Stunning last-minute changes — some accidental, some downright devious — are common when the clock winds down to midnight the last day. By law, state lawmakers meet for just 40 working days. Any bill that does not pass by midnight of the final day automatically fails for the year. It creates a mad scramble on the final day that is ripe for mistakes and manipulation.
In 2012, a small committee turned an innocuous hunting and fishing bill into an attack on disclosure requirements at the state's ethics watchdog agency. It sailed through the Senate before House lawmakers realized what happened and voted it down. Last year, a last-minute version of a bill setting spending limits for lobbyists likely created major loopholes for attorneys and the state's university system, a major spender.
"It winds up producing bad public policy," said state Sen. Joshua McKoon, R-Columbus. "And I think the best way to solve that is to introduce some sunshine into the equation."
McKoon said he is considering two methods for changing the rules. He could introduce a resolution to formally change the Senate's standing rules. Right now, those rules require that Senate lawmakers get at least one hour on the final day to review conference committee legislation before voting. Conference committees negotiate compromises when House lawmakers adopt one version of a bill and the Senate adopts another. Another possibility would be introducing an amendment to revise the state's constitution. Either step would require a two-thirds vote.
Lawmakers could still skirt the proposed Senate rule. For example, the Senate can vote to suspend its own rules, though it requires at least a brief debate and a public vote. McKoon said he believed the threat of bad publicity would deter lawmakers from dumbing down such a rule.
"You've got an opportunity where people are going to be up on that board for or against transparent government," McKoon said, referring to a large board that tracks each senator's vote. "I think you'd only see that in very extraordinary cases."
It remains unclear whether the proposal will find much support from Republican leaders. The Senate Rules Committee recently rejected McKoon's proposal to post notice of all conference committee meetings before they happen and record them.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who presides over the Senate, declined through a spokesman to say whether he supported the idea. House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said he not yet considered the plan. Though in the minority, Senate Democrats are open to it.
Sen. Steve Henson, D-Tucker, said he sat on a conference committee years ago that backed a change with the unintentional effect of banning nurses from giving shots. He said it was later fixed.
"No one knew they had done it until the bill passed and became law," Henson said.
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