Crowds packed the Georgia Capitol on Monday for the first day of this year’s legislative session, when 40 newly elected lawmakers took office and the majority Republicans prepared to work with a growing caucus of Democrats.
The day was filled with ceremony, celebration and hopes for bipartisanship before contentious debates begin during the Georgia General Assembly’s annual session. Lawmakers plan to consider proposals to give teachers pay raises, replace the state’s voting machines, allow medical marijuana dispensaries and subsidize rural internet construction.
While the main event Monday was the inauguration of Gov. Brian Kemp at Georgia Tech, every lawmaker at the Capitol was sworn in after winning two-year terms in November’s election. Their families and friends packed House and Senate chambers before the lawmakers got to work.
State representatives re-elected David Ralston to be House speaker, a post he has held since 2010. Ralston will have considerable influence on legislation while working with Georgia’s other elected leaders, Kemp and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who serves as president of the state Senate.
Ralston called on lawmakers to avoid harming Georgia’s reputation and focus on initiatives that help create jobs. He didn’t mention specifics, but Ralston has previously said he’s cautious about “religious liberty” and gun rights measures.
“It is a state that is too busy moving forward to unnecessarily and harmfully divide us against each other,” Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge, said as he was interrupted by applause in the House chamber. “The loudest and angriest voices are not always right but oftentimes are simply that: loud and angry.”
Across the hall, state senators changed the chamber’s rules to require that allegations of sexual harassment be made within two years of an alleged incident or they won’t be considered. Previously there had been no time limit.
The changes created a testy first legislative day, though Senate Republican Leader Mike Dugan of Carrollton tried to keep things light.
“Good morning,” he said as he began to explain the changes. “This is starting off well.”
The rule change came less than a year after a lobbyist accused a senator of sexually harassing her. A Senate panel meeting in secret ended up dismissing the complaint.
All the chamber’s Democrats voted against the change, as well as Republican state Sen. Renee Unterman of Buford.
Senate Democratic Leader Steve Henson said he was “regretfully” urging his colleagues to vote against the changes to the rules, saying senators had less than a day to review the proposal.
“We’re not doing this as some partisan thing for one side or the other,” Henson said. “This is the most important document that we will pass this session, and we should get it right even if it takes a little time.”
Democrats gained 11 seats in the state House and two in the state Senate in November’s elections. Republicans now control 58 percent of seats in the General Assembly and every statewide elected office, including governor, secretary of state, attorney general and state schools superintendent.
Freshmen legislators, many surrounded by family and friends as they were sworn in, said they were optimistic that lawmakers can find ways to work together and compromise. Two House seats remain vacant until special elections are held next month.
“We have this opportunity as new people in this building to really make a difference,” said state Rep. Houston Gaines, a Republican from Athens who unseated state Rep. Deborah Gonzalez in the general election.
State Rep. CaMia Hopson, a freshman Democrat from Albany, said she hopes lawmakers avoid divisiveness, but she said she understands that strong disagreements over bills are sure to arise as the legislative session progresses.
“I’ve heard that it does get to be very chaotic and very tense at times,” Hopson said. “I’m anticipating that but hoping that at the end of the session we’ll all come out on a positive front.”
It was easy for lawmakers to stay positive on the first day because few bills have been introduced and debate hasn’t really begun.
Many committee leaders have yet to be named, and new representatives don’t have offices assigned yet until their committee assignments are decided. That could come sometime this week.
For now, the difficult process of making and repealing laws is just starting. Those battles will come in the months ahead before the General Assembly adjourns, probably in late March or early April.
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