizations that will bring their message to the pavement over the coming weeks.

Macon resident Kelly Harris, 45 days clean, was one of thousands of Georgians who will bring those messages to lawmakers.

It’s a “rally to help people like myself find solutions, find a new way of living,” Harris said.

“People giving us encouragement is good,” he said. “I see the support we’re getting. It helps a lot of people.”

Most days there’s some kind of gathering on the plaza, sometimes two. Lawmakers or the governor come out and say a few words for their favorite causes.

Back inside, the House adjourned about noon, and members started filtering out for lunch and meetings.

State Rep. Nikki Randall, D-Macon, occupies a desk at the center of a post-adjournment talking shop. She sits behind House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, and beside the long-serving and well-connected state Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus. A handful of Democrats congregated to chat before lunch.

“My day is over about 9 p.m.,” said Randall. “I’d like to say after 14 years you get used to it, but you don’t.”

As the session goes on, more committees will schedule meetings, and they will start to overlap. Hundreds of bills will be proposed. More constituents will come knocking. And, perhaps, lobbyists.

Hugh Sosbee is one of them. He represents Mercer University. On day one, he wore an orange Mercer tie patterned with little “MU”s.

His job is to be resident expert on all things Mercer for legislators. “They can’t know everything that’s going on in the state,” said Sosbee. So he said his job is to let legislators know the difference Mercer makes in the Macon-Bibb community and beyond and also to be a conduit of information between the school and lawmakers.

Once the Senate let out, state Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, made his way downstairs, stopped every few yards by someone who wanted to talk to him: lobbyist, visitor, TV reporter. He’s in charge of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, and he carries key environmental legislation every year.

“It’s a lot of extra work, year round,” being a committee chair, said Tolleson. But when it comes to passing bills, “I try to work with people, not against them.”

This year, legislators will try to schedule their 40 days with few breaks so they can finish and turn their attention to re-election bids.

As early as mid-March, the Capitol will return to hibernation.

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