Over the weekend, Senate leaders had stripped Smith of his chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee, for his failure to support HB 307, the $216 million hospital bed tax.
Text of Preston Smith’s speech in the Georgia Senate
Abraham Kuyper once said, “When principles that run against your deepest convictions begin to win the day, then battle is your calling and peace has become sin. You must at the price of dearest peace lay you convictions bare before friend an enemy with all the fire of your faith.” Today I rise to speak during our debate about the process by which this bill and others come before our Senate body for consideration. As you may know, when I was elected in my late twenties, I was the youngest member of the State Senate then serving. Today, four terms later, I am still the youngest member of the Senate, although I am now equal to, or greater, in seniority to the majority of our members.
I formerly served as one of the Governor’s Administration Floor Leaders and then served three terms as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. But that changed today. In retribution for my refusal to go along with the Lt. Governor and the rest of the Senate Republicans and vote for a tax increase, my role as chairman was stripped away from me by the Lt. Governor, Majority Leader, President Pro Tem and Senate Republican leadership. I take the well today with a heavy heart – not because of a loss of any position, but rather because of what is happening in State Government and its larger implication for the legacy of our Republican party and the posterity of our state.
I have been a loyal member of the team and have fought many battles side-by-side with my Republican colleagues and members from the other side of the isle. But, inasmuch as they have handed down a very public punishment for my refusal to vote for a tax increase, I am compelled to make a public response and offer my explanation. My remarks are largely intended to my leadership and my Republican colleagues in the Senate – as they are the ones who have decided upon this course.
On Thursday, April 1st, HOUSE BILL 307 came before the full Senate body for a vote. HOUSE BILL 307 is a bill that imposes a tax upon hospitals’ net revenues to help balance the state budget. I have consistently told my leadership and my deputy whip, that I was not going to vote to raise taxes to balance the budget. I have made a commitment not to raise taxes and I believe that it is the bedrock principal of the Republican Party and the unifying glue of fiscal, social and libertarian conservatives. That Thursday, when the votes for passage were uncertain, the Lt. Governor suspended our action and recessed the Senate for a hastily called meeting in the office of the President Pro Tem. He ordered the Majority Leader and President Pro Tem to go get the votes and to tell the members that their chairmanships were at stake.
The President Pro Tem used to tell me that he would never ask me to vote against my conscience or my district. But, at the meeting, President Pro Tem Williams spontaneously called for a motion for a “caucus position” on the bill. This means that if two-thirds of the caucus vote to support it, ALL members of the Senate Republican Caucus must vote to support the bill. Neither the concept of the so-called “caucus-position,” nor any punishment for not following it is found in any caucus rules. There was no discussion. There was not opportunity for dissent. He did not even ask for the members who were voting no. He simply announced that 2/3 having voted, we all must vote the same way. Like a scene from ‘Lord of the Flies,’ we marched back in to the Senate to follow the order.
It is a distinctly un-American concept that subordinates the will of my constituents to 2/3 of my colleagues. I am ashamed that they did this. Can you imagine that some of the most deeply held convictions that people claim to have in this chamber will vanish as soon as 2/3 of the group tells them to vote the other way? Some in here have made protecting gun-owners’ rights established in the 2nd Amendment their seminal issue. Yet, if 2/3 of a caucus votes to make them change they will abandon that so-called principle! For those who have passionately argued in favor of the sanctity of life will no longer support that conviction if 2/3 of the caucus demands that they vote the other way? This is almost beyond comprehension!
I represent between 150-200,000 constituents and I am the ONLY voice that they have in this Senate. Neither my principle nor their voice is on the auction block, nor should it be abdicated to any group of people who are not elected to represent them. I represent a diverse group of wonderful people in northwest Georgia and even my delegation of House members were split on their vote on this issue representing those same constituents.
You will hear that we must pass this bill because there are no other options and the alternative of reducing Medicaid reimbursement is a worse alternative. They have after all, concocted this plan as a mechanism to game the system to suck down as many taxpayer dollars as possible from the federal money machine. And, they’ve coupled this with a tax kick-back to the state to help spend on this state healthcare program. This is an argument that requires you go along with growing government rather than reducing its size and scope.
You will also hear that the hospitals volunteered for this tax. This argument is fallacious. The hospitals were very publically given the choice of paying this tax or suffering the threat of Medicaid reimbursement cuts. So, given the choice of us amputating their leg at the ankle or the knee, most of them chose to give up their foot. But that is the logical fallacy of either/or reasoning which promotes a false choice. Of course there are other options that limited government conservatives would propose. And falsely couching their choice in those terms should not force the legislative branch to participate in cutting off the foot of the hospitals, which ultimately will pass their increase tax along to patients, consumers of healthcare and health insurance companies who will then charge it to their policy holders.
Moreover during the debate on HOUSE BILL 307, the President Pro Tem argued that we should take from those who have two coats and give to those who have none. This is almost as pure a definition of wealth redistribution and socialism as you can possibly craft. And the fact that such a system is passed under threat of the government penalizing you with a worse result is also a central tenant of a socialistic system. If a person voluntarily surrenders his coat to someone less fortunate, that is an example of Christian charity. But, if they are forced to do so in some ‘Robin Hood’ scheme by the government, that is a nearly perfect example of socialism in action.
But it is really not about the issue. You can spin that anyway you want. Reasonable people can reasonably disagree about the best policy. I am a conservative. That means something to me. I believe in limited government with lower taxes, free enterprise, personal responsibility and a strong defense. I also believe that we have allowed ourselves to become far too dependent upon government to provide the needs of our society. I do not apologize for that belief.
Let me share one analogy with you. If you go out into the woods and build a fenced-in pen, you would never be able to get a deer, wild boar or any other wild animal to voluntarily enter that pen and cage himself. But there is a very simple way to accomplish the same goal. Place some food for the animal to eat. After a couple of weeks, continue place the food in the same place while you begin construction on the pen. On the last day, place the food in the same place and leave the gate open. The wild animal will voluntarily enter the pen to eat the food and you can close the gate. The same animal that would never have surrendered his freedom to enter a cage, will voluntarily do so once it has become dependent on your handout. We became great as a nation of free men who once placed a high value on our liberty. And the survival of our Republic depends upon the retention of those freedoms.
In feudal times, the surfs in medieval Europe only paid 1/3 of their income to the King and no textbook considers them free men. Yet today, many Americans pay more than 50% of their income to the governing authorities through combined federal, state and local taxes. When are we going to blow the whistle and say, “Enough!” The founders of our country would never have agreed to our enslavement to a government so big as to give you everything you want and so powerful as to take away everything you have. But, over time, like that wild and free animal, we have sacrificed our freedom at the alter of security. We have become so dependent upon the provision of Government to meet every need that we find ourselves in a cage having voluntarily surrendered our precious liberties for the solace of servitude.
Let me share a little of my personal story I’ve never shared before. When I ran for office, I was recruited primarily by three state senators, Eric Johnson, Bill Stephens and Tom Price. At the time, I was a young attorney working in a local law firm which represented a large hospital. Shortly after obtaining permission from my law firm and entering the political race, certain leaders in State Government threatened to deny the Certificate of Need application for state approval of the multi-million dollar hospital expansion. My firm instructed me to withdraw from the race or resign from the firm in order to avoid the threatened harm to our client by the power players in State Government at that time. At the meeting called to discuss my fate, the firm was on the verge of splitting over this threat. When I refused to resign, the client and the principal lawyer left the firm so that the State could no longer extort the CON approval.
While that process was very difficult for me to go through, the Senators who recruited me at the time told me that my response was evidence of what they needed at the Capitol – someone who was willing to stand up to that kind of pressure and not bow down or sell out their principles. They told me that although the road would be difficult, they needed someone with an iron constitution and a strong backbone to withstand the pressures I would face.
They also told me, rightly or wrongly, that their biggest criticism of my predecessor was that they believed he voted the party line every single time without deviation. They believed that when his majority leader, Charles Walker, held his thumb up or down, that determined how my predecessor and his colleagues in that caucus would vote. Now, it seems the current leaders are less concerned about who they believe is a political prostitute than who they view as the pimp controlling him.
When I ran for office, several of those very same recruiters encouraged me to make a taxpayer protection pledge to my constituents that I would not come to Atlanta and vote to raise taxes. I agreed. I wanted to be a different kind of Senator – one who spoke his mind and meant what he said. I made that commitment. But the commitment was to my constituents, not to some outside group. I gave my word – my bond – that I would not come down to Atlanta and raise taxes. I believed, perhaps incorrectly, that one of the foundational cornerstones of the Republican Party was to reduce the size and scope of government and to cut fraud, waste and abuse rather than raising taxes. And, now those people who urged the need for an independent thinker – who begged for a strong willed leader with backbone who would not bow to pressure or sell his constituents’ vote – have now attempted to threaten, harass, intimidate and punish me for being exactly the person they recruited me to be. This Republican Senate leadership punishes me today, because I will not break the word I gave my constituents, which the same leadership urged me to make.
Today is a very sad day for Republicans in Georgia. Our Lt. Governor has repeatedly said that if the people of Georgia can only afford to send us $15 Billion in tax revenues, that is the amount we will spend. We will balance our budget to that figure. We will live within our means and will not raise taxes. But now the Lt. Governor, Majority Leader and President Pro Tem, have completely reversed that position, engaged in a rhetorical game of semantics and abandoned that commitment to balance our state budget to the amount of revenue that is available. They have instead decided to pursue the easier route of raising new revenue through taxes and fees.
Prior to the beginning of this legislative session, in December of 2009, the Republican Senate leadership had a poll conducted by McLaughlin & Associates. The question was posed, “When the General Assembly convenes in January, state leaders will be faced with a $2 billion budget shortfall. How do you think the State Legislature should balance the budget?” The top two responses were cut waste and cut spending. The lowest response was “raise taxes” which only 5% of Georgians chose. Only 5% of Georgians feel we would help balance the budget by raising taxes! 5% didn’t respond or didn’t know. 90% of Georgians felt we should balance the budget through some means other than tax increases. Then they asked a second question, saying, “Thinking more about the state budget, which of the following do you think would be the most effective way for the State Legislature to balance the budget? Again, exactly 5% said “by increasing taxes and fees on individuals and Georgia businesses.”
The Republican leadership used this poll to argue in December that we should not raise taxes. Now, when it comes to decision time, I vote with 90% of Georgians on the poll that my leaders commissioned. They stand with 5% of Georgians who want more taxes to balance the budget. And, they punish me!
The Senator from the 21st, our Majority Leader, used to be a champion of taxpayers. He used to brag that he had never voted for a tax increase. But you cannot claim to be a champion of taxpayers when you vote to raise taxes and then punish those in your caucus who are convicted not to raise taxes. For the rest of his political career, the Majority Leader will have to face voters who know that he not only sold out to vote for a tax increase but he fired some of his most conservative members because they refused to go along with a tax increase.
Of what purpose is it to have a majority if you abandon the very principles for which the voters entrusted that majority to you? If the Republican Majority is going to start down the road towards raising taxes and even punishing their more conservative members who refuse to march like lemmings off that cliff, then why should Georgian’s trust them any longer to lead?
Last week, a Senator came by my desk and called me the ‘Lion of the Senate’ from Northwest Georgia. That may not be true. I may just be one of the last lone voices calling out to my party to stick to its principals and maintain its identity. I watched sadly as Washington Republicans obtained power and then followed the lead of power-seeking men to act the same way. I believe that our Republican tent should be broad enough to include a very diverse set of ideas. But, in seeking that power, we should never punish and jettison those members who hold firm to the ideal that we should reduce spending to balance budgets rather than raise taxes. If the Republican Party no longer has room for people who are convicted not to raise taxes, then in seeking to grow its appeal, it risks losing its identity and brand.
I have watched my leaders stand aghast at the past dictatorial display of power in the House of Representatives in years past where members were banished for failing to toe the line. Yet, now our leaders are doing the same thing. Last year when House members voted their convictions for their district, they were stripped of their positions by former Speaker Richardson. My leaders decried that dictatorial response. But today, they do the same thing on a bill that they already won!
And that is perhaps the most ironic part of this. In the quest to consolidate power and rule over the Senate, the Lt. Governor has not only gotten his way to raise taxes but after winning his vote, he is punishing those who voted no because he wanted to win the vote by a bigger margin. He is today sacrificing his strongest and most conservative allies at the altar of his own hubris and zeal to control our votes.
Members of the Senate, hear me now. If this raw exercise of power can be used to crush me today, it will be used on you tomorrow. If your votes are controlled, why are you here? We have seen this type of leadership exercised just last year in the House of Representatives. We know where that leads. And, those that so easily forget the lessons of our history are certainly condemned to repeat them.
We have men and women fighting and dying around the world to preserve our freedoms. You give lip service to their heroism but you mock their sacrifice when you don’t even allow us to vote the conviction of our conscience freely. How has it possibly gotten to this point where people are so afraid of our so-called leaders that they will give up their vote and the voice of their constituents in order to maintain some position. Are you really controlled that easily? Some might say that your position of influence is important to represent your district, but how can that possibly be if the price of maintaining the position is giving up that voice of your constituents.
Is this really America? Can you really condemn the backroom arm twisting and deals cut in Washington DC when you do the same thing here? Last week, we heard that voting for this was one of the “tough votes.” That it took courage, that it was leading and “governing”. This despite overwhelming evidence that Georgians don’t want us to raise taxes. That is precisely what President Obama argued to twist arms and get votes to pass a healthcare bill that the majority of Americans opposed. He said the time had come to govern, to lead, to make the tough choices – meaning to pass something that was against the will of the very constituents that elected them. That is precisely what happened here on Thursday night.
And, I will tell you something else. I firmly believe that when you attempt to improperly influence a legislator’s vote through promises of reward or threats of recrimination, I believe it is unethical, immoral and illegal. I have a constitutional right to vote for my constituents and I should never be subject to bullying, intimidation or harassment because anyone wants to force me to cast my vote in some other way. That constitutional right is not diminished or superseded by a caucus position on an issue. That is one of the rawest forms of political corruption. And it must stop if our government is going to regain and earn the trust of her citizens.
To my leaders, I say, “Is your title that valuable to you? That you would punish those who stand on principle even if you quietly agree with them?” When you lay down at night, do you revel in being a leader when that leadership means you crush your friends who have faithfully stood beside you just because they are convicted not to vote for a tax increase?
You recruited me to be an independent voice and a man with a backbone of steel who would not cave in to pressure. I shared with you my conviction on the issue of raising taxes. Rather than respecting that, you sought to break my will with a procedural move and in doing so have forced me to choose my principle or my caucus. You are proud of my intellect when you agree with me but are quick to dismiss my conviction when I won’t yield to your will. Georgia’s citizens expect and deserve true leaders today. They deserve people of principle who will stand up and vote their conscience regardless of the consequences.
People still marvel at why no Republicans seemed to stand up and call their leaders out in Washington when they had the majority. They all seemed to mindlessly walk in goose-step fashion regardless of the consequences. I have experienced the pressure of a patronage system and I know why. No one wants to be bought, traded, coerced, intimidated, or harassed into voting against their conscience. And the consequences are severe.
But if someone had stood up and voiced concern over their direction, Republicans probably would not be in the situation we find ourselves in Washington today. I do not want to lose my chairmanship of Judiciary. I believe I have worked hard and earned the respect of my colleagues on both sides of the isle in that role. But, I will never allow any assignment to become so valuable to me that I would violate my word, vote against the conviction of my conscience, or cease being an independent voice for my constituents.
I understand the position that my leaders have chosen to balance the budget this way. But it violates the pledge that I have given and am expected to uphold. I hope and pray that you will come back to your roots as champions and defenders of the taxpayers and continue to seek ways to live within our means and deliver services to our constituents at the level they can afford to pay.
I am not leaving the Republican Party. I want to see it reformed from the inside and become an answer to what people have been searching for in their government. In 2005, I was actually named the Georgia Republican Party’s ‘legislator of the year’. And I sincerely hope that the Republican Party never abandons its own members who stand up against tax increases. If so, it has surely begun the long descent into the ash heap of history as a party which lost its meaning in search of its majority. I say those words not because I dislike my party. To the contrary, because I love my party, I am compelled to speak up that my party leaders would change course before going down the same destructive road that removed them from power in Washington DC.
If I am one of the last voices in the legislature who calls for lower taxes and smaller government and balancing budgets by cutting spending rather than raising taxes (and who actually means it), then so be it. And if the Lt. Governor, Majority Leader and President Pro Tem punishes me for following my conscience, that is the prerogative that the power of their position offers them and it will be their legacy. But, if the Senate Republicans are willing to punish its members who stand on the foundational precept of lower taxes, then it risks squandering and abusing the privilege of governing.
We have fought a lot of battles together. You know how hard I have worked for this Senate and to assist the Lt. Governor. You know the passion I have had to promote a business and job-friendly Georgia and the passion with which I have fought for making this a physician-friendly state to improve access to affordable healthcare. But the decision you have made today to satisfy some personal goal turns your back on a lot of people who have supported you and our mutual cause. And, it is simply not in the best interest of Georgia.
But if you don’t respect the people of Northwest Georgia enough to let their voice be heard through my independent representation of them, then perhaps you should take your chairmanship and give it to a puppet who will feel indebted to you and surrender his constituents’ voice. I do not need your position to have respect. And, I do not need your title to have honor.