Focus Groups Help Lawmakers Hone Proposals; but No Amount of Vetting Beforehand Can Purge Controversy, Legislators Find

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Byline: WALTER C. JONES

ATLANTA -- When Gov. Sonny Perdue and the legislative leaders hold their series of news conferences over the next few weeks to announce the bills they're sponsoring this year, it won't be the first time some Georgians have seen the bills.

Voters in focus groups and survey pools have already seen all the ideas and given them their blessings. You can bet the proposals that tank with the test markets won't see the light of day.

If detergent makers and soft-drink bottlers would never launch a public campaign without test marketing, neither would today's politicians.

Gone are the days of "send it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes."

It would be too risky to chance the TV commercials, online ads and vicious attacks that could come from introduction of a half-formed proposal.

Voters' memories of legislative details are just as short, but professional political operatives are more effective at reviving opponents' missteps.

To minimize risk, legislative leaders of both major parties now use the same techniques consumer-product makers have employed for decades, testing.

First, a group of diverse registered voters is brought into a room to kick around a few general concepts while legislators watch by one-way mirror or video camera. The comments help in fine-tuning the legislation or scrapping it altogether.

Next, the surviving proposals get tested in a larger universe, a statewide survey.

For $14,000 or so, 400 to 500 voters can be called to test their reactions to brief descriptions of proposals and even versions of the phrases used to justify them during legislative debate. Random selection of a larger number of voters makes these surveys more accurate than focus groups and infinitely more reliable than gut political intuition.

The need for such polls is one reason the politicians exempted political pollsters from "do not call" legislation.

Test marketing does bring the voice of the public to the General Assembly, where professional lobbyists monopolize meal time and a single party runs everything. It might be easy for some lawmakers to become sheltered from the wishes of ordinary voters otherwise.

Test marketing provides this little dose of democracy for a very base reason. Legislators don't like surprise controversies that could cling to them in campaign season.

House Speaker Glenn Richardson and Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson have already promised a short, non-controversial session for 2006.

"Less is more," said Richardson, R-Hiram. "Our intention is not to have a very big session and not to have a very aggressive agenda."

SOME BILLS FALL BEHIND

Two bills that could have been considered "aggressive" were shelved as a result of test marketing.

One bill would have changed the constitution to cap spending growth to the rate of population increase plus the inflation rate. …