Legislative Roundup of 1979 Georgia General Assembly
By John Taylor
Vol. 1, No. 9, 1979, pp. 18-20
The 1979 session of the Georgia General Assembly produced the largest increase in welfare benefits and the first public use of racial epithets in recent memory. As an anomaly, the Georgia legislature did not stop there.
A $113 million surplus was replaced by the end of the session with cries of tight money. Local school boards were handed $78 million of the surplus, ostensibly for tax relief. At the same time, the state’s revenue estimate was humped $25 million higher to meet the salary demands of Georgia teachers, university professors and state employees.
The lawmakers handed a $64 million chunk of the state’s general fund in perpetuity to the highway department by assigning it the sales tax on motor fuels.
But they reversed the human resources department’s effort to pay benefits to eligible welfare recipients retroactive to the date they applied, rather than the date their eligibility was determined. The cost of that program: $880,000.
Stricter reporting requirements for lobbyists ere rejected, but higher interest rates on loans were approved.
Old laws were revised to make women the legal equal of men in matters of child support and alimony, but the Equal Rights Amendment stayed in committee and the law that makes the man the head of the household in Georgia was retained.
Four-fifths of the public information program in the Department of Natural Resources was lopped off, including the popular but expensive Outdoors in Georgia magazine. But the Agriculture department’s equally popular Market Bulletin, distributed free, was kept and efforts to charge $1 a year for subscriptions were rejected.
It was the longest session in recent memory, as legislators postponed time and again continuation of the 40-day ordeal in order to consider the state budget. The postponements were necessary because the House had pigeonholed the budget, trying to force favorable Senate consideration of the House version of tax relief. The postponements also required an increase in the legislature’s budget.
House Speaker Tom Murphy said later he regretted holding up the process thusly, and that he would not do it again. He also was quoted as saying that the lengthy session was neither the worst, nor the best session he had seen.
Consensus found it, if not the worst, at least one of the worst sessions anyone could recall. If nothing else, as one columnist pointed out, it was a public relations disaster.
If there were bright spots, they were in education. Teachers, under the tutelage of the Georgia Association of Educators (GAE), successfully lobbied for 9 1/2 percent pay raises. The raises were granted in two steps to comply with the voluntary federal wage guidelines, but nobody was fooled.
Everyone agreed that the raises were an economic necessity; Georgia teachers are among the nation’s lowest paid, and the educational achievements of Georgia school children reflect that. But it was the lobbying power of the GAL that made the raises a political necessity as well.
Gov. George Busbee, capitulating on the raises, was left with a reduced pupil-teacher ratio in only the first and second grades. The governor had wanted to put enough new teachers in the first three grades to lower the ratio of pupils to teachers from 25-to-one to 20-to-one.
And the governor managed to complete his statewide expansion of the kindergarten program. In two previous years, Busbee had won funding for kindergartens for a fourth, then half of Georgia five-year-olds. The 1979 General Assembly approved the governor’s request for funds to make kindergartens available to all the state’s 72,000 kindergarten age youngsters.
The new funds for education meant a state budget increase for the Department of Education of between 10 and 11 percent. The only state agencies with bigger increases were Medical Assistance and Offender Rehabilitation.
Medical Assistance, which saw its budget jump by about 15 percent in state funds alone, administers Medicaid, the state-federal program of health care for the poor. Its budget reflects the skyrocketing costs of health care in this country.
The Department of Offender Rehabilitation’s problems – and need for funds – has been in the headlines in the form of riots and deaths at Reidsville’s Georgia State Prison, where prisoners were segregated by federal court order. Offender Rehab’s 11 percent increase shows the state’s need to build more prisons to reduce overcrowding at Reidsville.
The loser among the biggest state departments was Human Resources, whose programs serve the people the legislature likes the least – poor, and Black.
Despite the legislature’s approval of increases in welfare benefits totaling $22 a month for a family of four (from $148 to $170), the increase was half what the department requested. Welfare advocates wanted even more.
The increase brought benefits to welfare families up to 75 percent of the so-called “standard of need,” a minimum cost-of-living figure that was established in 1971 and has not been updated since.
For a fifth year in a row, lawmakers refused any substantial funding for the Uniform Alcoholism Treatment Act, which decriminalizes public drunkenness and requires treatment instead of the drunk tank.
The state’s network of community mental health centers, established when Jimmy Carter was governor, slipped further toward oblivion as declining federal funds were not replaced with state dollars.
DHR’s funding from the legislature for FY80 ended up some $2 million less than in FY79.
The Department of Natural Resources barely broke even, with a slight budget increase that still left the need to charge fees at some state parks.
The Department of Agriculture used public sentiment to hang on to the Market Bulletinbut still wound up with five percent fewer dollars than last year. Also cut were the Departments of Public Safety and Administrative Services.
Departmental budget infighting was only a sideshow to the remainder of the legislative session. The squabbling started with Busbee’s campaign pledge to devote $75 million of the surplus to some kind of tax relief. Having thus heated the potato, Busbee promptly tossed it to a commission he had appointed to come up with a revision of state tax laws. The Tax Reform Commission was no more imaginative than the governor: unable to decide how to give away $75 million and unable to get on with tax revision, the commission punted the hot spud to the General Assembly. There, the question was how to get the money to property tax payers without most of it going to utilities and large landowners.
When the only legal answer seemed to be distribution to local school systems, many of them viewed the measure as a windfall to ease their own budget pangs. Wording designed to see that the money was passed along to relieve local property taxpayers was shrugged off or compromised in many school districts, which had money problems of their own.
As if tax relief hadn’t created enough indecision, the Georgia Supreme Court added to the confusion in midsession by throwing out the state’s local option sales tax law. Wily rural lawmakers saw that as an opportunity to add a penny to Georgia’s 3-cent sales tax and to use the new income for what else but property tax relief.
Urban lawmakers were successful in blocking this proposal, which would benefit small counties (and large property owners) at the expense of counties with large populations, big shopping centers, and poor people paying the sales tax.
In the end, the local option sales tax was repaired, apparently to the Supreme Court’s satisfaction.
On another sales tax front, fares on MARTA – the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority will continue to be subsidized by a one-cent sales tax that the legislature extended until 1997.
The lawmakers shied away from any substantive ethics legislation, refusing to require that lobbyists reveal how much they spend in attempting to influence legislation. In fact, the General Assembly passed a law permitting utilities to form political action committees (PAC’s). The governor, however, vetoed the bill, which would have given utilities the legal vehicle to support candidates for office.
Legislators did pass a measure requiring disclosure of who puts up the money to push constitutional amend
ments. Some of the money for teacher and state employees undoubtedly came from the Georgia Criminal Justice Defense Council, where Busbee wanted to put $1 million in defense funds for people unable to afford lawyers. The $1 million request was shaved to $250,000.
Reacting to inflationary pressure, the Assembly approved a floating ceiling on mortgage rates hovering in the 11 percent range. A plan to permit savings and loan institutions to pay higher interest on small savings accounts also was approved.
Health Maintenance Organizations, pre-paid health plans that are touted as reducing the costs of medical care, were approved for Georgia, although federal legislation already allowed them.
Public initiative legislation, the same thing that spawned Propositoin 13 in California, was submitted but failed. Requirements for getting a measure on the ballot were so stiff they probably would never have been used, anyway. A restrictive but uniform system for the recall of public officials passed.
Legislators declined – again to act on the Equal Rights Amendment or on a state holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Confederate Memorial Day and Jefferson Davis’ birthday were retained as state holidays, however.
In a session that was short on time and long on spending, the General Assembly managed to entertain the usual run of dignitaries and entertainers. President Jimmy Carter returned to his home state for the unveiling of a portrait of himself; Sen. Herman Talmadge signaled his return from alcoholism with a visit to the legislative chambers. Actress Marlo Thomas came to support the ERA, and singer Ray Charles performed his version of “Georgia On My Mind,” the new state song.
But in the end, the entertainment didn’t take enough attention away from the delays and infighting to prevent the flare-ups and bitterness of the session’s last days.
One rural senator had his legislation blocked by Jewish members of a House committee when he explained it as an effort to “keep those Jews on the West coast from taking our money.”
That seemed to be the signal for submerged and muted feelings to slip into public expression.
On the session’s last day, Rep. Henry Bostick of Tifton quoted “friends” as warning him against voting for “nigger bills.” The term, and others derogatory to Blacks, Jews and women, among others, are not uncommon in the private conversations of some legislators. Rarely, however, are they used in public, and Speaker Tom Murphy declared the comment out of order.
Despite Bostick’s protests that he was using the term as a quote, Black members of the House demanded an apology. Bostick refused, saying he was only repeating what a constituent had told him. Civil rights activist Joe Boone was ejected from the House gallery for loudly demanding action against Bostick. Black caucus members said they might ask that Bostick be censured at the 1980 session.
It was in this vein that embarrassed lawmakers dropped the curtain on the 1979 Georgia General Assembly.
John Taylor is an Atlanta freelance writer.