The Atlanta Objective: Capitol Punishment

Today is the last legislative day of the year at Georgia's capitol. Beware.

"No man's life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session." — Gideon John Tucker (1826-1899).

Georgia’s part-time legislature makes laws for 40 days a year and pretends not to work most of the other 325 days. Sine die is Latin for “without another day.” Today is the big day, the last day any legislation can pass this year. If a bill doesn’t get a vote today, it dies.

So, today, all the sneaky evil stuff slithers into bills here and there. Legislation changes in back rooms, then chairwombats give it a quick hearing with 15 minutes of notice. The text of changes has to be beaten out of aides with crowbars smuggled in through second story windows. And if you are not physically present at the capitol, you have no real chance of learning what’s going on.

Weeks after the session is done, someone will discover that noodling for catfish has become required high school instruction or that pet stores are required to sell iguana food to maintain their business licenses, and we’ll all be scratching our heads trying to figure out which state rep has a stake in an iguana farm in Valdosta and belongs to a catfishing cult.

People wear fancy clothes because they want to look good on TV. This is the one day of the year when news stations are certain to be around. Activists text their legislators from the gallery as the evening wears on, letting them know who snuck what into which bill, when not flinging steaming poisonous bodily fluids down from the cheap seats into their hair and food.

It’s a riot.

No. Not that kind.

There are two bills on my mind today. House Bill 289 used to be about Class C driver’s licenses. It is now an anti-Black Lives Matter bill, stemming from the summer protests. The bill basically allows business owners to hold municipalities liable for damage caused by protesters. If a city doesn’t crack skulls in the street — all civil liberties questions aside — a shop owner with a broken window could then sue the city for damages.

Under the proposed law, if you’re with six or more people during a protest and one of them smashes a window, you’re guilty of that crime, too. It raises all the criminal penalties associated with street protest. It bars anyone convicted under its provisions from ever working for the state of Georgia again. And more. It’s up for a vote today.

The second is House Bill 286, which is an anti-”Defund the Police” bill. And it’s equally obnoxious. The proposed law would prohibit cities and counties from reducing their police budgets by more than 5 percent over a five-year period.

Almost everyone is howling about this idiocy right now, from Atlanta city hall to the smallest towns in north Georgia. Crime is spiking right now, but the increase may not last through the pandemic. If a city raises its police budget now to combat the problem, it might be forced to overspend for five years afterward. How will city councilpeople and county commissioners manage this problem? They will never increase their police budgets again. If you were looking for a strategy to defund the police over time, then this law might do it. I sense that’s not the intent.

In all the noise about the election law changed last week, stuff like this flies under the radar. I’ll be down there until midnight, when they throw the paper on their desks into the air as confetti and we look for the bits of the Constitution left on the floor.