Alice Barrett has logged in at 2023-12-28 16:28:23
Alice Barrett has logged in at 2023-12-28 16:28:23

Photo by Rachel Garbus

It has been a busy first week for Georgia’s elected officials. Legislative freshmen were sworn in, a new congressional leadership was elected, and Governor Brian Kemp was inaugurated for his second term. Amidst the happy hands and hammer banging echoing beneath the gold dome, one could still hear the week’s most popular chorus: “Go Dawgs!”

Now it’s official: The Bulldogs are back-to-back national champions, and the 2023 Georgia Legislature is ready for business. Here are five new developments likely to shape this year’s legislative agenda.

The new Speaker of the House, Jon Burns, will try to follow in big footsteps

Last November, Georgia’s political community suffered a devastating blow with the death of Rep. David Ralston, who had served as Speaker of the House since 2010. The Blue Ridge Republican resigned from office just weeks before his death. Highly respected on both sides of the aisle, he was successful in turning bipartisan legislation into law. His death “has left a hole in the heart of this House,” said Rep. Jon Burns, who was elected Jan. 9 to replace Ralston as Speaker of the House.

The Republican caucus nominated Burns (R-Newington) back in November. In contrast to the chaos of Kevin McCarthy’s embattled bid for the US House of Representatives earlier this month, Burns was elected unanimously in a single vote and received a standing ovation from the entire chamber as he rose to the Speaker’s podium. “This House will continue to lead,” Burns told his colleagues.

Burns has served the House of Representatives for 18 years and is popular with his fellow MPs. In his inaugural speech, he vowed to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps and advocate for nonpartisanship and close cooperation with the Senate. He also pledged to continue Ralston’s legacy in improving the state’s mental health services: Last year, the late spokesman supported passage of the Mental Health Parity Act, which requires health insurers to cover mental health problems as well as physical ones.

Representative Jan Jones (R-Milton) was elected Speaker of the House Pro-Tempore, who will chair the House of Representatives in the Speaker’s absence. Jones has held this post since 2010; After Ralston’s death, she briefly served as speaker, becoming the first woman in Georgia history to hold that office.

5 things to know as Georgia's 2023 legislature beginsNew representatives will be sworn in on January 9, 2023.

Photo by Rachel Garbus

A Trump-backed lieutenant governor heads the state Senate

Burt Jones, a former state senator, was the only Trump-backed candidate to win statewide office in Georgia in the 2022 election. He also served as a fake “alternate voter” in an unlawful attempt to reverse the Georgia 2020 election results for Trump. (However, Jones is barred from Fulton DA Fani Willis’ investigation of this plan: a judge ruled that a fundraiser Willis held for Jones’ opponent disqualified her from questioning Jones.)

In the past week, Lt. Governor Jones shed some light on how he’s going to approach the legislature, and that was pretty typical. At the annual Eggs & Issues Breakfast sponsored by the Georgia Chamber of Congress, Jones pledged to be business-minded and focus on growing jobs and creating more employment opportunities for Georgians with only high school degrees. He also plans to crack down on crime, saying, “We need to crack down on repeat offenders and gangs.” He announced his new Senate Committee on Children and Family, which he said will work to improve children’s mental health improve, invest in education, and improve foster and adoption services.

More controversially, the incoming lieutenant governor has promoted the abolition of the state income tax, a measure Governor Kemp opposes. Jones is also the most senior state official to support the Buckhead Cityhood movement, though it’s not clear if he will push the measure in the Senate. (His predecessor, Lt. Governor Geoff Duncan, did it during the 2022 legislative session.)

And as proof that you can be controversial across the political spectrum, Jones is also the highest-ranking Republican from Georgia to support same-sex marriage. “Be who you want to love with,” he told Axios in August.

The 2023 General Assembly, the most diverse in the state’s history, will include the first Asia-American-Pacific Islanders caucus and the Hispanic caucus

The number of non-white representatives in the Georgia General Assembly has steadily increased, an important step in creating a statehouse that reflects Georgia’s growing diversity. The 2023 legislature is the most diverse in Georgia’s history, with 83 non-white members out of a total of 236. Notably, this session will be the first to include an Asian-American-Pacific Islander caucus and a Hispanic caucus of legislators from both houses and parties.

Caucuses are official working groups that bring together lawmakers with a common interest or affinity. Crossing party lines, they serve as crucial engines for bipartisan legislation, helping to pass legislation on behalf of constituencies that might otherwise be overlooked.

“One thing we’ve heard from many Asian Americans is a frightening sense of invisibility,” said Rep. Michelle Au (D-Johns Creek) in a press release announcing the AAPI caucus. “But times are changing, and so is the face of Georgia.”

“We really want to build. . . real prosperity for Georgians across the state,” Sen. Jason Anavitarte (R-Dallas) said in an interview with Georgia Public Broadcasting, “regardless of your background or ancestry or personal or family history.”

In addition to its historical diversity, the 2023 freshman class includes several major firsts. Rep. Ruwa Romman (D-Gwinnett) is the first Palestinian-American legislator and first Muslim woman in the House of Representatives; Senator Nabilah Islam (D-Lawrenceville) is the first Muslim woman in the Senate; and both houses have their first Afro-Cuban representatives in Rep. Phil Olalaye (D-Atlanta) and Senator Jason Esteves (D-Atlanta), respectively.

Housing seems to be a top priority on both sides of the aisle

Republicans call it “workforce housing,” Democrats prefer “affordable housing” — call it what you will, Georgia needs more of it. Greater Atlanta’s massive population boom, coupled with a record number of businesses moving into the state, has strained the existing housing stock, driving up rents and house prices. Building more housing across the state is a legislative priority where we can expect some bipartisan action.

“We want people to live in the area where they work – it makes for a better quality of life,” Kemp told the Chamber of Congress. Local restrictions on zoning and density have hampered development projects in several counties, frustrated business owners and contributed to a growing affordable housing crisis. The governor said his 2023 budget proposal will include money for local partnerships to build more housing across the state. He will also propose a $1.1 billion fund to provide one-time property tax relief grants to help homeowners meet rising property taxes.

For lawmakers in the Atlanta metro area, legislative priorities will likely include tackling high rental costs, curbing investor buying and funding the city’s Affordable Housing Fund, which helps fund low-income housing development.

After a crucial victory on election night, expect an emboldened second term from Gov. Kemp

Governor Kemp is officially on his winning lap. While Democrats pinned high hopes on high-profile nominee Stacey Abrams following the party’s national success in 2020, Kemp has received high praise from Conservatives for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, the economy and President Trump’s vote-holding plan. In their second duel, he beat Abrams by more than seven points and nearly pushed a whole list of down-ballot Republicans across the finish line with him. (Former US Senate candidate Herschel Walker was the only exception.)

It was a crucial victory that Kemp will see as a mission to continue delivering on conservative promises. “The deal we offered voters was that your state government should care more about safe roads, good schools and good-paying jobs than what the pundits say on cable news,” Kemp said in his inaugural address last week . “In the next four years, we will focus on Georgia’s growth, not government growth.”

To that end, Kemp said he would focus on job growth, business investment and returning government revenues through tax breaks and refunds to Georgians. He plans to increase salaries for state employees, particularly police officers and K-12 teachers and staff. And he announced several large manufacturing projects coming to Georgia in the near future, including a QCells solar panel factory in Dalton and a Hyundai electric car factory in Bartow County.

“By the end of my second term as governor, I intend to have Georgia recognized as America’s electric mobility capital,” he said to broad applause. (He added, without a trace of irony, “To get this done, we’re going to keep our foot on the gas.”)

Investing in electric vehicles, good for business and the environment, is popular on both sides of the aisle here in Georgia. But don’t expect Democrats to approve the entire Kemp agenda. For their part, General Assembly Democrats say they will focus on health care, public transportation and affordable housing. They’re the minority party in both houses — a consistent trend that’s only been reinforced by last year’s Republican-led redistricting of constituencies — but that doesn’t mean they don’t influence legislation.

“If we stay focused, we have an opportunity to build on what we’ve learned over the last year,” House Minority Speaker James Beverly told the AJC. “Some of these battles we can win.”