Substance Over Fluff

March 20, 2008

No one can deny that Senator Barack Obama is blessed with the gift of oratory. His speeches are engaging and often inspiring. However, many people, including me, are absolutely astounding that Obama can move crowds of supporters and skeptics alike with a message of change… without really saying anything about the change he intends to implement. No real specifics or concrete plan… just rhetoric.

Yet most folks would nod their heads in agreement about one of his claims: the partisan fighting in Washington, DC, yields little in the way of results and merits nothing but immediate change. I agree.

What would Congress be like if Republicans and Democrats chose to be concerned with their constituents rather than their own incumbency, ego, or campaign war chest? What if the party in the majority allowed, with regularity, the party in the minority to bring decent and significant legislation to the floor for debate or even to chair committees that shape bills before the whole body considers them? What if every member of the legislature had an equal say in where and how tax dollars were spent?

Cynics among us would contend such scenarios are dreams and should be relegated to the world of fantasy. But I’m proud to report that in the Georgia State Senate, these are no longer hypothetical “what ifs,” rather the daily reality of our chamber. Since the day that Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle took office, the Senate has changed… and for the better.

Cagle made it immediately and abundantly clear that the chamber would operate with decorum and the utmost respect for each and every senator. He believed, as do I, that no senator is more important than another because we all represent about 160,000 Georgians who depend on us to speak and to vote on their behalf. Two Democrats received committee chairmanships. No district was penalized in the budgeting process because of the party affiliation of its senator. Every member was (and still is) accorded the highest respect by the presiding officer, staff, and fellow members.

Instead of ostracizing the minority party, Cagle embraced them and allowed its members some of his significant legislation to be shepherded through the General Assembly. As the ultimate testament to the cordiality in the body, many, if not most, bills pass the Senate with 85% support… or higher.

To list the pieces of noteworthy legislation that the Senate passed in the last two sessions would require a number of separate articles. However, a few examples should be mentioned:
• program budgeting – we now make sure that the expenditure of tax dollars is managed to ensure the desired results
• mother’s right to know and ultrasound bill – this single bill will have the effect of limiting abortions by approximately 40%
• tort reform – we can now limit the number of frivolous law suits in Georgia that result in jackpot justice
• stronger laws against child molesters and predators
• allowing the Bible to be taught in our public schools as an elective
• Created the Georgia Virtual high School that gives students all over Georgia access to college prep and advanced learning programs via the internet.
• Saved HOPE Scholarship program from going broke and ensured funds were properly used.
• Require school systems to spend at least 65% of all tax dollars for instruction inside the classroom door and not on the bureaucracy outside the classroom door.
• Created scholarships for children with special needs that can be used at any public or private school that meets the child’s unique needs.
• Provide prosecutors with the same number of jury strikes as the criminal defense attorneys to strengthen the rights of victims over criminals.
• Adopted the Child Care Tax Credit Act. This will return approximately $50 million to working parents to assist with the cost of providing childcare.
• Funded $67,300,000 (not counting 2009) for land conservation grants to purchase threatened parcels of lands and buy development rights from landowners.
• Allowed tax credits for land owners who give up development rights and establish easements to conserve land in its natural state.
• $1.7 Billion in Homeowner Tax Relieve Grants to lower property taxes since 2005.
• Eliminated the state income tax for Georgians 65 and older who earn up to $75,000 for a couple.
• Ended smoking in public spaces and restaurants.
• stronger, more forceful eminent domain laws to protect the rights of property owners
• an ethics law with teeth to root out corruption in government
• a comprehensive water plan to protect one of our most valuable natural resources
• stout immigration reform

Pending this Session
• a property tax freeze for 2008
• Encourage more charter schools by allowing an easier process for them to be created
• Provide scholarships for children in chronically failing schools
• Eliminate the state’s property tax ($94 million).

And that’s a small sampling. The list could stretch several more pages… but I think you get the picture.

Sure, a legislative body needs structure. There will be a majority and there will be a minority party. No one questions that. And no one will argue that everyone should agree on all issues. Debate, discussion, and compromise are essential ingredients to make our government work.

However, when that structure and division are tinted with retributive and often petty politics, then the fabric of our republican – with a lowercase “r” – form of government tatters. But when the two work together, the amount of good that can be accomplished is virtually limitless.

I am thankful that I serve in such a body that does work together, and I hope and pray that other similar bodies, including our Congress, would take note and learn.