The 40-day legislative session kicked off Monday with new lawmakers getting sworn in and a warning to tone down the politics.
“All of us should take a moment and remember why each of us is here, to help the people of Georgia we represent,” Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said in welcoming senators.
Cagle noted that primaries rescheduled from July to May leaves legislators eager to get the session over with as quickly as possible.
“We are in uncharted territory in this session, all of us,” he said, cautioning that political “cheap shots” would be tempting but unwelcome.
“Our goal shouldn’t be to be the best politician here but to be the best statesman,” he said.
Among the new House members taking their seat for the first time is Rep. Brian Prince, D-Augusta, who won a special election last month to complete the term of Quincy Murphy, who died in August.
House Speaker David Ralston said today’s session will feature special recognition of Murphy and Calvin Hill, a Republican from Canton who died in October. Murphy’s widow, Dianne, is expected to attend.
Among the panels getting right to work was the Senate Ethics Committee, which voted to change the date of this year’s primary election from July to May 20. That complies with a federal judge’s order so that ballots from overseas members of the military have time to be counted in any runoff.
One of the lingering questions from last session was what would happen to gun legislation, which had the support of gun rights groups but faced opposition from the Board of Regents. It failed to reach a final vote on the last day, after a conference committee was appointed to negotiate a deal between competing versions in the House and Senate.
Senate Majority Whip Cecil Staton, R-Macon, and Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, were both part of that committee and said Monday that no action would be taken on that conference committee bill. Instead, Meadows said he is working on new legislation that could be introduced as early as next week, with a focus on mental health issues.
“The intent is not so much campus carry,” Meadows said. “Where we want to go with this bill is that we want to make it as hard as humanly possible for a person who is mentally ill to get a license.”
While part of the legislation last year, the mental health provisions were overshadowed by the debate involving guns on campuses. Staton said one idea under consideration would allow public college presidents and religious leaders to decide whether to allow guns on their property, something House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle have indicated they are open to considering.
“Rather than us imposing this on colleges and churches, if they chose to do so, that is fine,” Staton said. “I’m sure there will be those who don’t feel we will go far enough. Our job is to be concerned for all Georgians and not just a particular group.”
Meadows, chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee that sets the daily agenda, said he did not favor the idea but was willing to consider it. The fact that Ralston, the top Republican in the House, wasn’t shutting the door on the idea could also be significant.
A spokesman for the University System of Georgia declined comment. A group representing 25 churches and other places of worship said in a statement that they “hope to find a moderate and responsible answer to reducing gun violence” without infringing on the Second Amendment.
The Senate provided the only drama of the day when Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, rose to speak for the first time since his acquittal on criminal charges that he submitted bogus expense reports. As soon as he had been indicted, the Senate leadership removed him as chairman of the powerful Rules Committee and kicked him out of the Republican Caucus. They restored his caucus membership after he was cleared on all counts by the jury, and observers wondered if he would hold a grudge.
The chamber was hushed as he told his colleagues he was ready to move forward, but he lamented the ordeal his political opponents created by accusing him of wrongdoing.
“There should be a line between political gamesmanship and trying to destroy someone’s life,” he said.