The day after: Fallout from votes on transportation, school rescue measures

State Rep. Sam Teasley, left, and House Speaker David Ralston engage in an intense conversation during the debate over H.B. 170, the transportation funding bill. Ben Gray, bgray@ajc.com

State Rep. Sam Teasley, left, and House Speaker David Ralston engage in an intense conversation during the debate over H.B. 170, the transportation funding bill. Teasley would later vote against the measure. Ben Gray, bgray@ajc.com

There were rumors of a brewing floor revolt. Threats of an coming primary challenges. Predictions of an embarrassing rejection of GOP leaders by their own rank-and-file.

In the end, though, the votes on transportation and education Thursday served as a testament to the influence of Gov. Nathan Deal and House Speaker David Ralston. And a reminder of why both want to get their initiatives pushed through this year, while they still have political capital to burn.

Your daily jolt on politics from the AJC's Political insider blogLet’s start with Gov. Nathan Deal’s school-rescue proposal, which he and his aides pushed through by the skin of their teeth after an intense lobbying effort. It passed with precisely the 38 votes it needed, relying on the 37 Republicans and sole Democrat – Freddie Powell Sims – who co-sponsored the proposal.

Up until the vote, there were rumors of wavering Republicans. Chuck Hufstetler, who eventually voted for it, and Mike Crane, who eventually voted against it, were among the GOPers said to be in play.

The arm-twisting on the Democratic side was even more heated. Donzella James, long a target of Deal’s aides, was buttonholed by Steve Henson, the chamber’s top Democrat, moments before the ballot. She ultimately exempted herself from the vote, under duress from both sides.

Not so for Powell Sims, a former middle school principal who was long the top target of Republicans. She stuck with the GOP despite private and public pressure from her fellow partisans. Shortly after the vote, Minority Whip Vincent Fort took to the well to castigate the defector – without saying her name – who would “sell out constituents for 30 pieces of silver.”

We’re told that a $19 million appropriation for an Albany State University was used as both carrot and stick for Powell Sims.

If you didn’t think Deal has staked his second term on the legislation, this may convince you otherwise:

Now to the transportation vote, which was equally dramatic with a flurry of last-minute changes and near-miss amendments.

Some House leaders, including sponsor Jay Roberts, believed they had more than enough votes with the proposal as written, even if it meant a divided caucus. Others wanted deeper cuts to earn more GOP support.

Our AJC colleague Aaron Gould Sheinin lays out the dynamic:

Majority Leader Larry O’Neal, R-Bonaire, proposed an amendment of 24 cents. For O’Neal, it had to be a difficult move. He and Roberts are more than friends. They’re roommates during the legislative session. But O’Neal’s job as majority leader is also to protect his members.

O’Neal was greatly concerned that passing a bill with the tax set at 29.2 cents per gallon would be labeled a tax increase by some and that perhaps as many as 10 Republican House members could lose their seats to a primary challenge from the right, according to several people with direct knowledge of the deliberations who were not authorized to speak on the record.

Sheinin also notes this:

Of the 13 deputy whips in the majority caucus — those members who are tasked by leadership to keep their fellow Republicans in line — six voted against the bill, as did Majority Whip Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City.

In the end, Democrats and many Republicans turned on O’Neal’s pitch. And when the full bill came to a vote, the GOP’s center held and most Democrats backed them up. Tellingly, as Sheinin points out, all of Deal’s floor leaders also voted for the bill.

As one veteran statehouse observer noted after the vote, it was one of Ralston’s biggest victories since winning the gavel.

“Shows who runs this place: The Speaker.”

***

Thursday’s transportation vote could have implications elsewhere. Above you’ll see a photo of an intense conversation between state Rep. Sam Teasley, R-Marietta, and House Speaker David Ralston, during the debate over H.B. 170. In the end, Teasley stalked away, visibly angry.

Teasley was one of 43 Republicans who voted “no” on the transportation funding bill. He is also the author of H.B. 218, a “religious liberty” bill that has languished in the House Judiciary Committee.

We contacted Teasley last night, but he declined to say what he and Ralston were discussing.

***

One thing to watch when the Legislature returns next week is which Senate committee becomes home for H.B. 170. Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and has publicly cogitated on the measure. But we’re hearing talk that it could be assigned to the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Judson Hill, R-Marietta.

***

The U.S. Supreme Court has set April 28 for arguments over the constitutionality of state bans against gay marriage. Amicus briefs are already flowing in. From Time magazine:

More than 300 veteran Republican lawmakers, operatives and consultants have filed a friend of the court brief at the Supreme Court in support of same-sex marriage late Thursday.

The amicus brief, organized by former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, was filed for the four same-sex marriage cases the Court will hear on April 28 that could legalize the unions nationwide.

The most surprising participant in the effort is billionaire GOP mega-donor David Koch. But two Georgia names also make an appearance: Jamie Ensley, the new national chairman of the Log Cabin Republicans, and Jay Morgan, the longtime GOP activist and former executive director of the Georgia Republican party.

Also, there’s this, from our AJC colleague Leon Stafford:

A handful of Georgia businesses signed on Thursday a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of gay marriage.

Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines and Cox Enterprises were among 379 companies and organizations around the country urging the court to strike down bans restricting same-sex unions. AT&T, whose mobility unit is based in Atlanta, also signed the brief.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is owned by Cox Enterprises.

***

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, has paid his wife more than $73,000 out of his campaign over the years. Here is Doug Richards from 11Alive:

More than $70,000 in campaign money has gone from Congressman Hank Johnson’s campaign into the pocket of the congressman’s wife, Mereda Davis Johnson. Rep. Johnson says his wife has earned every penny.

Democrat Hank Johnson was first elected to Congress following a memorable primary runoff in 2006 over the fiery incumbent Cynthia McKinney. Two years later, Rep. Johnson put his wife Mereda on the campaign payroll– even though Johnson was the only congressman in the state to run for re-election with no ballot opposition. Federal election records show Johnson’s campaign paid Mereda Davis Johnson $8250 in 2006. Mrs. Johnson has remained a presence on the payroll ever since.

“She kind of acts like a quarterback. A lot of people ordinarily just pick up the phone and call her,” Johnson said in an interview with 11Alive News. “I think anybody who deals with me knows that Mareda is intimately involved in every aspect of what I do.”

***

The Obama administration’s proposal to seek offshore drilling possibilities off the Georgia coast is a long way from coming to fruition, and environmental groups will do their best to stymie it at every turn.

Here’s a new letter to President Barack Obama from 75 prominent marine scientists spanning the globe, from the University of North Carolina to Flinders University in South Australia, objecting to the seismic testing used to find out where the oil is. From a news release:

Because whales depend on sound waves to communicate, feed, mate and travel, the blasting can disrupt the reproduction and feeding of the great whale species “over vast ocean areas,” the letter says. “The impact of overwhelming seismic blasting on North Atlantic right whales is of particular concern,” stated Dr. Scott Kraus, Vice President of Research at Boston’s New England Aquarium.  “There are only 500 of these critically endangered whales. Their winter calving waters and migration corridor abuts the entire proposed exploration area.  These sounds are likely to displace whales from critical habitats, disrupt mother and calf communication, and increases stress levels in whales, which can lead to chronic health problems for this species that is already highly vulnerable.”

The blasts also “could have potentially massive impacts on fish populations,” according to the letter. In some countries seismic testing has driven away commercial species, resulting in huge drops in catch rates. Studies also show the airguns could kill fish eggs and larvae, interfere with breeding and make some species more vulnerable to predators.

The Department of the Interior will hold a public hearing on the drilling plan in Savannah this month.

***

In related news, WABE-FM 90.1 has word of a possible oil pipeline running along the coast:

A new fuel pipeline could be coming to the Georgia coast. The pipeline, proposed by the energy company Kinder Morgan, would travel from South Carolina along the Savannah River to the coast, then down to Jacksonville, Florida.

Right now, those areas get fuel from trucks. The project, called the Palmetto Pipeline, would connect to the Plantation Pipeline, which carries fuel from refineries on the Gulf Coast up the Eastern Seaboard.

***

Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, leads a congressional delegation today to civil rights landmarks in Alabama, including Saturday’s trip to Selma for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. There will be nearly 100 members with him, but no one from Republican leadership. Politico reports:

“Not only do they have an opportunity to participate in something that is historic in this country, but certainly they’ve lost an opportunity to show the American people that they care,” [Former CBC Chair Marsha Fudge, D-Ohio] said. “Their loss.”

Black leaders in Congress pressured [House GOP whip Steve] Scalise to attend the Faith and Politics Institute event after news reports revealed that the Louisiana Republican gave a speech to a group connected with Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke when Scalise was still serving in the state Legislature. Scalise said late last month that a scheduling conflict would keep him from Selma this year but that he hoped to attend in 2016.

McCarthy has attended in the past but won’t make the trip this year. Senate Majority Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will also miss the event.


View Comments 0