As one of his first orders of business Monday, newly elected Speaker of the State House of Representatives David Ralston extended an offer to work with House Democrats.
"I am reaching out my hand to you today," Ralston said. "If you wish to come along and work together for a better Georgia, you will not have a better friend in the office of the speaker of the entire House of Representatives than me."
Ralston, a Republican, was elected on Monday as the leader of the state House with 116 votes over Democratic nominee Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Muscogee County. With 104 Republicans in the House, Ralston’s election showed that the Blue Ridge attorney already has the support of some members of the minority party.
"I’m thrilled to be serving for him," Rep. Amy Carter, D-Valdosta, said. "When he said he was reaching out to both sides, I totally believed that."
Carter was one of the few representatives Ralston chose to escort him to the speaker’s well after state representatives elected him as their leader.
Ralston is the state’s 72nd speaker; he succeeds Glenn Richardson, the first Republican speaker since Reconstruction. Richardson resigned late last year after a suicide attempt and amid allegations he had an affair with an Atlanta Gas Light Co. lobbyist while he was sponsoring legislation that would benefit the utility.
Richardson’s presumed successor, then Speaker Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter, chose not to take the speaker’s gavel. He announced Monday that he will soon resign from the General Assembly to open a business in London, according to Tom Crawford of the Georgia Report.
Jan Jones, R-Alpharetta, was elected to take Burkhalter’s place as speaker pro tempore. Jones currently serves on the education subcommittee of the budget committee where she helps set the budget for Georgia’s K-12 school system.
With Monday’s election, Jones becomes one of the most powerful women in the state’s legislature and the first to serve in that high a position. She has served in the state House since 2003.
"There is nobody that I would rather take this position than Rep. Jones," said Burkhalter, who has been speaker pro tem since 2005.
After Ralston’s election, Burkhalter and Ralston briefly embraced at the speaker’s well before Burkhalter handed the speaker’s gavel to Ralston.
"I’ve kind of felt like the co-pilot here the last 10 days; I was the guy you elected as pro tem never knowing the events would have taken place ... but we have a new pilot. One I am confident in. He’s steady, he’s strong, he’s competent ..." Burkhalter said.
Ralston, in turn, said he was impressed with Burkhalter’s leadership.
"I stand before you today with a great sense of humility and with a sense of resolve and renewal," Ralston said. "...We’re at a point that’s both unprecedented and unexpected. We face great challenges. There will, no doubt, be great obstacles thrown in our path."
Legislators face budget obstacles
One of the biggest obstacles state lawmakers face this session is balancing the state’s budget. The state’s Department of Revenue released numbers Friday that show state revenues are, so far, 13.7 percent below what they were at this point last fiscal year. Ralston has said previously that he expects to have to carve at least $1 billion out of state expenses this year.
Historically, lawmakers have, in part, measured their success with what money they sent home for specific projects. But this year, success may have to be measured differently.
"I think you measure success by what’s best for all of Georgia," Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, said. "... It’s just funding what works. I think right now, across the board ... we’ve got to get back to what only government can do."
Senate leaders took their first official stab at the state’s budget woes shortly after adjourning for the day Monday. While the state House elected its new leader, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who presides over the state Senate, and other Senate leaders announced the creation of a budget task force. Cagle said the task force will make recommendations as to how the state can resolve revenue shortfalls without cutting essential services or raising taxes.
The seven-member task force announced Monday includes Suzanne Sitherwood, president of Atlanta Gas Light Co., Ronnie Labrato, chief financial officer of the Georgia Power Co., and Monye Connolly, president of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia Inc.
The group is expected to hold several meetings in January and present a list of recommendations to the state Senate in early February.
In a statement, Cagle said the task force will help state lawmakers as they make some of the most difficult budget decisions in more than a decade.
"Many of the members of this task force have years of experience in managing multibillion dollar budgets with revenues that may fluctuate, especially in the current economy," Cagle said. "This efficient and experienced group will bring real-life business solutions, and we welcome their recommendations. It is clear that our budget decisions must position our state for economic growth and job creation, and that is my top priority this session."
House leaders talk ethics reform
But another issue sure to take up some of legislators’ time in the next 40 days is limits on lobbyist influence in the Capitol.
In his acceptance speech Monday, Ralston addressed a need for ethics reform in state government, a need highlighted by the former speaker’s resignation.
"We must embrace change, because business as usual in this House will no longer be tolerated," Ralston said.
Already, Democrat DuBose Porter, a candidate for governor, has filed legislation that would limit lobbyist expenditures on public officials to $25. A Republican bill filed last year limits lobbyist expenditures to $100.
Ralston has said he expects Rep. Joe Wilkinson, chairman of the House ethics committee, to take the lead on any ethics reform and that he wants whatever package that makes it to the House floor to be a bipartisan effort.
Carter, of Valdosta, said she believes it. In her three years in the state House, Carter said Ralston has been one of the people she turned to and trusted most.
"Even though we’re on different sides of the aisle, he certainly does show his bipartisanship," Carter said.
A vision for Georgia
Rep. Larry O’Neal, R-Bonaire, nominated Ralston for the speaker position. O’Neal lost the Republican nomination to Ralston when the Republican caucus chose the party’s nominee for speaker on Dec. 17.
On Monday, O’Neal said he was the only Republican who hadn’t yet voted for Ralston for speaker. As he gave his nomination speech before the state House, O’Neal promised not to let the chance to vote for Ralston pass him up. O’Neal said Ralston was the best man to unify the House "in these trying times," and said the House needed Ralston’s "job-like patience."
"Ladies and gentlemen of the House, we’ve got some healing to do, we’ve got some changes to make," O’Neal said.
Ralston yielded his time for his nomination speech to Rep. Penny Houston, R-Nashville. Houston called Ralston a man of integrity.
"I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody that’s any more qualified to be speaker of the House of Representatives than David Ralston," Houston said.
In the coming days, Ralston’s vice chairmanship on the House judiciary committee will have to be filled — an appointment Ralston now has the authority to make — and it is still unclear whether the new speaker will change existing committee appointments or chairmanships.
Ralston is expected to do away with the "hawk" system in which a designated member of the house can sit in and vote on any committee at the speaker’s discretion.
While other specific changes are still not known, some change in the state House is sure to come under Ralston’s leadership. Shortly before he adjourned the chamber for the day, the newly-elected speaker likened the 2010 session to a sunrise after a stormy night in North Georgia’s mountains.
"I enjoy watching it, because often, it burns through the fog, brightening up the day with the promise and hope of a new day," Ralston said. "And as we are here today, I see that sun rising over this House and burning through the fog and lifting this House of Representatives up. And I see it rising over the entire state of Georgia, and that’s my vision."