An uninspiring legislative session ended in dispiriting fashion early Friday, with the failure of a few solidly conservative bills. It’s worth getting to the bottom of what went wrong.
There was the usual procedural mess. Legislators crammed the work left from days spent more leisurely into a final scramble that went a full hour past midnight, a “deadline” that keeps losing its deadliness. The procrastination is intentional, designed to help leadership ram through the bills it wants and kill the clock on the ones it doesn’t.
And oh, the ones that came up short this year.
A decade and a half of frustration among Republicans at being unable to lower the state’s income-tax rate appeared on the verge of small relief. The House had passed a modest but important structural reform that flattened and simplified the personal income tax. The Senate ordered up a much larger tax cut — which sounds nice, until you know that Gov. Nathan Deal would veto it.
House members tweaked their plan. An economic analysis provided to me showed the plan could lower the top rate to 5.55 percent, eliminate all brackets below that, increase the personal exemption, introduce a “work tax credit,” and still keep low- and middle-income Georgians whole. It was forecast to cut income-tax revenues by less than $180 million a year (about 1.3 percent) which meant there was a chance Deal would sign it. It was the kind of reform that would make it easier for a future governor to gradually lower rates even further.
Yet, the Senate wouldn’t agree to anything less than the larger, but obviously doomed, cut.
It was a stance similar to the poison pill senators placed in a House bill for the state’s tax-credit scholarship. They slashed the money student scholarship organizations could spend on expenses to a mere 3 percent of the donations they collect — low enough to put many of them out of business and deny hundreds of kids financial aid. Or, perhaps, low enough just to kill the bill.
The House changed the bill, but only 12 Senate Republicans voted for the educational freedom they claim to support for Georgia’s students, and which rates as highly popular with Republican voters.
I spoke with multiple people who worked on each of these solidly conservative bills, in each chamber and on the outside. Those people almost uniformly pointed the finger at Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.
I’m told it was Cagle who insisted on the tax bill Deal would certainly veto, and who told GOP senators to oppose the education bill.
Here, let’s acknowledge two things. First, Cagle is all but certain to announce his candidacy for governor within weeks. Second, the people who worked opposite him on these issues are not his biggest fans (though, I’ll add, they don’t currently support anyone else planning to run).
If that were all there was to it, I’d have left it alone. But their complaints echo those that grew louder and louder since this session began in January, and even dating back to 2016. I’ve been here for eight of the 11 sessions Cagle has been lieutenant governor. People haven’t always talked about him as negatively as they do now.
There is a well-cultivated air of inevitability around Cagle as next in line for West Paces Ferry. As a three-time statewide winner, there’s merit to that. But maybe not enough when this rising dissatisfaction with him inside the Capitol spreads beyond it.
Kyle Wingfield writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach him and read more at www.bit.ly/KyleWingfield.