2009 Ga. Legislature opens with swearing in, leadership selections

The 2009 session of the Georgia General Assembly got under way Monday as lawmakers returned to Atlanta for 40 days of budget writing and lawmaking.

This year, though, they expect to do more budget cutting than in most years. And the usual stampede to pass new laws may take a back seat to wrangling over falling state revenues and federal and state stimulus spending meant to jump-start the economy.

That debate will come, but Day One of the session was about ceremony. Members were sworn in to office, and their families took pictures at the Capitol. Newly elected state Rep. Bubber Epps took his oath of office with a hand placed on his mother’s Bible. She died Saturday, and Epps left the Capitol after Monday morning’s session to attend her funeral. Epps, D-Jeffersonville, replaces Allen Freeman in the House.

Leadership choices also were selected Monday, with no real surprises. Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson kept his position, despite a challenge from a fellow Republican, state Rep. David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, that fizzled before the session began.

Democrats declined to put in their own nomination for speaker, as the minority party usually does.

In doing so, they avoided what would have been merely a symbolic vote, since they don’t have the numbers to elect a speaker.

Still, the move was meant as a symbol of unity during difficult times, said state Rep. DuBose Porter, a Dublin Democrat and House minority leader.

Not much real work gets done on the first day of a session, which lasts 40 legislative days that can stretch out over several months.

Much of the first day is built on ceremony and small honors.

For example, state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, was asked to second Richardson’s nomination for speaker in another sign that Peake has quickly become well thought of by the Republican leadership despite being in just his third year in the House.

Committee assignments were also being doled out Monday, with the speaker’s office expecting to announce House committees by today. The Senate, a much smaller body, already has its committees set.

It is in these committees that much of the detail work is done on the budget and on new laws.

Legislative work on the state budget will start later this week.

Gov. Sonny Perdue is expected to announce the details of his budget recommendations Wednesday during his state-of-the-state address, although some details may trickle out this morning. Perdue is slated to speak at this morning’s Eggs and Issues breakfast, an annual event put on by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

Richardson and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle are expected to join him there.

State Rep. Jim Cole, a Monroe Republican and one of the governor’s floor leaders in the House, said he has seen “bits and pieces” of Perdue’s proposal.

“There’s not going to be much in it besides cuts,” Cole said.

That’s what others have predicted, with Perdue’s office already trimming 8 percent from the current year’s budget and promising similar funding levels for fiscal year 2010, which starts July 1.

But Perdue also has promised an “aggressive” bond package — money the state will borrow for building projects in an effort to spur the economy.

“Probably the largest bond package in 35 years,” predicted longtime state Rep. David Lucas, D-Macon. “But kind of hard to tell you what to think, because I don’t know what’s in the plan.”

To contact staff writer Travis Fain, call 744-4213.