Georgia House Speaker David Ralston isn't making any jokes when it comes to this year's budget.
The Blue Ridge native, who presides over the state's House chamber and sets the day-to-day business for the 40-day legislative session, knows that passing a balanced budget is job duty No. 1.
"That's the one thing we're mandated by law to do every session, and it's the one thing we've been working on literally now for many months - getting ready for the budget process," Ralston said in a recent interview at the Capitol. "We didn't want to wait until we saw who was elected as governor, and we knew we couldn't wait until right before the session."
Staff members have been preparing different scenarios to address the $1.5 billion gap that needs to be cut from state services and staff.
"I view the budget process, even in difficult times, as being an opportunity for those of us in government to really focus on what government ought to be doing rather than what we might like for it to be doing," Ralston said. "It's important we really address the core function of government and get out of doing some things that we don't need to be doing. This is an opportunity to downsize."
Ralston has seen the state budget shrink by 20 percent in the past two years and plans to cut even more without raising taxes.
"The last thing the government ought to do is tell the people of Georgia that we need you to send us more of your money," he said. "And we've tried to avoid that."
Rep. James Mills, R-Gainesville, knows how important Ralston's leadership will be as budget talks come to the table.
"He's very thoughtful in his decision-making process, which I appreciate," said Mills, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. "He hears both sides of the issue judiciously and makes a decision. I also appreciate that he has allowed us to have so much input into the budget process and leans on us for suggestions ... because there's wisdom among a council of different people."
During the legislative session that starts Jan. 10, Ralston will also prioritize education and the HOPE scholarship.
"It's something I've been working on almost every day," he said. "It's important that we preserve the scholarship and pre-K program."
Ralston is coming up on his one-year anniversary as speaker of the House, and he's feeling positive about another legislative session.
"It's been a good year. We came in at a tough time when we were going through a period of turbulence in the House," he said. "Things have stabilized, and I think the House has done some good work during the last session."
House Republicans picked up seats on Election Day and pulled out a historic high with 108 representatives. The record before Nov. 2 was 105 House Republicans, and now Ralston has seen seven more representatives join the GOP team from the Democratic side of the aisle.
"These are good people who felt like the Democratic Party in Georgia is no longer a place they could be home in," he said. "The Democratic Party in Georgia didn't get it and still doesn't get why voters in Georgia have rejected them and continue to drive toward the cliff on the left-hand side."
The switching can largely be attributed to Ralston himself, said Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, who had known Ralston as a friend and fellow representative for more than 20 years.
"Even in a tough time, you can see how well things ran in the House and how he was able to bring us together," Meadows said Tuesday. "A wonderful example is the number of people who are changing parties, not because of the national level but because David is taking us in the right direction. He doesn't care if you have an ‘R,' ‘D' or ‘I' beside your name."
Meadows was one of the first representatives to support Ralston in his bid for speaker against former Speaker Glenn Richardson.
"You find out after six years down there that Atlanta can be a mean place," Meadows said. "A group of us felt that the caucus was headed toward a bad time. We learned a lot in that defeat and this time, after a hard fought caucus election, he came out on top."
Meadows, who served as Calhoun mayor for 13 years, has remained close to Ralston's family and watched as Ralston worked his way to one of the top spots at the Gold Dome.
"He's a true down-to-earth good guy who can be strong when he needs to be. He's compassionate and caring but can be tough, and he's shown that toughness," Meadows said. "He's a statesman with a lot of sense ... a good old country boy who was brought up right."
Ralston is also close to Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, R-Gainesville, and the two continue to develop their working relationship to bring the House and Senate together.
"Last session we were able to get some things done that, frankly, had not been done here in Georgia and we had failed the people of Georgia by not doing," Ralston said. "I'm pleased that by working together we were able to accomplish some things, and I expect that to continue to keep going."
Ralston plans to keep meeting with Cagle, who saw some of his powers stripped at the Republican Senate Caucus meeting in Macon as a group of senators formed the Committee on Assignments to handle legislation flow.
"I try not to meddle in Senate business, and I don't want them meddling in ours. Hopefully all of that will settle out soon," Ralston said. "At the end of the day, it's up to them to decide what sort of leadership structure they want. But it's easier to work together when you know who it is that you need to make the deal with, and I'll leave that at that."
Despite the ongoing jokes that Gainesville natives Gov.-elect Nathan Deal and Cagle will move the Capitol to Hall County, Ralston is looking forward to representing the state for another year.
"I thought the Capitol might ought to be in Blue Ridge, which wouldn't be far from Gainesville," Ralston said with a laugh. "But we live in an Internet age, and I don't think geography matters as much as it may once have mattered. What gets lost in all this discussion is ... I'm voted on by the entire House and have support in all areas of the state."
State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, who knows Ralston through family friends, is eager to see how Ralston leads the House as both chambers try to work together.
"He has a long-standing reputation of being a consensus builder and of being fair and reasonable to work with," he said. "He's a much-needed breath of fresh air and an antithesis to his predecessor. He creates an atmosphere of cooperation and productivity, which will move this state forward. He's not pushing his own agenda."