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Despite snow and ice, General Assembly begins
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle presides over the state Senate Monday during the first legislative session at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Ignoring the weather and treacherous roads outside, both chambers of the Georgia General Assembly gaveled into session this morning.

At 10 a.m., lawmakers started the first of 40 days in the 2011 legislative session, where they formally elected leaders in the Republican-led House and Senate.

Most of the first day started with pomp, ceremony and general housekeeping, but Senators faced a tough discussion when approving the Senate rules. Voted on by Republican House Caucus just three days after Election Day, the rule amendments strip Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle from many of his powers.

"As we understand it, the members of the Senate ought to govern the Senate," said Majority Leader Chip Rogers, who presented the amendments this morning and served as spokesman for the Caucus when it met in Macon in November.

The amendment creates an eight-member Committee on Assignments that will name committee chairmen and determine who sits on each committee. The committee will also handle gubernatorial appointments that requires Senate approval.

Cagle will retain power over Senate purse strings and the gavel, but he must recognize President Pro Tem Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, and Majority Leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, whenever they stand to speak from the floor. Williams will chair the Committee on Assignments but will only vote during a tie.

"Our caucus was not included in this discussion, and we weren't brought to the table," said Senate Democratic Whip Steve Hinson. "That should be addressed as we move forward. I want to go against the rules as a symbolic gesture and hope we work together in the future."

The Senate rules were approved by a 40-12 vote. Around the same time, Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, nominated David Ralston as Speaker of the House.

"I've watched as he works with people and has openness to all, not just his party but to all parties, not just his view but all views," Collins said. "We're going to have budget issues, and we need a speaker who looks not just forward and outward but also next to himself and sees individuals for who they are."

House members approved Ralston with a 140-9 vote.
"I'm both honored and humbled to stand in this place today, and I renew the pledge to treat this position with dignity, honor and respect," Ralston said. "I believe challenging times produce great leaders, and I think the people of Georgia have chosen well."

The chambers went into recess at noon and agreed to hold a joint session for Nathan Deal's inauguration as the 82nd governor at 2 p.m.

Lawmakers this year will be tackling yet another round of budget cuts. Estimates place the state's shortfall for the coming fiscal year at close to $2 billion.

They'll also be looking at immigration and a possible overhaul of the state's tax code.

"Now is the time for reason and deliberation," Cagle said before the vote to strip his powers. "We are in a position to truly help people and to make decisions that impact this generation and the next."

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