Democrats unveil ambitious agenda but little chance for success

mlee@macon.comJanuary 23, 2014 

ATLANTA -- Outnumbered Democratic lawmakers at the state Capitol announced their priorities for the 31 remaining days of the session, but what they can accomplish under the dome is more modest than the proposals.

But then, the plans will be on file for reference during 2014 stump speeches.

“We are proposing a set of initiatives that, No. 1, fights income inequality, and No. 2, assists Georgia’s working families,” said state Sen. Horacena Tate, D-Atlanta, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus, at a news conference where she and colleagues announced their bills.

The stack of Senate bills includes calls for a Medicaid expansion, raising the minimum wage to $10.10, automatic voter registration for people who have a driver’s license or state ID, and disclosure by government contractors of any big campaign donations they make.

House and Senate Democrats do not coordinate their agendas, but some of the ideas are similar.

“We’re very serious. They are basic tenets of government we want to fulfill,” said House Minority Whip Carolyn Hugley, D-Columbus.

House Democrats want to allow online voter registration and require guaranteed proof of cost savings when a government function is bid out to a company, among other things.

Such companies would also be subject to Georgia’s open records and open meeting laws under a part of the agenda that will be carried by state Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon.

“We believe that if private companies are using our tax dollars, they should be held up to the same standards as the government,” Beverly said.

But “bills of significant importance (to Democrats) have never made it out of committee” on the off chance that they get a hearing, said state Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, pointing to last year’s Democratic agenda that’s now largely gathering dust.

State Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, however, said her party is on the ascent and publicizing their ideas is important.

“You never win a battle by sitting down,” she said.

House Democrats point to a few successes, like the new audit submission requirement for private school scholarship organizations, which exchange tax credits for donations. It’s a watered-down bit of a Democratic bill that the caucus takes credit for smuggling into a Republican measure.

But with the GOP holding nearly two-thirds of state House and Senate seats, Democrats cannot move sweeping bills.

“The minority party’s biggest weapon is to stall or stop bills,” said Charlie Harper, editor of the political blog Peach Pundit. It’s Republicans who have the mandate to govern.

House Republican Majority Leader Larry O’Neal, R-Bonaire, has been in the Legislature just long enough to remember when his party was the minority and largely excluded from where decisions were made.

“Your challenge is to initiate discussion” when outnumbered, O’Neal said, and to bring up facts that the other side must consider.

And that actually happens. When the Republican Legislature changed the HOPE grant grade point average threshold from 2.0 to 3.0 for a scholarship to state technical colleges, enrollment soon dropped by more than 20,000 students. A Democratic move to return the requirement to 2.0 passed in 2013 with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Another way for a minority party to break into governing is to exploit splits in the other party even to find common ground.

Indeed, Senate Democrats are calling for more government transparency, and several of them support a planned move by maverick state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, to limit late-night, last-minute changes to House and Senate bills.

A new bipartisan House Bill 697 would increase HOPE grants to the full cost of technical college tuition.

All 236 state legislators are up for election this year, as is Republican Gov. Nathan Deal.

The struggling state Democratic Party lost its chairman last year when he resigned following a reprimand from the Georgia Bar Association. That was preceded by party in-fighting over financial and personnel questions. It has since installed new leaders, including former state House Minority Leader DuBose Porter of Dublin and lobbyist-turned-strategist Rebecca DeHart.

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