The new speaker and new taxes

by | November 17, 2004 12:00 am

Bill Shipp

Rep. George T. Smith, D-Cairo, was once asked how many votes he needed to become Georgia House speaker.

“One,” Smith replied. “The governor’s.”

Smith articulated that frank and brief explanation of legislative power more than 40 years ago. Now a private attorney and retired state Supreme Court justice, Smith was the last House speaker handpicked by the governor. Then-Gov. Carl Sanders sent word to the House membership that he wanted Smith to control the speaker’s gavel. In that day, a governor’s request was tantamount to a direct order.

Georgia may have come full circle. The new speaker-designate, Rep. Glenn Richardson, R-Dallas, is Gov. Sonny Perdue’s man. He makes no bones about it. He’s a drum major for Sonny.

After all, as Perdue’s House floor leader, Richardson attempted in 2003 to persuade the then-Democratic-majority House to adopt the governor’s proposed tax increases. Many Republicans were aghast at Perdue’s first major initiative: increasing taxes. They haven’t seen anything yet.

(Tax increases also may dominate the 2005 legislative session. Look for Speaker Richardson and Majority Leader Jerry Keen of St. Simons to lead a Perdue-blessed move to significantly increase the state sales tax and an elimination of most exemptions. The measure would be used to roll back property taxes and resolve inequities in statewide education funding. Presumably, the GOP chieftains would call for a public referendum on increasing the sales tax.)

Last year, Richardson also sought support from the professional education community for the governor’s “education package,” but then declined to answer questions after delivering to educators a lecture on Perdue’s bills.

Before Perdue was elected governor, Richardson gained a measure of celebrity as a lone crusader against sunshine-in-government laws. The Paulding County attorney said open-records laws created too much work for local governments. He even gave local governments advice on how to avoid citizens’ open-records requests.

Some compare Richardson to former House Speaker Tom Murphy. His brusque manner and down-home diction are indeed reminiscent of Murphy in the prime of his career.

But Glenn Richardson is no Tom Murphy, who was fiercely independent and terrorized the floor leaders of four governors with whom he served.

Murphy sometimes represented opinions starkly at odds with the priorities of the executive suite.

The speaker’s stubbornness often held up progressive legislation (he hated seat belts), but it also resulted in scuttling numerous questionable bills (relaxing the transportation-only restriction on gas-tax revenues).

The new speaker has said in effect that he will be Gov. Perdue’s surrogate in the House. The governor will give the orders; the speaker will carry them out.

Dissent is discouraged. As Rep. James Mills, R-Gainesville, told the Republican Caucus last week, “There will be no room for dissenters. Know this and know this well: I’ll work to defeat you if you try to divide this caucus. We need to march together, in lockstep.”

All aboard! The state Capitol Time Machine is now departing. Here we go, back to the 1960s, 1950s and 1940s, back to the era when the speaker was the puppet-king and the Bubba in the governor’s chair was the puppeteer.

The return of gubernatorial power to the House chamber is not the only back-in-time change in store for state government.

Within four years, the General Assembly is expected to be even more solidly in the hands of white Republicans. One observer estimates that by 2008, at least 38 of the 56 state Senate seats will carry GOP labels. That shift means the Senate could pass a constitutional amendment with a mandatory two-thirds vote without a single Democratic supporter.

In the House, more white rural lawmakers are expected to go Republican as African-American and urban white Democrats demand a greater leadership role in their party’s doings.

The Georgia Legislature may soon be dominated by a white, heavily rural Republican Party — not much different from the autocratic wool-hat Democratic Party of old. (Some Republicans are already grumbling that too many “town boys” are running their party’s affairs.)

Just as in bygone days, the ruling party will split along urban/suburban and rural interests. Unlike yesteryear, however, the black-dominated Democratic Party may emerge with enough members to provide the margin of victory in any tight legislative battle.

The first test of the minority’s muscle may come in skirmishes surrounding the hike in the regressive sales tax.

P.S.: As Republicans solidify their base in the Legislature, Democrats have fallen into racial infighting that could further split the party and erode its strength. With 11 black Democrats in the Senate and 38 in the House, members of the Black Caucus are insisting on dominating the new Democratic Caucus. That insistence is likely to result in additional white defections to the Grand Old Party.—

You can reach Bill Shipp at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160 or e-mail: shipp1@bellsouth.net

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