Originally created 12/15/04

Legislators learn ropes before session begins



ATHENS, Ga. - The Augusta area's freshman legislators may be part of the rookie class heading to Atlanta next month, but they'll hardly be wet behind the ears when they get there.

Of the General Assembly's 65 new members, Richmond and Columbia counties will send three freshmen to the Capitol. Most will be serving in the Legislature for the first time, but none will be new to elected office.

Former Augusta Commissioner J.B. Powell and ex-Columbia County Commissioner Jim Whitehead got a glimpse this week about what to expect when the session starts Jan. 10.

The two incoming senators learned about the procedures for debating, voting and introducing bills or amendments as part of the biennial institute for legislators held this week in Athens by the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government.

They also attended policy discussions with veteran lawmakers during the event, which ended Tuesday.

The delegation's other "newbie," Sen.-elect Charles Walker, D-Augusta, was registered for the program but did not attend.

After two years away from the Legislature, the former Senate majority leader will return to the body along with 20 other freshman senators.

Mr. Powell, D-Augusta, and Mr. Whitehead, R-Evans, said their previous political experience will help them adjust to the complicated procedures facing them in the Legislature.

"I think it was tremendous training," Mr. Whitehead said about his eight years in county politics. "It's totally different in some ways."

Many of the issues discussed during the program were based on projections of a tight budget, Mr. Powell said.

"We've got a lot of work to do," he said. "It seems like the funding's going to be shallow."

Along with seminars that covered a simulated day in the General Assembly and a broad look at the state's changing demographics, networking also has been an important function for the new senators.

Through the ample mingling time between sessions and at evening receptions, they have been working with returning members and other first-time lawmakers.

"We've been able to assemble as a freshman caucus and share some experiences," Mr. Whitehead said.

As for the upcoming 40-day session, Mr. Whitehead said protecting water rights, transportation and education funding would be high-priority issues for him.

Mr. Powell also said water rights and education are areas he is interested in, along with promoting local business investment.

"Economic development is the 23rd Senate District's main issue," he said.

Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (404) 589-8424.