Delegates convene for 'fast and furious' legislative session

Georgia House, Senate unlikely to tackle controversy in an election year

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 13, 2014 

— Georgia lawmakers fired the starting gun Monday for an election-year legislative session that's expected to run more like a sprint than a marathon.

Here's how 40-year veteran Democratic state Rep. Calvin Smyre of Columbus described it in a news release Monday: "The legislative session is expected to be fast and furious and one of the shortest in modern history because of an earlier election cycle …."

Legislators expect to take on few controversial issues and adjourn their 40-day session without delay so delegates can run home to kick off re-election campaigns.

Said Republican state Sen. Josh McKoon of Columbus: "Just in terms of an overarching, controversial issue, I think that it's an election year, and the folks that are the 'powers that be' don't necessarily want us to be considering controversial issues in an election year, so I think you're going to see a fast session, certainly the fastest session since I've been up there."

He added: "I think it will be over by mid-March. Traditionally we go in the first week … and then the week of Jan. 20 would typically be what's called 'the budget recess,' when the appropriations committees meet, but we're not in session. Well, I've been told we'll be in session that week."

Smyre announced the House and Senate Appropriations Committees will hold hearings Wednesday not only on the state budget for the rest of fiscal year 2014, which ends June 30, but for the fiscal year 2015 budget that kicks in July 1.

Gov. Nathan Deal is to present his proposals to the joint appropriations committees at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Smyre noted.

McKoon said that because state leaders are "speeding up the calendar" to finish fast, it "necessarily means there'll be less time to really move forward on major initiatives."

Among the Georgia General Assembly's priorities this year is resetting Georgia's election dates, as currently state and federal elections are scheduled for different days: Federal primary elections will be May 20, with any runoff on July 22; state primary elections are July 15, with any runoff on Aug. 5.

That's the result of Georgia losing a lawsuit alleging its previous federal election schedule violated the Uniform Overseas Voting Act, which says those voting absentee from foreign lands must have 45 days to cast their ballots. Georgia previously had only 21 days between the election and any runoff that followed.

Legislators are expected to change the state elections to match the federal schedule. In Columbus, that would mean nonpartisan races for mayor, council and school board would be May 20, the same day residents vote for governor, state legislators, U.S. senator and Congressmen. That would change the schedule for qualifying so local candidates would qualify between 9 a.m. March 3 and noon March 7.

Besides the mayor's office, others open to challenge this year include the odd-numbered Columbus Council posts and the even-numbered school board districts, along with the citywide Post 9 board seat being vacated by Cathy Williams, who will not seek re-election.

McKoon said a House bill rescheduling state elections was approved by committee Monday and likely will come up for a vote this week.

Much of state lawmakers' business on opening day was ceremonial.

In the Senate, lawmakers welcomed back Republican Sen. Don Balfour, who was recently acquitted of state charges stemming from allegations he illegally claimed mileage and expense reimbursements from the state.

In remarks to his colleagues, Balfour said he was humbled by the ordeal and called the prosecution "a waste of state resources and money." He admonished his accusers, saying "there should be a line between political gamesmanship and trying to destroy someone's life."

Balfour previously agreed to pay a $5,000 fine by the Senate Ethics Committee and repeatedly described the filings as inadvertent mistakes.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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