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DOUG HOLT: Legislators pick up the pace due to early primary

Georgia’s 2014 legislative session began smoothly last week, but moved at an accelerated pace. The reason for the faster pace is a change in the elections calendar. Last year, a federal court ruled that Georgia needed to better accommodate overseas and military voters by holding an earlier primary. The concern was that the existing schedule, in which primaries are held in late July, didn’t provide enough time for the return of those votes — especially if a primary runoff was required. Thinking back to my service on the Newton County Board of Elections, I see the reason for the concern. This is a change we need to make.

While the court decision affected only the primary for federal offices, it nonetheless forces a change to the primary for all offices in the state during even-numbered years. Having two separate election schedules would be needlessly confusing to voters, and would also impose significant, unnecessary extra costs on counties and cities. Thus we took the unusual step of passing a bill during the first week of the session. The bill in question was HB 310, which will move the general primary date up to late May, and the qualifying period (the time when you officially sign up to put your name on the ballot) to early March. The House considered the bill on Friday, and it passed by 159 to 1. Mine was not the dissenting vote.

Now, back to the reason for an accelerated legislative session. Moving the primary date up by two months puts a tight squeeze on incumbent legislators. Given the new election schedule, if the session were to end at the more customary beginning to middle part of April, there would be very little time for campaigning, since the late part of the legislative session is usually far too intense to allow much of anything else. This would be quite an unexpected disadvantage, thus there is broad agreement among legislators on the need to move things along.

Of course, as some folks have already pointed out, this begs the question of why the session has been ending in early to mid-April in recent decades. From what I’ve learned, prior to that time an early to mid-March conclusion was the norm. That was possible, in great part, because virtually every day of the week, including weekends, was counted as an “in session” day. Thus the 40 allowable session days, prescribed by the state constitution, could be used up fairly quickly. In those recent decades, however, the state has seen some significant changes. We have roughly twice as many people, with a far greater diversity of interests. Georgia’s economy is also much more developed and complex. This adds many more topics upon which legislation has been passed, along with deeper layers of detail within existing topics (say health care and telecommunications, for example). The state budget has grown commensurately larger and more complex. In other words, this greater complexity created a pressure for an expanded session.

Another change that may have contributed to longer sessions is the fact that the House became a truly independent leg of the state government back in the mid-1960s. Prior to that time, governors had a good deal of control over the House – even naming speakers, committee chairmen and setting the legislative agenda. It’s a lot easier to move things along quickly with that kind of top-down control.

In response to all these changes, our Legislature, rather than changing the state constitution to allow longer sessions, simply spaced things out more, using the “session days” previously burned on the weekend to do business. I think this was a wise approach, because it keeps legislators very focused on getting the job done, rather than allowing the state to gradually slide towards a year-round session, as has happened with the federal government and a number of other states.

Considering all of this, we may find it quite challenging to speed the session up!

State Rep. Doug Holt, R-Social Circle, represents District 112, which is comprised of Morgan and portions of Newton counties. He can be reached at 404-656-0152, or by email at Doug@DougHolt.org.