Why don’t I start by confirming something you always suspected? A state legislator’s job is one that you can turn into almost as little or as much work as you want! Maybe you already knew this secret: unlike the Congress up in D.C., the Georgia Legislature has always been a “part time” venture. We’re in session about three months of the year. Doesn’t that sound easy? The idea was to allow the members, who were mostly farmers in the beginning, to finish their business in Atlanta and return home in time for growing season. Washington used to work that way too — the wisdom of that change makes a great debate!
But hold on a sec, “part time” legislators don’t just head for the beach when they adjourn. First off, the job only pays about a tenth of what the federal folks get. You’d better have another source of income! And constituents don’t know whether you’re “in session” or not — they need help with problems year-round. Sometimes these are callers who confuse federal and state issues: I can’t count how many times I’ve received a tongue lashing about the federal debt ceiling, Obamacare, etc.! I’ll tell you more about constituent calls in another column.
So how much is this “in session” workload? Like I said, you get to choose. On the low end of the scale, showing up for House floor sessions, and at least a smattering of committee meetings, will be the minimum. You can vote with your party leadership on everything to keep your decision-making simple, but you need to cast lots of votes to make it look like you’re busy! Those votes on the House floor are recorded electronically, and it doesn’t take much effort for an opponent digging on the legislative website to see if you are nose-to-the-grindstone present, or slacking off. I don’t think many folks, if any, actually do this little, but I’ve had occasional pause to wonder.
On the other hand, do you like work, or maybe are compulsive? Then there is plenty to keep you busy. To start with, your time on the House floor and in committee involves all those pesky bills and resolutions (I’ll just refer to bills from this point on, but I mean both). If you don’t simply toe the party line, you’ve got to decide how you’re going to vote on each one. Looking at them, you can start by considering whether you like and/or trust the author (and the two don’t always go together). But if you are even remotely conscientious, that won’t do. Reading the bill seems like an obvious next step, though you quickly find (at least, if you’re not an attorney) that the precise wording necessary for lawmaking can be tortuous, frequently roundabout and often mind-numbing. Many times, reading a bill only creates more questions. You quickly realize that the ability to read bills with even relatively full comprehension is, shall we say, an acquired skill.
Nonetheless, having read a bill, you are at least in the ballpark of understanding what it proposes. Is this enough to make a decision? Not always! You may still have serious questions, or the pros and cons of the bill might weigh evenly on your personal scales. Now it’s time to try another angle. Talk to supporters and opponents of the bill. The Capitol is usually swarming with folks pursuing or protecting various interests, be they private citizens, membership organizations, trade groups, individual businesses or full-blown lobbyists. Is the bill contentious? If so, great! You won’t even have to make an effort to get in touch with supporters or opponents – they are coming to you. And there is nothing like people having an interest in an issue to sharpen their ability to either highlight the swell things a bill is supposed to accomplish, or to redline awful things it will do, be they unintended consequences, damage to certain groups or promotion of a hidden, nefarious agenda. A few conversations will net you lots of insights, analysis and dirt. It’s still up to you to weigh all this stuff, but now you know the real pluses and minuses, as well as whether you’ve got a pillow or a knife fight on your hands.
Want more insights, and maybe some fun? Then join a study group. These are informal, like-minded bands of legislators who meet regularly to discuss bills, benefiting from each other’s insights, committee experiences and wit. I’ve known a number of folks who were quite skilled at mirthful bill assassination, to include one gentleman who perfected a high comedy rant, reserved for bills that merited his complete scorn!
So, now you have a toolkit for deciding on bills. Time to do some math. Multiply the use of at least a portion of this kit against the 300 to 500 bills you will need to play Solomon with in the course of a legislative session (that’s a lot of babies to split!). This is your baseline legislative workout. But don’t worry, there’s more to keep you on your feet. Next week, we’ll prepare you to carry your own legislation.
Doug Holt is a Republican representing state House District 112, which includes Morgan and a portion of Newton counties. he is not seeking re-election.