Originally created 01/11/00

Georgia General Assembly begins



ATLANTA -- Georgia lawmakers Monday were reminded of the past even as the General Assembly convened for the first session of the 21st century.

After a ceremonial procession up the north and south staircases inside the Capitol, members of the House and Senate entered chambers that have been renovated to look much as they did when the building opened in 1890.

Shades have been replaced with shutters; the walls have been repainted in the original colors; and new rugs in each chamber are replicas of the originals.

"We know and treasure our history," said Gov. Roy Barnes during a dedication ceremony held in the Capitol Rotunda, a section of the building that was restored in 1996 and 1997 during the first phase of the $58 million project. "We know that the improvements we make today are made for those who will come after us."

Besides the 19th-century touches, the legislative chambers are equipped with some new technological innovations, which lawmakers quickly found weren't working perfectly on opening day. The laptop computers promised to legislators hadn't been hooked up in the Senate, and some of the new loudspeakers at House members' desks weren't working.

"It's obvious that we're having technical difficulties," House Speaker Tom Murphy, D-Bremen, told his legislative colleagues from the rostrum. "There's a lot of new equipment out there. We're going to try to have it ready for you tomorrow morning."

As is customary on the first day of the 40-day session, little legislative business was transacted.

House members did get a chance to try out their new electronic voting board, defeating by a margin of 105-52 a motion to "engross" a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the General Assembly to set minimum prison sentences for some felonies. Engrossing a piece of legislation forces it to be voted up or down without amendments.

A resolution also was introduced into the House to reprimand Rep. Arnold Ragas, D-Stone Mountain, for failing to file required campaign finance reports. During a hearing before the House Ethics Committee in November, Mr. Ragas admitted wrongdoing and said he would not fight a reprimand.

In the Senate, Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor reiterated the legislative agenda he first outlined last week, including his backing of a constitutional amendment to require any legislator convicted of a felony to resign.

Former Sen. Diana Harvey Johnson, D-Savannah, resisted calls for her resignation after she was convicted last summer on federal mail fraud charges but relented in November after she was sentenced to 41 months in jail, pending her appeal.

"I recognize the importance of the right of a judicial appeal in our legal system," Mr. Taylor said. "(But) it would not be fair for the people of her district and ... to the Senate for a sitting senator to be in a position of trying to perform the duties expected of a senator while dealing with the post-conviction stages of a legal prosecution."

Voters in Ms. Johnson's district go to the polls today in a runoff election to decide her successor. The winner is expected to take office by the end of the week.

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.