ABOUT THIS SERIES
Each Sunday through the beginning of the 2011 General Assembly, The Times has been looking at some of the key issues that Gov.-elect Nathan Deal and state lawmakers will face. Previous commentaries included:
Dec. 5: Val Perry, the executive vice president of the Lake Lanier Association, the challenges that state leaders will face reaching a compromise on water. Read it here.
Dec. 12: Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield examines what the legislature can do to improve education. Read it here.
Dec. 19: Former DOT board member Mike Evans gives his thoughts on how transportation needs can be paid for. Read it here.
Dec. 26: Gainesville businessman Doug Carter, the incoming president of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, suggests ways that state leaders can help jump-start the state’s economy. Read it here.
I have been asked by The Times to write an article in which I give advice to the new faces going to the Capitol this year. Webster's dictionary defines advice as, "opinion given as what to do or how to do something." Giving advice to a new legislator is like teaching someone how to dribble a football. I believe the best advice that I received, on any subject, was that which was based on knowledge and experience.
The newly elected legislators have met at the Capitol for a briefing session and a meeting with the Capitol staff and each other. Freshmen legislators have met in their respective caucus by now and introduced to the veteran legislators. All legislators attended the Biennial Institute for Legislators, held by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government in Athens. Here they heard from various department heads, staff and advisors, learning the current issues and challenges facing them in the upcoming session.
Our local legislative delegation met for a full day with Hall County commissioners, county agencies, councilmen of the city governments, city agencies, school boards and local state agencies who presented their goals and issues for consideration during the session. Local legislation is one of the most important functions of the legislature and typically is 45 percent of bills passed. Much truth is in the saying that the best government is that which is closest to the people.
The legislative session is part of a biennium, a two-year term which begins on the second Monday in January. The Georgia Constitution requires that at the beginning of each term, the members of the General Assembly, before taking their seat, take an oath of office as prescribed by law.
This is an exciting day, especially for the new members and their families, who fill each chamber of the General Assembly. New legislators will look back on this day as one of their fondest of memories.
During the first week of session, there will be the introduction of prefiled legislation. New bills will come slowly at first. This is the time for the new legislator to confirm that he has read and understands the rules of the House or the Senate. They must also know the Order of Business, Rules of Debate and the Precedence of Motions. Knowledge is power and power is the tool to do a good job for the people who elect you. In the weeks to follow, the newly elected will discover that the pace is fast and the issues are complex. It is said that the learning period for a new legislator is like drinking water from a fire hose.
Freshmen are assigned a mentor, an experienced legislator who is willing to give advice and, more importantly, answer their many questions. No one is an expert on every issue. That includes legislators. Not only must you read the legislation, but also discern why the legislation was introduced, by whom and, more importantly, what does it do and who does it benefit. Many legislators have developed great knowledge in certain fields such as education, health care and economic development to name just a few. They are an invaluable resource for freshmen and veteran lawmakers alike.
The typical day starts with a caucus meeting followed by the morning session and committee meetings in the afternoon. I never missed a day or a committee meeting. My advice to the newly elected is to do the same. Your decisions rest on your knowledge. Learn and read all you can. Always be honest and dependable. Be available to your constituents, return phone calls and e-mails and attend local meetings at home. Know that you can not complete 100 percent of the above, but always try. The people will understand, but more importantly they will continue to have faith in you.
A few words about lobbyists: It is said that sharks will not eat them as a matter of professional courtesy. While some lobbyists represent special-interest clients and promote their agenda, the vast majority represent groups who provide essential services to the citizens of Georgia. Lobbyists for agriculture, education, health care and many other much-needed services are well-represented by ethical and well-informed lobbyists. Freshman legislators must learn who of these will assist them in making the very best decisions for the people of Georgia.
There were 2,080 bills introduced in the 2009-10 session of the General Assembly. The one piece of legislation that the General Assembly must pass is the budget. It funds all functions of the state and the services provided to Georgians. It has been estimated that Georgia may be dealing with a $2 billion shortfall in this year's budget, a budget which has been reduced by $4 billion in the past three years. By Georgia law, the legislature must pass a balanced budget. There will be tough decisions to be made.
The governor proposes the budget to the General Assembly for passage. We are fortunate to have Gov.-elect Nathan Deal, who has the experience and knowledge of this important process. We also have Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Speaker of the House David Ralston, both with years of experience and wisdom to help guide the process. We must have quality education, health care and transportation. That means a strong economy, one which depends on revenue from a healthy business environment. Jobs are key, not only creating new jobs but, more importantly, keeping jobs.
The legislature has been given a great responsibility and often must make difficult decisions. I have based my decisions on the values of my faith, family and the people I serve, whether they are a patient or a constituent. I believe that most legislators do the same.
It is one's honor, values and integrity that guide them in these decisions. The newly elected will quickly realize that serving is not about sound bites or one's self, but about serving the people of Georgia. The motto of the original trustees of Georgia was "not for self, but others."
It is a great honor to be chosen by the people to represent them. Public service is one of the highest callings that one can aspire to, so as to give back to the community, state and country. There is great satisfaction in the work of helping others and making tomorrow a better day for the people who have entrusted you to represent them.
I would like to thank the people of the 49th District for the privilege to have had the opportunity to serve as their senator. It has been my honor. I thank you.
Lee Hawkins is a former state senator who represented the 49th District, which included Hall County. He is a dentist in Gainesville.