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Power behind the dome

Who runs Georgia?

Who are the main players and institutions that now decide the destiny of the Peach State?

When the first Republican-run legislative session in 130 years adjourns this week, you may have a good idea of who steers contemporary Georgia and the direction these fresh faces are taking us. Just browse the stacks of legislation created by the 2005 General Assembly. The freshly printed reams of paper tell the tale.

President George Israel and his Georgia Chamber of Commerce are likely the most powerful behind-the-scenes force in state politics today.

The Georgia chamber and its corporate allies won nearly every important issue they tackled - from capping malpractice judgments and institutionalizing state secrecy to reducing corporate taxes and watering down environmental regulations.

The Georgia Christian Coalition, led by Chairwoman Sadie Fields, also experienced unparalleled success. The Legislature adopted the first significant anti-abortion measure in years. A required 24-hour waiting period for an abortion is but a tiny first step. A deluge of more rigorous anti-abortion bills is expected shortly.

In fact, the Christian right romped in its special arena perhaps even more so than big business did in theirs.

In addition to the anti-abortion measure, moral-values politicos seriously floated - and in some cases passed - bills restricting divorce, clamping down on the distribution of birth-control pills and condoms, and spending more tax dollars on tax-exempt church groups. Gay rights are out. The Ten Commandments are in. The success of the religious right has left its adversaries bewildered. The activist conservative church rolls. Other folks had better keep their lips buttoned, if they know what's good for them.

The conservative church is so sure of its footing in the leadership parade that Ralph Reed, king of the evangelical organizers, kicked off a campaign for lieutenant governor - a bid that may morph into a bid for governor by the time the next legislative session convenes. Reed contends that his controversial connections to casino gambling in Texas are irrelevant in Georgia. He may be right.

The old guard is gone. Lawyers, once dominant in both the House and Senate, couldn't muster enough muscle to stop passage of the harshest anti-plaintiff tort-reform measure in the country. The Legislative Black Caucus, formerly an essential element of the Democratic majority leadership, has been left all but toothless. That any white lawmaker would dare mention requiring photo IDs for voting demonstrates black power's current ebb.

Labor unions, which never had much clout in the Legislature anyway, are so far out of the loop today that they may as well not exist. Public-interest and pro-consumer lobbyists would have accomplished more if they had spent the winter on Florida's beaches. They were ignored in Georgia's Gold Dome.

Environmentalists took a shellacking on several fronts. When this Legislature quits its regular session, the slow-growth people may find their hands virtually tied in trying to use environmental laws to stave off new developments.

The Legislature's top leaders - House Speaker Glenn Richardson and Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson - have set new precedents. Barring an 11th-hour glitch, their session has been a model of efficiency. Debate was stifled. Amendments were quashed. The Legislature abandoned its traditional but cumbersomely democratic committee system. The General Assembly train now runs on time.

The once-powerful governor's office played a relatively minor role. Georgia's first modern Republican governor, Sonny Perdue, had difficulty gaining passage of a weak-as-water ethics-in-government bill and appeared preoccupied as more important issues rose and fell. Business lobbyists were less than enthralled with the ethics idea.

Nearly 60 years ago, two progressive Georgians, Calvin Kytle and James Mackay (later elected to Congress), wrote a book titled "Who Runs Georgia?"

Kytle and Mackay concluded, sort of, that big business directed the state through a variety of surrogates. That was hardly headlines news then. However, Kytle and Mackay might be startled at some of the brand names missing from today's power circle.

In their era, the big-stick carriers included Coca-Cola, Georgia Power, Southern Bell, C&S, First National Bank of Atlanta, the railroads, the airline/airplane industry and the insurance companies.

Only the insurance firms survive among the top dogs. The others are in decline or out of business. Coke has slipped. Georgia Power is still a player but with fewer chips.

Southern Bell is BellSouth, whose global concerns often eclipse its Georgia ties. C&S and First Atlanta were swallowed up long ago. The rusting railroads are sidetracked. The air-travel and plane-making businesses are on the canvas.

No one in Kytle and Mackay's time ever dreamed of behemoth politically-connected companies called AFLAC, Earthlink and ChoicePoint.

In the authors' era of the Talmadges and venerable Sens. Richard Russell and Walter George, Kytle and Mackay would have scoffed at the notion that Georgia's most prominent political figure would one day be U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who has served less than one term. Or that two established medical doctors would forsake their practices to become junior members of an unexceptional state congressional delegation.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Contact him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA, 30160 or e-mail bshipp@bellsouth.net. His Web address is www.billshipp.com. His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.