DUNWOODY, Ga. — State Sen. Sally Harrel and state representatives Mike Wilensky and Josh McLaurin talked healthcare, education and the state budget at a town hall March 4.
First, each legislator individually went over some of the legislation they have filed this session, and then answered questions from attendees.
Harrel represents Dunwoody as well as other portions of DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties. Wilensky’s district includes Dunwoody and parts of Doraville and Chamblee. McLaurin represents parts of Sandy Springs, Roswell and Johns Creek. All three are Democrats.
A recurring theme of the night was the challenges of governing from the minority party.
Partially in response to the planned I-285 toll lanes, Harrel said she filed a resolution that would call for amending the state constitution to allow Georgia’s gas tax to be used for public transit projects. Right now, Georgia’s constitution requires gas tax revenue only be used for roads and bridges.
“I was grateful to have a hearing,” Harrel said. “I didn’t think I’d get that. It got a lot of media attention. It’s not going to pass this session … but it started the dialogue.”
Harrell said compromises on the proposed constitutional amendment or other sources of revenue, like a ridesharing tax, could be worked out in the future.
Often bills don’t even get a hearing. Harrell said Georgia’s powerful timber lobby had essentially killed her effort to reverse a law the prevents local governments from banning the use of wood when constructing high-rise apartments. Also dead on arrival: a plan to ban Styrofoam take-out containers and plastic bags.
“I though the timber industry would be thrilled,” Harrel joked. “More paper bags!”
That’s not to say Democrats under the Gold Dome are entirely powerless.
McLaurin said he thinks of his work at the Legislature in different buckets. On the hot topics like the budget or Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, there is not much he can do except talk about it, Tweet about it and try to change the media narrative, he said.
Committee work, on the other hand, is where the minority party can often make its biggest difference because the atmosphere is more collaborative, he said.
“That’s where we really get the opportunity to tinker with or modify legislation at an early stage,” McLaurin said. “People’s attitudes about legislation crystalize over time. At the very beginning of the legislative process, if you have changes or strong opposition to certain parts of legislation, you are 100,000 percent more likely to get those changes made before people’s egos or identities or public statements have been wrapped up.”
McLaurin and Wilensky are both attorneys — there are 23 representatives with legal backgrounds out of 180 total — which Wilensky said puts them in the unique position to advise their fellow representatives.
“A lot of times we’re asked to help with other people’s bills because we have that legal knowledge,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to help. Even though we’re in the minority party, we’re used a lot and have amazing relationships with both parties.”
Other priority areas the legislators talked about included prescription opioids, cyberbullying and criminal justice reform.
“We’re trying to push these conversations where we can, to do sensible policy at every opportunity, but it’s a slog,” McLaurin said. “When you’re not in power, you really do rely on the comradery and the good faith of the majority party for any of our priorities to move.”
All three legislators thanked community volunteers for helping them with research, raising concerns and staying involved. They said getting to know legislators, especially committee chairs, and sharing their personal stories is the best way people can make a difference.
“When people ask us questions, a lot of times we’re going to constituents with that knowledge,” Winesky said. “Everyone in the district is an incredible help and that’s what raises us up.”