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Monday June 29th, 2015 11:30PM

Ga. Democrats look for voice as minority party

By The Associated Press
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ATLANTA (AP) -- A parade of Senate Democrats came to the microphone at the state Capitol Monday to blast Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal's budget proposals.

Steve Henson of Duluth chided the Republican governor for not spending more on education. Vincent Fort of Atlanta assailed proposed cuts for programs aimed at patients with high blood pressure. All of them said the governor should stop refusing to expand the Medicaid program - as allowed under President Barack Obama's health-care overhaul - to extend insurance to hundreds of thousands of Georgians.

The display was orchestrated. And it was largely symbolic.

Senate Minority Leader Henson said the exercise is likely Democrats' best tool in a building where Republicans wield virtually all the power.

"We have to raise issues directly to the public," Henson said. "It's a short-term and a long-term strategy. The long-term goal, of course, is to win more seats. But, in the short-term, we have to affect issues here however we can by raising our concerns to the GOP leadership."

Publicly berating the governor may not win points inside the building.

"They have to decide whether they want to be a constructive part of the process or play the role of heckler," said Sen. David Shafer, Henson's counterpart in the Republican majority caucus.

It's a conundrum for Georgia Democrats.

They toil as the overwhelming minority in both legislative chambers, and they don't control a single executive office in state government. With just 60 out of 180 seats in the House and 18 out of 56 seats in the Senate, they don't have enough votes to pass their own legislation or block anything that has widespread Republican support.

And they certainly don't head the key committees, from those that control money to the rules panels that set the daily agenda.

"The role of the majority is to govern," said House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, an Atlanta Democrat, in a recent interview. "The role of the minority is to collaborate where we can and holding everyone accountable. That's how we try to influence the outcome."

That usually involves pivoting off the majority's agenda, from the budget to ethics reform, Abrams said.

For example, Henson's caucus wants to establish an independent state ethics commission that is financed by a fixed percentage of the state budget. That goes beyond talk from Republican leaders who are engaged in gamesmanship over whether to limit lobbyists' spending on lawmakers.

Henson said he knows Republicans will not raise taxes to shore up the budget. But Senate Democrats propose study commissions to address existing tax exemptions and loopholes in sales tax collections, moves he says could lay the groundwork for more revenue, without across-the-board rate hikes.

Abrams, meanwhile, highlighted a contentious system that allows individuals and businesses to get tax credits for contributions to a program that pays private school tuition for eligible students. Democrats generally don't support the program. "What we want is more accountability," she said, noting that there is a dearth of information collected about which private schools receive the money and how those schools perform academically.

Of course, Democrats also have proposals directly at odds with Republican preferences. In the Senate, they want to allow voter registration on Election Day and expand early voting opportunities. And there is no path for them to compel Deal to expand Medicaid.

"I understand the ideological opposition Obamacare as political narrative, but that doesn't' mean you don't solve the problem," Abrams said.

House Democrats will give out details of their legislative priorities Thursday, two weeks after Deal addressed a joint session with his agenda and well after Republicans have put together their outline for the session. Abrams said her caucus' approach always has three aims: assuring economic security for working families; expanding educational opportunities for all Georgians and ensuring a shared responsibility for the state's progress.

Republican leaders say they attempt to include Democrats in conversations about what is happening.

"Stacey Abrams is my friend, and I have a great deal of respect for her," said House Speaker David Ralston. The Blue Ridge Republican also noted that Abrams has a seat on the Rules Committee, meaning she participates in the discussions that determine the House agenda, even if her side doesn't make the final call.

Shafer said he and Henson have met "at least a dozen times in the last month" to talk about the session. "They are always welcome to make suggestions," he said.

Deal spokesman Brian Robinson noted meetings Deal and his top aides have had or have scheduled with Abrams and other Democrats, and Robinson said the governor "has an open door policy" with any lawmaker. Outside of the legislature, Robinson highlighted the governor's partnership with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. The pair endorsed a sales-tax referendum last year to finance transportation improvements.

But none of that changes the final vote tallies when it matters in the House and Senate. "We have honest differences of opinion and philosophy," Ralston said. "Stacey Abrams has her job to do, and I have my job to do."
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