Eric Tanenblatt: In New Session, Gold Dome Holds Keys to State’s Future

Eric Tanenblatt

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016

When state lawmakers huddle this week in Atlanta to convene the 154th session of the Georgia General Assembly, they will honor the institution’s long tradition of thoughtful solution-making to weighty problems—but whether this year’s slate of legislators actively participate in that culture is entirely at their discretion.

Theirs is a simple choice: to favor collaboration over hyperbole, circumspection over self-aggrandization.

While they have the power to pursue either course, and some inevitably do, they must remember always their responsibility to leave their districts and state a better, freer, more prosperous place than the one they received. That’s a heady responsibility, and not one that will be accomplished through red meat.

In part precipitated by a reshuffling in the federal and judicial spaces, both chambers of the state legislature have experienced tremendous turnover in the last few years. This electoral game of musical chairs has raised expectations for the fresh faces in the bunch to stand out from their colleagues—too often, though, they resort to a politics of division to establish prominence.

Now, that might work in 2016, when the state remains solidly right-of-center, but Georgia is rapidly changing and so too are her voters. While truly competitive races will be scarce this year, that might not be true in the space of a few short years, as we’ve documented previously in this space.

Demographics don’t make destiny, but disinterest certainly does. If Republicans fail to demonstrate to all Georgians—conservative and progressive, white and black, baby boomers and millennials, persons of all faiths or none—that they have the whole state’s best interest at heart, their grip on the Gold Dome’s levels of power will wane, and rightly so.

See, red meat antics and sharp elbows are appealing to the first-time lawmaker just the same as the veteran because they’re easy. They’re cheap. Demagoguing is easier than building a coalition that addresses problems, because whipping vocal minorities into frenzies doesn’t actually solve anything and instead serves only to divide.

Now, that’s not to say the Republican and Democratic caucuses should embrace in a hearty cover of Kumbaya, because the ideological divide is both real and important, but our elected officials must work together to jointly shape our state’s future.

Thanks to the coincidence of the presidential election and our own legislative season, the grade of that climb will be steeper this year than many others before it. When the Republican race for the White House reaches Georgia in earnest in the coming days, the session will already be in full swing — and plainly vulnerable to the rowdy politics of the primary.

And yet if legislators can avoid being subsumed by the presidential race, they stand to teach the candidates (and Washington, D.C.) a great deal about good governance.

Georgia has maintained a triple-A bond rating even amid economic storms that battered its neighbors, working to reduce taxes and create jobs. That’s the sort of leadership Washington needs.

Having observed a great many legislative sessions, I remain ever-mindful that today’s elected leaders could abandon their forebears’ solution-oriented ethic. Even still, I am deeply optimistic that our state’s best days are yet ahead of us.

Eric Tanenblatt is a leader of the Public Policy and Regulation practice at the global law firm Dentons.  He previously served in the Administrations of President George H. W. Bush and President George W. Bush, acted as a senior advisor to the late U.S. Senator Paul Coverdell, and served as chief of staff to Governor Sonny Perdue.