Sen. McKoon Takes On Lack of Transparency in Legislature with New Bills
McKoon–perhaps best known for his staunch support of the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)–has previously taken the lead on transparency and government reform issues.
As a freshman during the 2011-2012 Legislative Session, McKoon sponsored legislation around election reform and caps on lobbyist spending, partnering with such groups as Common Cause Georgia.
“We need a more transparent process, a more accountable process,” McKoon said in an interview with Atlanta Progressive News before the start of the 2016 year of the 2015-2016 Session.
McKoon pre-filed several resolutions and a bill on transparency issues, only one which has garnered multiple co-sponsors so far.
“I have achieved a certain level of frustration with the process, that I feel like the only way to have this discussion [on transparency] is to offer an amendment to kind of force the issue… so that we can have a public airing of this issue,” McKoon said.
SR 674 changes how Senators vote on amendments on the floor.
SR 676 requires public notice and video recording of all conference committee meetings.
SR 677 closes the loophole allowing votes on bills that come out of conference committees after only two hours for review (this loophole only exists during the last few days of session).
SR 683, a constitutional amendment, requires conference committee reports to be publically available overnight before voting can occur.
Additionally, McKoon pre-filed SB 256, which states: “No member of the General Assembly who serves on a conference committee shall be eligible for employment in state government, other than as an elected official, for a period of 24 months immediately following such member’s service on such conference committee.”
APN asks all candidates about their support for increasing the transparency of the legislative process, and has always–meaning one hundred percent of the time–received affirmative responses from candidates.
However, it is rare for substantive legislation to be introduced, let alone passed, around transparency issues in the Georgia House and Senate, despite the widespread support for the issue generally.
Bills go to conference committee when the House and Senate pass versions with different language, and neither will adopt the other’s bill.
Substantial changes to a bill can be made in conference committee, and the law only requires two hours for review before voting can–and often does–happen on the floor of the House and Senate.
SR 683 is currently assigned to the Senate Rules committee.
SB 256 has not been read or assigned to committee, since being pre-filed.
The other three resolutions – SR 674, 676, and 677 are all amendments to the Rules of the Senate, which are usually voted on at the beginning of every two year cycle.
“Simply having a hand count vote on an amendment and no record of it – no record of how individual Senators have voted – to me just really goes against the whole concept of representative government and being able to hold elected officials accountable,” McKoon said in an interview with APN about his first pre-filed bill, SR 674.
Under the current State Senate rules, if there are any objections to an amendment, it goes to a “voice vote,” where the total Yeas and Nays are tallied and nothing more.
“But in order to get a recorded vote on those floor amendments, you have to have a total of five Senators basically ask for a recorded vote,” McKoon explained.
Transparency around the amendment voting process becomes particularly important the last few days of any legislative year, when legislators propose a wide range of amendments to bills being voted on on the floor.
Often the amendment process is a way for legislators to tack on “germaine” legislation, if their bill was somehow killed or stalled during session, and never made it out of committee.
McKoon himself has used this legislative trick several times last year, in 2015, adding his controversial RFRA bill onto other bills, before withdrawing it because it was not appropriately relevant.
State Sen. Steve Henson (D – Tucker), the Democratic Leader, proposed that McKoon’s interest in this issue might stem from his desire to become the state’s Attorney General, an assertion that McKoon.
“I would say what he is trying to do is build a record so he can say he did things to make the system more open and fair in preparation for his run as Attorney General. I am thinking he is keeping an eye to higher office,” Henson told APN.
“The only political plans I have is hopefully to be the Republican nominee in 2016 to serve the 29th district,” McKoon said when asked about his political aspirations.
McKoon faces an uphill battle with this legislation.
Mid-cycle changes to the Rules of the Senate requires a supermajority (two-thirds) vote, rather than the simple majority vote required to adopt the rules at the beginning of the two year legislative cycle.
“I’m not fully committed to it, but I see some positive aspects and I’ll be looking forward to talking to him to see if I can support it,” Henson said in an interview with APN before the start of the legislative session.
While McKoon and Henson both spoke about the need for greater transparency at the Capitol, Georgia’s history does not favor this issue getting much traction.
“People want this additional reform, and it’s just a matter of continuing to press the case and making sure the public is aware,” McKoon said.