Sine Die: When ‘anything can and often does happen’ and trust is in demand

The fast pace on the final day of a legislative session makes it ‘a dangerous time’

Sometime Wednesday night, in the waning hours of the 2023 General Assembly session, the parade will begin.

A succession of lawmakers will start streaming to the front of the House and Senate to describe multipage, complicated pieces of legislation as “a good bill” or one that will “create jobs” or “help rural Georgia” or is “good for families.”

That’s sometimes nearly all that legislators will be told about the bill. Then it’s time to vote.

One Capitol veteran described the 40th and final day of the session as being like “passing a kidney stone,” one that has been getting bigger and more painful for months.

The work on Wednesday will start early and go late, the chaotic crescendo, the noisy fugue of a lawmaking session that started in January and ends when the speaker of the House and Senate president bang the gavel one last time for the year and yell, “Sine Die.”

It’s the day when “Frankenbills” and “Christmas trees” (several bills added to one bill) rise, and when the percentage of legislators thoroughly reading bills falls.

It’s a time to lean over the fourth-floor gallery railing to stop the clock, it’s a time to attach a special-interest tax break that nobody’s ever heard of to a bill that nobody could possibly vote against, and it’s a time to kill “good bills” and pass unsure-if-it’s-good ones, ones that, sometime around mid-April, may lead lawmakers to ask: “What did we do again?”

Rush to the finish

It is, as former state lawmaker and now DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond described it, a day of “exhaustion mixed with exhilaration, with a hint of trepidation.”

“Anything,” he said, “can and often does happen on the 40th day.”

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

The General Assembly convenes every year on the second Monday of January. It has 40 working days (weekends are generally not included) to finish its work, then go home. The 40 working days are typically spread out over three months.

Little in the way of actual lawmaking typically occurs early on. Lawmakers go into session at 10 a.m., listen to the sermon of the day, pray, pledge allegiance to the flag, greet the “doctor of the day” and hear what’s typically a one-sentence caption of bills that were filed the previous day. Then, maybe they allow a lobbyist to buy them lunch or they visit one of the Capitol Hill cafeterias. Afternoons they go to committee meetings to work on legislation.

The majority of bills that win final passage do so in the final days. The practiced procrastination is, in legislative parlance, called “perfecting” legislation. Sometimes bills may need a lot of work. But the system also builds pressure as the end of the session nears. And it means lawmakers vote dozens of times on the 40th day, sometimes more than once on the same bill.

No idea, good or bad, is ever truly dead legislatively until the end of the 40th day of a session. Legislation can look buried, even cremated for 39 days and 12 hours, and be resurrected at the last minute.

“The fat lady is not singing until midnight, so anything can happen until then,” said Jeff Mullis, who was until last year chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which decides which bills get a vote.

This year lawmakers head into the final few days without a state budget for the coming year and battling over everything from whether to make it easier for new hospitals to be built and who will produce medical marijuana to what charges electric car owners will have to pay in the future and whether digital downloads should have sales taxes attached to them.

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp



A history of surprises

The last day can be a long slog. But the unexpected often happens.

The most famous example occurred in 1964, when state Rep. Denmark Groover of Macon, a brilliant lawyer and onetime Marine fighter pilot, dangled above the House chamber, trying to keep the clock from running out on a legislative session. He didn’t fall, but the clock did.

In 1992, the General Assembly approved a bill at the last minute that included an amendment pushed by the doctors’ lobby that was written so poorly that it made it a felony for nurses to give injections and for diabetics to give themselves shots.

Mullis remembers a bill lawmakers passed at the end of one session that was designed to stop unscrupulous lenders from taking advantage of the elderly. They had to fix it the next session because it also prevented Grandma and Grandpa from getting a loan.

With two hours left in the 2012 session, the Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill shielding the identities of people applying for hunting and fishing licenses.

What the sponsor didn’t mention was it also sealed the records of some ethics cases filed against politicians. After an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter found out and posted it on social media, good-government lobbyists, bloggers and a few House members picked up on it. The House killed it.

Last year, well into the night, House Republicans amended a bill dealing with the teaching of divisive concepts in schools to include a provision that allowed any athletic association to ban transgender girls from competing on girls teams and sent it across to the Senate. Shortly after midnight (sometimes the word “day” is stretched to include the hour after midnight) Senate leaders called on the chamber to agree to the changes made — before lawmakers had a chance to read the amended legislation.

It passed on a party-line vote, with Republicans supporting it and Democrats opposing it.

Such maneuvers aren’t uncommon as the clock ticks down on the final day.

“The truth of the matter is there is no way to say you understood every bill you voted on,” said Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, who has first elected to the General Assembly when Ronald Reagan was president.



Orrock, who has served in both the majority and now minority parties in the General Assembly, said that’s how legislative leaders want it on the night of the 40th day.

By then “conference committees” of House and Senate members are negotiating final deals on legislation. The deal is then brought to the General Assembly for an up or down vote.

“The strategy is calculated to have the process controlled by a very small group of leadership,” Orrock said. “It’s about the ability to control the process and have the final say on what gets across the finish line.”

Ronnie Chance, a former Republican leader in the Senate turned lobbyist, called the 40th day “a dangerous time.”

“You don’t have time to read everything,” he said. “It really comes down to the trust factor as a legislator when a colleague gets in the well (front of the House or Senate) and says, ‘this is a conference committee report on Senate Bill 127, and we’ve made a couple of changes, we agreed to them, they’re good, it’s a good bill.”

Chance said it’s not unusual or even unexpected for there to be “unintended consequences” on some bills lawmakers pass because they are citizen, part-time legislators, not experts on all of the dozens of issues they vote on each session.

“On the 40th day, there is a lot of trust involved in your colleagues that they’re doing the right thing,” he said. “I used to tell new legislators, you can never get into trouble by voting ‘no.’ ”

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp