ATLANTA — In November, Georgians elected a lieutenant governor. In January, they got nine.
Four months later, popular incumbent Casey Cagle was looking to reunite his Republican colleagues. In a letter to GOP senators Thursday, Cagle proposed returning some of the powers he had been stripped of in the weeks after he was overwhelmingly re-elected.
“Rather than retreat to our respective corners and refuse to come together, I contend that it would be healthy for us to reach a reasonable compromise that reflects the interests of us all, strengthens the Senate and — most importantly — allows us to address the concerns of our shared constituents in the most effective way possible,” the letter said. “We can resolve this situation and end the session united as a caucus if we are all willing to give a little.”
That didn’t happen. The power struggle between Cagle and the Senate’s GOP leadership played out publicly during the session, at times threatening to derail major legislation. To say the fallout from the Senate coup was a distraction this year is an understatement, said George Hooks, the dean of the Senate.
“It has slowed the process down and has been a hindrance to doing the people’s business,” Hooks said. “When it can’t be decided who’s running the Senate ... it has not been a good situation.”
The 2011 General Assembly ended last week with no clear path to a solution as both sides remained bitterly opposed — although they both acknowledged the leadership structure would have to change.
“He tried all day to force a vote on the taking of power,” said President Pro Tempore Tommie Williams, chairman of the Committee on Assignments that ran the day-to-day operations formerly decided by Cagle, in the waning hours of the session. “I met with the lieutenant governor to say, ‘Let’s share the powers.’ He listened, but he’s not moved in that direction as of yet.”
Meeting with reporters in his office moments after the session came to a close, Cagle said he is hopeful a compromise can be reached.
“It’s definitely not a structure I believe is sustainable long term,” said Cagle, who distributed a letter Thursday offering a resolution to his GOP colleagues. “It’s difficult to govern by committee. In any organization, you have to have a leader. Being president of the Senate means just that. Those issues can and will be worked out over time.”
Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown said even the simplest things were a headache this year, like deciding when to take a lunch break.
“Normally, I’d just ask the lieutenant governor,” said the Macon Democrat. “This year, I ask him and he tells me to ask the president pro tem. I ask the president pro tem and he tells me he has to check with the majority leader and everybody else. And then he may come back and not even have an answer.”
Gov. Nathan Deal acknowledged Friday that that the power struggled caused some delays.
“But the final products, those things that will come to my desk, are very reflective of what the people of Georgia want from their legislators,” Deal said. Asked who he reached out to when he needed to speak to the head of the Senate, Deal didn’t miss a beat.
“The lieutenant governor is the leader of the Senate,” he said.
There was a markedly different tone this session in the Senate. The 56-member chamber is regarded as more harmonious, and negative attention in recent years has been focused on the state House of Representatives, rapped as raucous and corrupt in the wake of an ethics scandal involving former Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson, who was forced to step down in 2009 after he was caught having an affair with a Capitol lobbyist.
Instead, the House was the more orderly body this year. The squabbling in the Senate finally left House Speaker David Ralston exasperated as the session drew to a close. He said until the chamber figured out who was in charge, work was being compromised.
“We have come perilously close to their little experiment over there harming the people of Georgia,” Ralston said earlier this month as negotiations over a tax deal faltered.
Sen. Don Balfour, chairman of the Rules Committee, acknowledged the tensions, but compared them to a family dispute.
“The Senate decided to take power away from a lieutenant governor of the same party. We’d never been down this road before,” he said. “We didn’t work as well as we could have, but we’re all grown boys and we can work together.”
Sen. Jim Butterworth, one of the governor’s floor leaders who was instrumental in the passage of the HOPE scholarship overhaul, agreed.
“I think we are on the cusp of bringing some positive change to what has been a divisive issue,” Butterworth said. “Rather than rehashing an old wound ... we need to focus on getting the lieutenant governor re-engaged. I think that’s going to be a very positive thing.”
Williams said despite the infighting, the Senate was still able to pass important legislation on issues including HOPE, immigration and ethics.
“When you measure success, it’s about what you accomplish,” he said.
Tackling the leadership structure will prove a harder task because of the differing perspectives on how the Senate should work.
“We’re the legislators,” Williams said. “He’s in the executive branch. We felt like we should have more say in the legislative process. We’re the ones taking the votes. Finding that balance has been difficult.”
Cagle also pointed to successes — among them, the good relationship between the state’s three top elected officials. He said that at the end of the day, all he wants is unity.
“I love the Senate,” said Cagle, who spent 12 years as a senator before being elected lieutenant governor in 2006. “I have a great appreciation for the institution as a whole and I do want to see the Senate restored to the upper chamber, the deliberative body that is effective at getting things done.”