New blood at the Georgia Capitol and veteran lawmakers in new roles could get Legislature out of ‘rut’

Major changes are underway at the Georgia state Capitol after a year of significant turnover – making way for a more diverse and young batch of lawmakers

By: - January 23, 2023 2:00 am

With the new session, the Georgia Capitol is bustling with lawmakers and lobbyists. Starting this year, lawmakers’ conversations with lobbyists and others could be exempt from court proceedings. Jan. 9, 2023. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

As new leadership and a slew of freshman lawmakers set out to make their mark under the Gold Dome this session, changes from last year’s “brain drain’” are unfolding at the Capitol.

Much of the changeover at the Capitol is due to lawmakers either retiring or resigning to pursue higher political office. While others were reapportioned to new districts after the redrawing of district lines. 

That left dozens of seats up for grabs and many Georgians in the care of lawmakers with little experience or long relationships under the Gold Dome.

Rep. Gabe Okoye. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

The pressure is on the 53 newcomers, in Georgia’s most diverse Legislature in history. They will need to build new alliances and fill the vacuum of institutional knowledge left in the absence of veteran lawmakers, such as Georgia House Reps. Calvin Smyre, Terry England and the late former House Speaker David Ralston.

As budget week came to a close Friday, lawmakers new and tenured are poised to weigh in on Gov. Brian Kemp’s $32.5 billion spending proposal. It includes a $2,000 pay increase for educators, $1.1 billion for the so-called Homeowner Tax Relief Grant property tax break and allots $243 million for a cost-of-living pay increase for law enforcement and state employees.

Though some new lawmakers may be struggling to find their bearings, not all of those who are new to the General Assembly need help finding their way around the state Capitol.

John Simpson, a political consultant for Capitol Resources’ Georgia chapter, believes the 40-day span of the session is an insufficient amount of time for those who are fully new to get their “sea legs.” But, some are only “technically new.” Like Rep. Scott Hilton, a Republican from Peachtree Corners who served in the chamber previously. 

“There’s some folks that have been in this General Assembly before that are, they’re technically new, but they were just either defeated, or they left and now they’ve come back. Scott Hilton is one of those people. So, I think though, they’ll hit the ground running,” Simpson said.

Republicans still control both chambers of the Georgia General Assembly, but Democrats are now more of a force than they’ve been in two decades since the GOP took control of state government. With a deeper bench, Executive Director of the Georgia Senate Democratic Caucus, Liz Flowers, predicts even the newbies in the Democrats’ ranks are stepping in and are already equipped with the knowledge needed for the job.

“Well, we haven’t had a loss of knowledge. We have a really nice healthy mix of folks in our caucus who have been around for a number of years to understand not only the rules of the road, if you will, in terms of how to conduct themselves in the chamber, but also a good sense of politics and relationships across the aisle,” Flowers said.

Republicans will be the ones undergoing the most change to their line-up this cycle, Flowers said, given the new leadership of Lt. Gov. Burt Jones and new House leadership.

“You know, on the Republican side, I mean, there is going to be a new lieutenant governor, there’s going to be a new pro tem, there’s going to be a new majority leader in their caucus. Those folks have been around for a little while. And they are new, but they are not new to the Senate chamber and some of those relationships are already in place. So really, the brain drain has been more on the other side than it has on ours,” Flowers said.

And although Flowers and her fellow Democrats are celebrating their party’s three-seat pick up in the 2022 election cycle, they still face a GOP majority standing in the way of their priorities in both the House and Senate.

Still looming over Georgia Republicans at the Capitol in the 2023 legislative session is the specter of former President Donald Trump and the continuing controversy over his attempts to overturn the 2020 election. Will Trump loyalists and Republicans who adhere to traditional conservative values cooperate to get laws passed? Will the class of 2023 be able to work in bipartisan fashion with a pool of new and diverse colleagues.

The Georgia GOP might be able to come together on issues regarding the budget, but will most likely avoid social issues such as abortion and sports betting, predicted David Shock, a professor of political science at Kennesaw State University. 

“Democrats are pretty united. That’s kind of the thing right now as Democrats are more united, I think nationally, and at the state level as they ever have been, but it’s kind of the Republican party that’s more divided than ever, between kind of the moderate Republicans, and then the more Trumpian Republicans,” Shock said.

The GOP caucus aims to expand its cultural outreach with the introduction of the first Hispanic caucus, spearheaded by Sen. Jason Anavitarte a Dallas Republican. 

According to Shock, this is a sign the GOP might be able to achieve some bipartisanship, but don’t expect much of it. And he doubts whether the growing diversity of state lawmakers will be significant enough to create a shift in the outcome of the major issues to be debated this year.

“The freshmen, you know, it’s always hard to say because a lot of them often come in with ideas about making changes, and then they find out that it’s a lot harder to change things. And the party leadership, particularly the Republicans, pretty much try to control their members, particularly freshmen. They essentially dictate what they can and can’t propose and do, for the most part. The key is really understanding the leadership. We don’t know how things are going to play out, because we have a new speaker of the House.”

Ultimately, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp will be the driving force behind the many of the party’s priorities. 

“Brian Kemp, in my opinion, is sort of a traditional, strong conservative,” Simpson said. “He’s the guy that likes low regulation, less government, lower taxes. I think that’s going to really drive the agenda.”                      

The membership of the 2023 General Assembly is still a work in progress. Special elections are on tap for Jan. 31 in which Sheree Ralston is bidding to succeed her late husband, former House Speaker David Ralston, and a new lawmaker will be chosen to take the place of Rep. Terry England, the longtime House budget czar. 

Sen. Michelle Au speaks at the one-year anniversary of the Atlanta spa shootings. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

State Rep. Michelle Au, a Johns Creek Democrat and a former state senator who ran for a House seat after redistricting, called the changes a “refresh” that brings new energy and imagination to the legislative process.

Au said she hopes the influx of new leaders and lawmakers will lead to less political entrenchment on long-standing debates.

“I think one of the reasons this refresh of the legislative pool is good is because it gets us out of some of these ruts we find ourselves in, especially with institutional inertia – telling or teaching people that some things cannot get done or ‘this is the way we do things,’” she said at a recent event hosted by Georgians for a Healthy Future.

“I don’t think it serves us well to assume that just because things haven’t been done a certain way up until this point, or things haven’t changed up to a certain point, doesn’t mean that they can’t change,” she said.

Deputy Editor Jill Nolin contributed to this report. 

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Aaleah McConnell
Aaleah McConnell

Aaleah McConnell covers the Georgia capitol as an intern for the Georgia Recorder. She covered the Georgia General Assembly in 2022, focusing primarily on voting rights and higher education. With a background in podcast producing, Aaleah is opening the platform up to offer engaging and listenable coverage of the 2023 legislative session.

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