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House looks ahead with new speaker

Photo by Brian Giandelone

Photo by Brian Giandelone

ATLANTA -- Georgia's new speaker promised to bring renewal and promise to the "people's House."

Rep. David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, was elected the new House speaker on Monday, replacing the embattled Glenn Richardson, whose ex-wife said he had an affair with a lobbyist and who attempted suicide last year.

"We must embrace change because business as usual in this House will no longer be tolerated," Ralston said, promising to put the people of Georgia before special interests. "... We must rededicate ourselves to the awesome responsibility that is expected of us."

Ralston, who was chosen for the position by the Republican majority in a caucus meeting last month, pledged to reach across the aisle to include Democrats. He said he would abolish the role of "hawks," who were assigned to vote in committee meetings if the majority position was in danger.

"I really, truly feel like we are going to have a much better session," Rep. Hugh Floyd, D-Norcross, said, "It was a little emotional, because we haven't had that (place at the table). It's just a breath of fresh air."

The General Assembly also made history Monday with the election of Rep. Jan Jones, R-Alpharetta, as speaker pro tem. Jones now holds the highest rank a woman has ever held in the Georgia Legislature.

Democrats fielded candidates for both offices, but Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, who was up for the speakership, said the minority gained a victory by being given a voice.

Facing a budget where revenues call for at least $1 billion in cuts, legislators said they would work together to tackle issues.

In the Senate, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle announced the creation of a task force, filled with business executives, to help legislators look for short-term and long-term solutions.

"Our first job will be to bring the budget into balance," Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, said. "We'll have to scrutinize our spending."

While many Gwinnett legislators have pledged to fight for education funding, schools make up more than 50 percent of state spending.

"Eventually, that dike doesn't hold," Sen. Curt Thompson, D-Tucker, said. He added that education and Medicaid funding are often the source of contention even in years with extra cash.

"That's where the real fights are going to be. That's where the real issues will be," he said of the budget debate during the 2010 session.

Moves were also made on the first of the 40-day session to create ethics reform, allow guns in more places and tackle issues such as education, water and transportation.

The day brought to an end the short-lived tenure of Rep. Mark Burkhalter, R-Johns Creek, who had been the state's speaker pro tem and acted as speaker for about 10 days between Richardson's departure and Monday's election.

"I've kind of felt like the co-pilot the last 10 days," Burkhalter said, as he passed the gavel to Ralston. "Hopefully I've brought us in without a crash landing."