About the General Assembly: What do legislators do, how does it work?

Georgia's top leaders at the Capitol, Gov. Brian Kemp, center, Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, left, and House Speaker Jon Burns. (Arvin Temkar/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Georgia's top leaders at the Capitol, Gov. Brian Kemp, center, Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, left, and House Speaker Jon Burns. (Arvin Temkar/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Lawmakers will return to the Georgia Capitol on Monday morning to start the General Assembly’s 2024 session.

Q: So who are these people and what do they do?

A: The Legislature is made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House has 180 members, while the Senate has 56. Elections for the Legislature are held every two years. Being a legislator is a part-time job that pays $24,342 a year, plus per diem of $247 a day and a pension of $50 a month per year served. They also receive health insurance through the State Health Benefit Plan. Lawmakers earn a living as lawyers, businesspeople, doctors, farmers, funeral home directors, insurance and real estate agents, etc. Some are retirees or independently wealthy. Some are both. Some stay in apartments in Atlanta during the session and go home on the weekends; others commute from their homes every day.

Q: How often do they meet?

A: Typically once a year beginning in early January for a 40-day session. The pacing of the session has varied over the years. Most recent years, the session adjourns in late March or the first week of April. In 2003, the longest legislative session since 1889 adjourned April 25. Special sessions, such as the recent one for redrawing political districts, can be called by the governor during the year, but most years legislators just meet once.

Q: Why do the sessions vary in length?

A: Only the days on which the chambers formally convene count against the 40-day clock. The rest of the time — whether it is spent drawing up a budget, meeting in committees or simply taking a break — does not count toward the 40 days. A legislative term technically lasts two sessions. Monday, the second session of the 2023-2024 legislative term begins.

Q: What do they do?

A: Simply put, they make laws. Every session, legislators introduce hundreds of bills. They range from the silly — in 2003, a legislator tried unsuccessfully to pass a law requiring restaurants to serve sweet tea — to serious, such as the 2019 law severely limiting abortions in Georgia or the 2014 law greatly expanding where Georgians can carry guns. During the two sessions of the 2021-2022 term, legislators introduced about 2,400 bills and resolutions. A vast majority of bills never make it to the governor’s desk for his signature. Many don’t even get a committee hearing.

Q: How do legislators work?

A: Once a lawmaker introduces a bill, a summary of it is read aloud (or at least the first few words of the summary) in the chamber where it originated. The bill is then assigned to a committee. Legislators who serve as committee members may ignore the bill, or they may debate the merits of it and vote to either send it to the full chamber for a vote or kill it. Committees may hold hearings on a bill to solicit input from the public. Committees can also amend or completely rewrite a bill before voting on it.

If it makes it out of a committee, the bill then heads to the House or Senate chamber for a vote. If it passes that test, the bill then heads to the other chamber, where the process starts over.

Q: What happens next? Are there any deadlines for passing bills, other than before the end of the 40th day?

A: First, all bills must pass one chamber prior to the close of business on what’s called “crossover day” to continue. It used to be the 33rd day of the session; more recently it’s been the 28th day. An asterisk on “crossover day”: After that day, lawmakers frequently gut or heavily amend bills that passed one chamber and insert bills that didn’t.

While the opposing chamber may amend a bill, if it does, it must go back to the originating chamber for approval of any changes. If the two chambers cannot agree on changes, a small panel of lawmakers is appointed to try to hammer out the differences.

Most bills can start in either chamber. However money bills — the budget and tax bills — must start in the House.

Once both chambers approve a bill, it goes to the governor. The governor can sign a bill into law, veto it or take no action. If the governor does not take action, the bill automatically becomes law. On the state budget, the governor can veto particular spending items or tell state agencies to ignore how lawmakers appropriated money.

A group of lobbyists watch the sessions on Sine Die, the last day of the General Assembly at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Monday, April 4, 2022.   Branden Camp/ For The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

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Credit: Branden Camp