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Can lawmakers give citizens a ride, too?

http://www.onlineathens.com Prior to Monday’s swearing-in ceremonies for new Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and the state’s 180 House members and 56 Senate members in Atlanta, “more than 50 patrol vehicles from the State Patrol, Department of Natural Resources and other law enforcement agencies ferried lawmakers to the Capitol,” according to a Morris News Service report. Of course, the snow and ice that blanketed much of Northern and Central Georgia, including especially Atlanta, made driving and walking hazardous, so there was a legitimate reason for lawmakers, many of whom were staying close by in hotels and elsewhere in the capital city, to be driven to the Capitol. In addition to the normal human concern for their safety, there was some need to get the new governor and the lawmakers sworn in expeditiously, so that they could quickly begin addressing the budgetary issues and other challenges facing the state. However, there’s an inescapable, if slight, Orwellian “Animal Farm” ethos to this scene, a “some animals are more equal than others” overlay that’s particularly – and again, admittedly slightly – galling. After all, lawmakers in the Republican-dominated Georgia General Assembly, and the state’s Republican governor, have spent much time in recent months predicting and planning cuts in services as state tax revenues have lagged, and proposing cuts in taxes as they’ve worried about Georgia attracting new businesses and industries to help it out of the nationwide economic slump. Surely, even for the little while those 50 state vehicles and their drivers were taking lawmakers to the Capitol, there were other things they could have been doing to serve the taxpayers who fund, respectively, their maintenance and their salaries. And, of course, there might have been any number of Georgians other than state lawmakers with more pressing needs than a ride to the Capitol. A mother with a sick child, for instance, might have appreciated a ride to the local hospital. Or a young father who relied on a public transit system that couldn’t get him to work in the ice might have appreciated a ride to work. A couple of vignettes from the icy circumstances surrounding Monday’s official activities in Atlanta are also instructive on the point of lawmakers needing to be cognizant not only of the public’s hearing of their words, but also of the public’s perceptions of their actions. On the east side of Atlanta, in Social Circle, Republican state Rep. Doug Holt had Newton County public works employees spreading sand on his driveway and moving his cars so that he could get to the Capitol. By way of a complete explanation, as recounted in the Newton Citizen, Holt called the county to get a list of private contractors for the work, and was offered access to the county crew. He agreed to that assistance, on his condition that he fully reimburse the county for it. Still, one wonders whether a nonlegislator citizen could have gotten a county crew to his or her home for ice-clearing work. And, to his credit, Holt has admitted to “an error in judgment.” Contrast that story, though, with a story from the western side of Atlanta, where freshman Republican state Sen. Lindsey Tippins, as the Marietta Daily Journal reported, “strapped chains on the wheels of his truck and plowed his way down to the Gold Dome (of the Capitol) Monday morning from his west Cobb (County) farm.” Now, certainly the circumstances in which the two men found themselves has some bearing on their respective decisions, and the intent here is neither to unduly criticize one or to unduly praise the other. The vignettes are, however, a real lesson in the power of perception: Without knowing anything about either man, as is the case with most Georgians, many would quickly – and perhaps incorrectly – conclude that one is committed to the principles of limited government, while the other may not share that same level of commitment. And, of course, a similar lesson applies to the lawmakers who took advantage of taxpayer-funded rides to the Capitol. Perhaps state lawmakers are, in fact, committed to shrinking state government, but the events of Monday do call into some question the depth of that commitment.

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