Principles tend to go out window after taste of power

The session has been over for almost a month now, and I have been asked to speak at quite a few forums to give a legislative wrap-up and tell folks how things went. Some are especially curious to hear what it feels like to be a Democrat in the now totally Republican-controlled state government.

I usually tell people that because I hadn't been elected during the 130 years of Democratic Party dominance, I cannot really give a comparison. Gov. Sonny Perdue came into office at the same time I did, and Republicans had taken control of the Senate between the election and my first swearing in as a legislator. So I cannot really give a "then and now" type of answer. All I can tell you is what I've experienced.

On one hand, it's ironic that I passed more bills during this session than the previous one, when I was in the then-Democratic-controlled House. I have and will continue to try to work with the Republicans on bills, ranging from helping bring more transportation funds to traffic-choked suburbs like mine to creating a state college and university in Gwinnett. I'm not someone who supports things or opposes them on a strictly partisan level, and you don't see me in the well spouting a party line on every bill.

That said, I do find it odd when Republican voters at town hall and homeowners association meetings around the district ask me, "Why are Republicans doing that?" and asking why some Republicans have strayed from the platform and ideology that supposedly brought them into the majority. Voters were perplexed by the list of bills and rules that seemed to fly in the face of honest and open government.

There were new Senate and especially House rules that made fair debate and the offering of amendments to legislation virtually impossible whether you were a Democrat or a Republican, unless you were in leadership. There was bill after bill gutting our state's sunshine laws in favor of anonymous donors to universities, secret negotiations to bring landfills into neighborhoods and even better, secret ethics complaint hearings for our legislators.

Many voters were even more disturbed that a some members of party that supposedly holds personal property rights so paramount would introduce so many pro-developer bills and bills aimed at taking away the personal property rights of individuals. Republicans also pushed bills that would make it harder to fight pollution in our streams and lakes in favor of developers, bills that would make it harder to find out what plant or project was being planned for your community and bills to allow the government to take your private property and turn it over to developers in the name of economic development. These bills hit the state Legislature after many Georgians thought they voted for smaller government, more open government and government that respected personal property rights.

So how do I explain how these Republicans vote against their ideology? Without trying to sound partisan, and having to point out I don't know the hearts of all the individuals that go into the collective decisions to push this decidedly unconservative agenda, I would have two observations:

First, there is the adage that once in power, politicians are willing to do almost anything to stay in power.

That is true in things from the national level on down, from redistricting to allow them to choose their constituents rather than have their constituents choose them, down to simple House rules allowing the speaker to swoop in with ad hoc "hawks" to make sure his own Republicans stay in line with what he wants. Once in power, the game is to stay in power. These Republican-elected officials are just playing this game more brazenly than perhaps the typical conservative voter who wanted honest, open, conservative government, not partisan, no-holds-barred government.

Second, is another political adage: follow the money. Voters in Gwinnett who do not know that developers give a lot of money to Republican candidates haven't been paying attention. To be surprised when you vote Republican that a lot of the bills they make and laws they pass are aimed at helping developers is really being out of touch. The millions spent by pro-development interests electing some Republican legislators were spent for a reason: to pass bills that favor their side, even if it conflicts with meeting the needs of average Georgians.

If there is one thing I've learned in politics, it's that if you see someone voting against their supposed ideology, you have to ask, "Where's the money?" or "Where's the power play?" Answer those two questions, and you'll find out why you got laws and rules this session that had nothing to do with a compassionate or a conservative government in Georgia.

Sen. Curt Thompson, D-Norcross, represents District 5. Call him at 404-463-1318 or (404) 463-1388 or e-mail cuthomps@legis.state.ga.us.