Today legislators return to the Gold Dome to make decisions in a rare special legislative session. I have reason to be concerned that the pre-announced special session was a strategic Republican back up plan in case Stacey Abrams won the election last Tuesday. Here is why…
In 2016, North Carolina Republicans used the same strategy after a Democrat beat out the incumbent Republican Governor. The majority Republican House and Senate convened a special session immediately after the November 2016 election. The publicly announced purpose of the special session was to pass a disaster-relief bill for the victims of flooding from Hurricane Matthew and victims of wildfires that burned for two weeks in the state. From the moment the outgoing Republican governor announced the special session, the North Carolina Democrats had a hunch that the Republicans were up to something sneaky.
Hurricane Michael hit Georgia on October 11, 2018. The category 3 storm caused severe damage throughout the south west region of the State. October 23rd, twelve days after the storm, Governor Nathan Deal announced he would convene a special session of the Georgia General Assembly on November 13th, seven days after the General Election.
Former Republican State Senator Josh McKoon asked, “If this was truly about desperately needed financial help for a storm that happened Oct. 11 … why didn’t we meet the following week? If it’s not desperately needed, why not wait until Jan. 14.”[i] As odd as it is for me to agree with Josh McKoon, he is right. The timing of the session makes me suspicious as well.
It is possible that Governor Deal was attempting to balance expediency with consideration for the incumbent legislators who were actively campaigning when the hurricane hit. A pre-election special session would take time away from the campaign trail. However, Governor Deal had another far more expeditious and reasonable solution available to him. Georgia law allows a small committee of legislators to act quickly without reconvening the whole legislature to provide funding in emergencies. The AJC reported, “What most legislators know …. is that there is a Fiscal Affairs Committee made up of lawmakers that can move money around in the state’s $26.2 billion budget to cover things such as the cost of emergency cleanups.”
According to Chris Riley, Deal’s Chief of Staff, the Governor was concerned with being “aboveboard” by allowing “every member to vote instead of doing it in Fiscal Affairs where there are not questions.”[ii] I guess it is possible that Deal’s sole motive is fairness and transparency. However, if the North Carolina playbook holds up, then Republican’s need more than a committee. I suspect a special session is needed because major changes in power and authority require a quorum of legislators.
In North Carolina that is exactly what happened in 2016. After the disaster relief funding passed the entire legislative body, the special session was adjourned. At least momentarily. North Carolina Republicans immediately gaveled in a new session with a pre-planned unannounced agenda. The Republicans were prepared with several pieces of legislation that gutted the new Democrat Governor-elect’s powers.
The North Carolina Republicans removed the next Governor’s ability to make appointments to the Board of Education and the university system, drastically reduced the number of appointments a governor could make to less than 1/3 of the previous administrations’ appointments, and required that the governor’s cabinet be approved by the senate. Republicans also boldly changed the make-up of the state’s Ethics Commission, the state’s Board of Elections, and made the state Supreme Court elections partisan. The result was a powerless incoming Democrat Governor.[iii]
The blindside was brutal. Prior to the special session, the North Carolina Democratic Caucus members were suspicious that the outgoing Governor was going to try to pack the North Carolina Supreme Court with his own conservative appointees. The Democrats went in prepared to stop the appointments to the Supreme Court but quickly learned that rumor was just a distraction from the real plan.
Article V, Section II, Paragraph VII of the Georgia Constitution gives the Governor the authority to convene a special session but states that the only laws that can be enacted during the special session are “those which relate to the purposes stated in the proclamation or in any amendment thereto.” In other words, the proclamation convening the special session must list what will be discussed.
In Deal’s proclamation he lists two purposes. Providing emergency funding for Hurricane Michael recovery is the first priority. The second purpose, however, reignites a hotly contested issue from the previous regular legislative session. We all remember when Lt. Governor Casey Cagle killed all chances of Amazon opening their second headquarters in Georgia. Cagle announced he would block the vote for Delta’s jet fuel tax matter because Delta announced they would cancel an NRA discount program after the Parkland High School massacre. When Deal could not get a vote on the Delta deal he waited until after session concluded to issue Executive Order 07.30.18.01 which gave Delta the a tax deal without any legislative input.
I guess it is possible that Governor Deal is calling this special session to allow members of the House and Senate to have input on the hurricane relief. However, I am suspicious that the budget amendment is a convenient reason to convene a special session and Delta issue is simply a distraction to keep the Democrats busy and the media steeped in rumors.
Unfortunately, the Georgia Constitution also has a provision that will allow last minute changes to the special session agenda. The Governor can amend his proclamation any time before the session opens at 8:00am. However, yesterday a federal judge ruled that the Georgia Secretary of State, Robyn Crittenden, could not certify the election before next Tuesday, November 20th. That makes a last minute change this morning less likely. However there is a second option. Three-fifths of the members of each house can approve an amendment to the special session agenda. That means after the Georgia legislature addresses the disaster relief efforts and Delta’s fuel taxes, they can then move on to other strategic power grabs just like their neighbor to the north.
Watch out. Although the election timeline is all over the place, if the Republican legislators begin to stretch out the original five days announced for the special session they may be up to something. If my wild, yet totally plausible, conspiracy theory is correct, the Republicans can hold off to just long enough to keep their backup plan in play in case Abrams wins the Governor’s Mansion. If they are successful, the only option for Democrats is more court intervention under the Georgia Emergency Management Act.[iv]
In this heated political climate, I hate to perpetuate the partisan divide by automatically assuming the Republicans are up to dirty tricks. It is completely possible the special session has absolutely nothing to do with Abrams and the Governor’s race. I will be a very happy progressive if Republican’s prove me wrong. However, I am a strong believer in the quote, “when people show you who they are believe them.”
The last time Deal called a special session was in 2011. During that session the Republican majority redrew district lines for the State House, the State Senate and the Georgia Congressional maps. Deal said at that time the true motive was simply to apply the recently obtained census data. Innocent enough right? However, the outcome of that special session was a major advantage for Republicans as they went into the next election and legislative session.
Fool me once ….
[iv] § 38-3-5. The director of emergency management or any person, corporation, firm, or association, in addition to the remedies set forth in Articles 1 through 3 of this chapter, may obtain from a court of competent jurisdiction an injunction to restrain violation of the provisions of Articles 1 through 3 of this chapter. The grant of an injunction is authorized notwithstanding the availability of adequate remedies at law. GA. Code 38-3-5 Injunctions to restrain violations of chapter