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J.K. MURPHY: New speaker brings reason for real hope

The proverbial rock and hard place is an apt description for the 2010 Georgia General Assembly convening Monday.

The Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce hosted its annual legislative session Thursday night, and most of what's on the Gwinnett business community's mind mimics previous years -- WET: water, education and transportation.

The question is how much can be accomplished while the state deals with a budget crunch the likes of which hasn't been seen by most of those reporting for duty in this 2010 session. The one thing everyone agrees on is that these leaders will be asked for more with less to give.

As long as our economy lingers at the shallow end of the recovery pool, there'll be more hands out and fewer handouts.

But after the political turmoil and personal scandals of 2009, there's reason for hope in 2010.

Legislators will be able to apply the hard lessons learned last year in what is anticipated to be a much gentler environment. Republicans have selected David Ralston for the all-powerful Speaker of the House position and the Assembly is expected to make it official Monday.

Expectations are Ralston, 55 and a lawyer from the north Georgia town of Blue Ridge, will create a more reasonable, productive environment. Optimism is in the air in both chambers and across party aisles.

State Rep. Donna Sheldon, R-Dacula, says the new climate is warmer even before the session begins.

"Speaker Ralston has already begun to change the environment at the Capitol. (He) is very deliberative in his actions; he will be accessible to House members, constituents and the press. I believe you will see the House and Senate working together with the governor to guide Georgia through these tough economic times," Sheldon said.

Wouldn't that be great? An assembly that works together to solve Georgia's problems?

Even Democrats are optimistic.

Rep. Brian Thomas, D-Lilburn, says he expects Ralston to return the House to the deliberative body it is designed to be.

"He has always impressed me as a sensible, well-grounded person, and not someone likely to become intoxicated with power, so I am hopeful that the environment in the House chamber will improve dramatically and that we will see movement on solutions to the many challenges we face but have failed to address."

In the Senate, similar outlooks come from Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, who recruited Ralston to run for the state Senate in the early 1990s when Shafer was executive director of the Georgia Republican party. He, too, predicts a new atmosphere.

"He should bring a new tone to the House. He is thoughtful, fair and deliberate, and his personal integrity has never been questioned."

That's the complete opposite of the aura of political vindictiveness that reigned in recent sessions.

Legislation to watch: As you read the legislative profiles in the Community section of today's Post, the most common issues are education and transportation. While funding for our schools and colleges is on everyone's mind, it is uppermost in the mind of state Rep. Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, a former educator and school principal.

Coleman has already submitted seven bills designed to ease some requirements and give school systems more flexibility so they can put reduced resources to the best use. The bills grant local school boards and administration more flexibility on scheduling, classroom expenditures, class size, days of instruction and salary schedules.

J.K. Murphy is the publisher of the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at jk.murphy@gwinnettdailypost.com.