Big freshman class takes office as Georgia lawmakers descend on Capitol

General Assembly convenes the 2023 legislative session
Members of the House of Representatives throw paper on the final day of a legislative session. They will be back Monday to begin a new 40-day session. (Alyssa Pointer /

Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

Members of the House of Representatives throw paper on the final day of a legislative session. They will be back Monday to begin a new 40-day session. (Alyssa Pointer /

The Georgia Capitol might look a bit like the first day of school on Monday, with a bright-eyed freshman class joining more senior lawmakers who have ascended to powerful leadership roles.

This year’s annual legislative session will begin by swearing in 53 new representatives and senators — more than one-fifth of the total of 236 lawmakers.

It will also include an election for Georgia’s incoming speaker of the House after the Republican majority nominated state Rep. Jon Burns, who will succeed Speaker David Ralston, the nation’s longest-serving state House leader before he died in November.

State Rep. John Burns of Newington, left, accepts congratulations from state Rep. Barry Fleming of Harlem after winning the Republican nomination for House speaker. Republicans control the chamber, so Burns is expected to win election as speaker Monday, the first day of the 2023 legislative session. Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

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Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

The new faces at the Capitol will help form the most diverse General Assembly in state history, with at least 83 nonwhite members, including Black, Hispanic, Asian American, Afro Latino and Arab American legislators.

The General Assembly changed so much because several veteran legislators ran for higher office, Democrats gained three seats, and a redrawn political map shuffled officials into new districts following the 2021 reapportionment.

Republicans still hold significant majorities, having won 101 of 180 state House seats and 33 of 56 state Senate seats in November’s elections.

Four seats that Republicans won have become vacant since then because of Ralston’s death and three resignations, including a legislator who withdrew from office after he was charged with stealing prescription narcotics. Those seats will be filled during special elections this month.

Incoming Republican Rep. Rey Martinez, a former mayor of Loganville, said he’s eager to learn about the House — and eventually move into an office. First-time legislators won’t find out where their offices will be located until Burns assigns their workspaces.

“As a freshman, I’m just going to learn the ropes,” Martinez said. “I’m going to absorb it just like a little kid when you start first grade. This is a different animal from local politics and city politics. It’s a state.”

Nabilah Islam, a new Democratic senator from Lawrenceville, said she knows she will "have to work in a bipartisan way" with Republicans who control the chamber to bring funding back to her district and advancing her interests, such as increasing access to health care, supporting education and pursuing gun safety.

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New Democratic Sen. Nabilah Islam said she’s optimistic that she can promote her policy goals — such as greater health care access, education and gun safety — while also working with the GOP majority.

“I recognize that Republicans control both chambers, so I know I’ll have to work in a bipartisan way to build relationships to bring funding back to my district and find areas where we can agree and work together,” said Islam, who represents the Lawrenceville area.

The annual legislative session will start with all members of the House and Senate taking their oaths of office for their two-year terms, followed by the election of the speaker of the House and a few speeches.

Then legislators and University of Georgia football fans will prepare for the main event Monday: the national championship game in Los Angeles, which several elected officials plan to attend. The game could result in the second business day of this year’s session being delayed until Wednesday.

Gov. Brian Kemp and Lt. Gov.-elect Burt Jones will be inaugurated Thursday, starting their four-year terms. Kemp won reelection over Democrat Stacey Abrams, and Jones, a former state senator, defeated Democrat Charlie Bailey after Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan declined to run again.

Much of the first week’s work will involve deciding on chairman and chairwomen of Senate and House committees that oversee the $33 billion state budget, taxes, education, agriculture, elections, public safety and transportation.

One powerful committee chairman has already been named by House leadership: state Rep. Matt Hatchett will take over the Appropriations Committee, replacing longtime Chairman Terry England, who didn’t seek reelection.

With 40 business days, the legislative session generally lasts until late March or early April, but leaders of each chamber often haggle over their preferred schedule. Lawmaking gradually builds toward a crescendo on the final day, when dozens of bills live or die in a rapid-fire flurry of votes.

The class of ‘23 at the Georgia Capitol

236: Total legislators in the General Assembly

57%: Share of seats won by Republicans in November’s elections.

3: Number of seats gained by Democrats.

53: Newly elected legislators who will be sworn in Monday

4: Vacant seats since November’s elections because of deaths and resignations.