GOP rule seems headed back to Reconstruction days — Athens (GA) Banner-Herald, 1/26/05

By Bill Shipp

Why was the GOP unable to regain control of Georgia government for 134 years?

Part of the answer: It took more than a century for Georgians to forget what Republicans did the last time they were in charge. Public corruption was rampant in the Capitol halls. Crooked carpetbaggers and ruthless scalawags, all driven by greed, ran amok, converting public property to private treasure troves and obligating the state government to long-term debts that it could never satisfy.

Generations of Georgians related to their children the horror stories of Republican-wrought Reconstruction. As older Georgians died out and new residents moved in, the bad old days of Reconstruction were finally forgotten. Hardly anyone recalls why the state wallowed in poverty and on the edge of financial ruin for so long after the Civil War. Today, wearing a Republican badge is an honor for some. Many of our forebears would have thrown up.

Alas, let's be fair. The currently ruling GOP tells us that we are in a new era. This is not the Republican Party of Abe Lincoln and Thaddeus Stephens; it is the one of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan - so they say.

Republicans want us to know that they ended their century-plus hiatus in Georgia in order to restore faith in representative democracy, to give the people more voice in government.

Really? Check this out, and you may wonder whether Georgia is on the cusp of reconstruction II:
  • The current Republican administration convened a special "New Georgia Commission" with the stated mission of "returning public trust in government (to) ensure that in all business matters, strict codes of conduct and ethics are enforced." Sounds great, right? However, the New Georgia Commission met in secret and out of compliance with the state's open meetings and open records statutes. That may have been a tip-off to coming events.

  • Among the ideas growing out of the New Georgia Commission: wider use of eminent domain (the state's authority to seize private property for the perceived public good). The New Georgia's eminent domain dream came to life in a prefiled legislative measure, Senate Bill 5, which allows the state to seize private property and turn it over to private developers. A similar concept used by a few other states is now being tested in the U.S. Supreme Court. Under provisions of SB 5, state or local governments could grab your house or business; transfer it to a private developer and, Voila! It would become an office tower or parking garage leased back to the state of Georgia. Or Senate Bill 5 could be used to turn a public highway (Georgia Highway 400, for instance) over to private interests for conversion into a for-profit tollway.

  • Pushed by state Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, an architect turned developer, SB 5 does more than allow the state to become the real estate agent for private corporations. The measure would allow the state, or any Georgia county or city, to lease to private companies its public school buildings, airports, water and sewer systems, roads, etc. It would exclude negotiations for all such deals from the Open Records Act. It would abolish requirements for public
    bidding. The "lowest bidder wins" concept also goes out the window.

  • It gets worse. This bill, under consideration in Sen. Jeff Mullis' (R-Chickamauga) Economic Development Committee, provides few restrictions for state leases or long-term debt involving private parties. Leases, now generally granted on a one-year basis, would become open-ended and bind governments for long periods of time. No referenda are required to ratify any deal.

The Savannah Morning News concluded: "This bill is so far removed from responsible, conservative government that it makes one wonder if a project is already in the works but needs eminent domain to succeed. It's odd to see Mr. Johnson take the lead on a measure that would allow such government intrusion Š Trumping private property rights with the plans of private developers is a terrible idea." (Sen. Johnson responded: "The New Georgia Infrastructure Act (SB 5) proposes a sensible way to meet the needs of the citizens of Georgia in coming years without having to implement tax increases at the state and local levels. It would encourage the use of future anticipated fees and revenue to leverage construction costs by private companies today.")

After reviewing Senate Bill 5, a noted authority on eminent domain gave us this unbiased and scholarly analysis: "This is the worst piece of legislation I have ever seen in my life - 50-year leases with financing deals using state property - all shielded from public scrutiny. Huey Long in his heyday would not have gone this far."

In another time, we would have dismissed the absurdity of SB 5 with a mild rebuke for wasting the legislature's time. Not now. This measure springs from the leadership of the Georgia General Assembly - leaders who have already adopted rules to silence debate, quash dissent, eliminate amendments, operate in secrecy and grease the tracks for their desired legislation.

At his inauguration last week, President Bush promised to battle tyranny wherever it reared its ugly head. He wasn't very specific. But he could have been talking about the administration of New Georgia right in his own backyard.

Athens Banner-Herald: http://onlineathens.com

Bill Shipp is editor of Bill Shipp's Georgia, a weekly newsletter on government and business: Box 440755, Kennesaw GA 30160
email bshipp@bellsouth.net

Brought to the attention of Eminent Domain Watch by
Reed A. Cartwright: De Rerum Natura