Opinion Columns & Blogs

It’s not like it used to be


Whenever I run into anyone that was at the state Capitol when I was there, including legislators and lobbyists, the subject always turns to “how things are” as compared to “how they used to be.” And the answer from those active and working at the Capitol is always something like this: “Larry, things are not what they used to be.” The implication is that the changes are not good and perhaps the jobs are not as fulfilling or as much fun as they were at an earlier time. Well, of course, it’s not like it used to be, and it won’t be like it is now 15 years from now.

Truth to tell, things at home “are not like it used to be.” For one thing, we are all 15 years older. For some, this could mean you are more mature, thoughtful and able to accomplish more. But, for everyone, you’re 15 years older. You probably don’t sleep as well at night and you tire more easily. Generally, you probably don’t feel quite as good. Most legislators were probably at least 40 when elected (I was 30), and most folks are not quite as energetic at 55 as they were at 40.

Another thing, when I went to Atlanta the state’s budget was less than $2 billion. Today, it’s what? Twenty-four billion or so. And the state’s population has risen dramatically. In 1973 it was probably 5 million people. Today it’s 10 million. More schools, more hospitals, complicated health care questions, transportation requirements that require huge amounts of money. Building airports, ports and just “keepin’ up” with demands is taxing (no pun intended) and complex. I could go on and on, but you get the picture.

When I was sworn in, the first Monday in January 1973, I remember there were only a handful of female and black legislators. Amazing. We were still dealing with the Supreme Court’s decision, Brown vs. Board of Education, 1956, to integrate our schools without delay. Remnants of the old county unit system influenced much of what we did.

Yes, things are different. Let’s just look at who I sat near (I took Sam Nunn’s seat and his chair) on my first day. To my immediate left was Joe Frank Harris from Cartersville. And to his left was “Sloppy” Floyd from Trion. In front of me were Jones Lane and Paul NeSmith from Statesboro. George L. Smith from Swainsboro was the Speaker. He would die in December of my first year and Tom Murphy from Bremen would be elected by the members and serve as Speaker for 28 years. There were only a handful of Republicans in the 180 member Georgia House of Representatives.

Lots of our members had served in World War II. Lots of our members had plowed mules because they had to in order to survive. Lots of our members had lived through the Great Depression. Most of our members were very conservative — yes, socially, but even more so, fiscally.

Most of the House members had deep roots in their counties (most of the House leaders came from rural counties) and the cities (many were really just small towns) that they represented. Many of the members served for a long number of years.

It would be interesting to see how many of the members in 1973 were native Georgians, and how many of those elected in 2015 were native Georgians. Also, what is the average length of service of House members in 2015 compared to those in 1973?

Technology was just a word, part of Georgia Tech’s official name, in 1973. Today, you’ve got to understand all of this technology if you are to do your job. Former House member, Jim Cole, now athletic director at Mercer University, in answering my question of several years ago as to how things had changed since I left in 2004, responded: “It’s the cellphone. The constituent calls and expects you to give an immediate answer to any question that they ask.” Good communications. Bad politics. Perhaps bad government.

Lobbyists. My view: The vast majority of them were good folks then and the vast majority are good folks, today. But, the money is bigger, the consequences more severe, technology prevails and it’s a faster and quicker game. It mirrors the changes in the Legislature.

Some things remain the same. The governor still has a great influence on everything that’s done. The governor sets the revenue estimate, has the veto power and the bully pulpit. Politics still have to be accommodated. Lobbyists want to talk to legislators. Legislators want to talk to lobbyists. Your constituents, in the final analysis, rule. But, having been there from 1973 to 2004, and knowing a little about what goes on today, I’d say with certainty “things have really changed and it’s not like it used to be.”

Larry Walker is a practicing attorney in Perry. He served 32 years in the Georgia General Assembly and presently serves on the University System of Georgia Board of Regents. Email: lwalker@whgmlaw.com.