Six conservative-minded thinkers were on a panel Thursday evening to discuss Georgia politics and what could be done to make the state’s General Assembly more effective, transparent and accessible.
Dozens of residents turned out for the event, which was hosted by the Cherokee County Republican Party and the Georgia Republican Assembly at Canton’s American Legion Post 45.
The “How the Sausage is Made” forum included two state senators, a state representative, a local conservative activist, a conservative attorney and the leader of Georgia’s Constitution Party and Georgia Right to Life.
The discussion, which included barbecue, lasted nearly two and a half hours and was moderated by Kevin Wright, who is a member of both the Cherokee County Republican Party and the Georgia Republican Assembly.
The panel consisted of state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, Rep. Matt Gurtler, R-Tiger, local conservative activist Jack Staver, Atlanta-based attorney Catherine Bernard and Ricardo Davis, who serves as chairman of Georgia’s Constitution Party and president of Georgia Right to Life.
Wright’s topics ranged from ways to make next year’s session of the General Assembly more effective to limiting the power of the governor’s office in an effort to give the state’s legislators more control.
Panelists also discussed ways to make the General Assembly more accessible to the average constituent, not just when it comes to finding out what happens in closed-door Senate committee hearings, but what could be done to give hard-working Georgians more ballot access and the ability to run for political office.
“The majority of the state Legislature is made up of people who are retired or independently wealthy,” McKoon argued, saying the average legislator has to pay 12 months of personal overhead on just nine months of income.
Bernard maintained that the way the system is set up severely limits the pool of people who can run for office.
“We need to include more people who are outside of the political bubble,” she said. “It really is hard to get on the ballot as anything other than a Republican or Democrat in Georgia.”
Davis said his party recently won a legal battle against the state, greatly reducing the number of signatures require by a non-Democrat or a non-Republican to put themselves on a ballot from about 60,000 to 7,500.
“If we don’t make it obvious to voters that there is a need for additional political voices, then giving us ballot access wouldn’t change anything,” he said. Florida, he said, has some of the loosest ballot access laws in the nation, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to additional political views being represented.
Gurtler, who said he was the lone representative to vote against this year’s budget measure, argued that it was tough to get anything done under the Gold Dome for a newcomer without much political clout.
He said he was outright denied committee votes for his bills on several occasions because of his refusal to support measures he didn’t deem conservative.
“It’s an oligarchy,” he explained.
He also said the state is in major need of some ethical reforms, particularly when it comes to ballot access and redistricting.
Staver argued that even Republicans under the Gold Dome push legislation he deems to be at odds with his party’s values.
“They’re supposed to represent us but that hasn’t been happening,” Staver said. “It seems like few people are down there for a serious purpose and if we don’t try, nothing’s going to happen.”
Staver argued that ballot access was key to a functioning democracy, and said anybody desiring to run for office should be able to.
Some of Georgia’s longtime senators and representatives, he said, hold powerful positions but do nothing but occupy space each session under the Gold Dome.
McKoon said legislators spent much of his seventh session in office quarreling over the merits of a daily fantasy sports bill and Beach’s push to bring Casino gambling to the state.
“It ate up the limited resources of our 40-day session,” he said. “The Republican Party stands for everyday people. I think we can do better. The people in the state are owed better.”
The budget, McKoon explained, is often used to coerce and bully members into supporting other pieces of legislation.
Beach, who called this year’s session “strange,” defended his controversial bill to bring casinos gambling to the state, arguing that it would be a great opportunity to bring additional revenue to Georgia while shoring up funding for the HOPE Scholarship.
“I’ll always fight for HOPE,” the senator said, explaining that as higher education becomes increasingly competitive, states across the nation are jealous of Georgia’s program.
Beach said he and his Republican colleagues were extremely concerned about the June 20 runoff for Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District between Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff.
“You better be paying attention to this race, folks,” he told the crowd. “While I was walking door-to-door in this very conservative neighborhood I was shocked to see number of Ossoff signs. I don’t know what’s going on with these people, but he’s got them fooled.”
The political newcomer took 48 percent of the vote in the 18-person primary back in April. Polls show that he and the former secretary of state are neck-and-neck heading into next month’s runoff.