Think tanks are rolling in to shape Georgia law

ATLANTA - Lobbyists' influence on the creation of legislation in the General Assembly has begun to be supplanted by a surprising new force: Intellectuals.

For generations of legislators, lobbyists supplied the ideas for bills - often supplying the draft of the bills themselves. Typically, the well-healed lobbyists representing large business concerns were the best prepared and most influential.

Many of the lobbying sect are former legislators who know the processes and have key personal connections. It's hard to ignore a former colleague, especially one who had been a powerful committee chairman.

Some days this past winter there were enough legislators-turned-lobbyists standing around the halls of the Capital to constitute a quorum of previous sessions.

But some of the most sweeping legislation under consideration by the newly Republican-controlled General Assembly came to the attention of its sponsors through think tanks.

There could be many reasons for this.

Many of Georgia's ex-legislator lobbyists were Democrats who never paid much attention to the Republicans who served with them, and so they don't have a fount of goodwill with today's GOP leaders. Probably the biggest reason, though, is that the current leaders are eager to make fundamental changes in how state government is run, and they're not interested in the incrementalism offered by lobbyists.

Enter think tanks with a truckload of ideas for radical change.

While lobbyists must think strategically, limiting their proposals to those most likely to win votes and keeping their options open to the pragmatic compromises needed for passage, the scholars who populate think tanks are free to dream up utopian schemes without concern for political considerations. In fact, sometimes it seems the more implausible the idea the better because it can serve as a rallying call for fund-raisers for years without passage taking it off the table.

Such was the case of tort reform for conservatives and passenger rail for liberals. Both ideas have been ballyhooed for decades, but Republicans finally passed tort reform - including caps on noneconomic damages - and passenger rail could be close to reality, on a limited basis.

Now comes the issue of major spending changes in the form of a proposed constitutional amendment called the Taxpayers' Bill of Rights, or TABOR, that would restrict spending growth to the yearly population increase plus the inflation rate.

TABOR is being pushed by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation in coordination with a couple of think tanks in Colorado and Washington. It is being opposed by a year-old think tank, the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute.

The 15-year-old Public Policy Foundation also championed tort reform and vigorously opposes passenger rail. The Budget & Policy Institute wasn't around for the tort-reform battle, but that was opposed by another think tank, Georgia Watch, whose consumerism philosophy has mostly resulted in white papers advocating public disclosure of physicians' professional sanctions. Georgia Watch was founded in 2002.

The Public Policy Foundation favors what it calls market-oriented solutions, such as private transportation companies rather than public mass transit. It has close ties to Gov. Sonny Perdue's administration, swapping personnel from one to the other.

On the other hand, the Budget & Policy Institute, despite the similar name, has essentially the opposite orientation, churning out studies justifying government expenditures and expounding on why Georgia's level of taxation really isn't high.

Of course, for years Georgia has had a few neutral, university policy centers and advocacy groups for special interests, ranging from the well-established AARP for seniors to the brand-new Voices for Georgia's Children. These groups are more focused on lobbying for their point of view than the think tanks that attempt to steer overall policy direction through broader public persuasion than one-on-one legislative log rolling.

The experts from these think tanks testify before General Assembly committees, write op-ed pieces for newspapers, are readily available for reporters needing a quote on one side of an issue or another, and publish essays and reports on a range of topics. Suddenly, they are gaining the attention of lawmakers, especially the new crop of legislative leaders eager to instigate change and the newly out-of-power trying to stop change.

Corporate lobbyists haven't stopped working behind the scenes to win a tax break here and favored treatment there. Lobbyists still spend thousands of dollars on legislators. Their numbers continue to grow. And a certain amount of the bills introduced each session still originate in the word processors and Palm Pilots of paid lobbyists.

But the biggest legislative battles being fought in public are fueled by the new think tank scholars, and the results are likely to be more dramatic proposals and wider philosophical divides.

Walter Jones is the bureau chief for Morris News Service and has covered Georgia politics since 1998. He can be reached at 404-589-8424 or walter.jones@morris.com.