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Legislators elect leaders on quiet opening day

camie.young@gwinnettdailypost.com

ATLANTA - The General Assembly on Monday re-elected Georgia's first Republican House speaker in modern times and welcomed the state's first-ever GOP lieutenant governor with new powers.

Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, who was elevated to the top leadership post two years ago after Republicans took control of the House, won a second term by a solid margin, 113-66, with at least seven Democrats siding with their GOP colleagues.

The new lieutenant governor, Casey Cagle, hadn't even taken office as the Senate's presiding office on Monday morning when Senate Republicans pushed through rules changes to restore powers to the post that were taken away four years ago.

Former Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, a Democrat, had much of his clout stripped away by GOP senators at the beginning of the 2003 session.

Republicans had captured control of the Senate due to a flurry of party switching that followed the 2002 elections, and GOP leaders didn't want a Democrat dictating committee chairmanships or the flow of

legislation.

The last four years of Taylor presiding over a Republican majority made for some "awkward moments,'' said Sen. Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, who was elected unanimously on Monday to a third term as Senate president pro tempore.

"The Senate faces a new challenge,'' Johnson said, noting that 36 of the Senate's 56 members have never had a presiding officer who is the member of the majority party.

"Our brief experiment with a temporary transfer of powers has come to an end. With God's blessings and the good will of his colleagues, Casey Cagle will continue the strong tradition of Senate leadership using a firm hand, a kind heart and a clear vision. Because it is here, under this Gold Dome, that we go to work for Georgia."

Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville said the new rules will include the committee on assignments, which was created to give the majority the ability to make committee appointments. Instead, the group will act as a kind of cabinet for the lieutenant governor.

Before Monday's election of the House speaker, Richardson drew praise from Speaker Pro Tempore Mark Burkhalter, R-Alpharetta, as a man of resolve.

"I've never met anybody who, when you go into a room, regardless of the circumstances, can almost immediately find a quick resolution to the problem,'' said Burkhalter, who placed Richardson's name in nomination.

After the vote, Richardson vowed to use the same four-part litmus test for proposed legislation that he used during his first term as speaker.

He said he won't support any bill that doesn't reduce the size of government, reduce the tax burden, promote personal responsibility or strengthen the role of the family.

"When problems demand action, we'll take it,'' he said. "We will, however, continue to move slowly and cautiously in adopting new laws.''

After Richardson's election, Burkhalter was chosen unanimously to return as speaker pro tempore.

The House also made a series of rules changes, including a ban on cell phone conversations on the floor while a member is speaking.

But what drew the most complaints from Democrats was Republicans' decision to keep a rules change adopted two years ago that allows the speaker to assign "hawks'' to attend committee meetings.

Hawks are non-members who can participate in a meeting either to provide a quorum or, as Democrats charge, to make sure Republican bills get enough votes to pass.

"It does away with representative government and real deliberation in committees,'' said House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin.

The rules changes prevailed 110-66.

There was also a squabble in the Senate over rules changes for the new term. The new Senate rules will allow ex-officio members to vote in committees and alter the process used to add amendments onto bills.

"I thought a couple of years ago, when we had these rules, they were bad,'' said Sen. Steve Thompson, D-Marietta. "But I didn't know they were going to get worse.''