Georgia lawmakers kick off 2023 session with new House speaker, UGA football on their minds

State Rep. Jon Burns, a Newington Republican, was quickly elected speaker Monday on the first day of the new legislative session. (Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder)

The state Capitol was bustling Monday with first-day-of-school energy as lawmakers returned to Atlanta for this year’s legislative session.

The General Assembly got off to a quick start, swiftly electing a new speaker after the death of longtime House Speaker David Ralston in November.

There was another reason for the fast tempo, though: Some lawmakers planned to hop on a plane to attend what turned out to be a Georgia Bulldogs national championship beatdown in Los Angeles  Monday night against the TCU Horned Frogs. 

“Before we get to the duty that lies nearest, let me just say: Go Dawgs,” said Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael P. Boggs, a holder of degrees from Georgia Southern and Mercer, before swearing lawmakers in the House. The Senate concluded Monday with shouts of “Go Dawgs.”

State Rep. Jon Burns, a Newington Republican, was quickly elected speaker after House Minority Leader James Beverly, a Macon Democrat, made a motion for Burns’ election to happen by acclamation. The vote provided a contrast to the drama-filled speaker election that just unfolded in Washington.

The chamber gave a standing ovation to Speaker Pro-Tempore Jan Jones, who became speaker after Ralston’s death – making her the first woman speaker in Georgia. (Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder)

A smooth speaker election had been expected in Georgia, though. Republicans picked Burns over a more polarizing alternative, Rep. Barry Fleming, who authored the controversial election overhaul in 2021, back in November.

Burns will lead the chamber as Republicans maintain control but have a shrinking majority. Last year, Democrats picked up three seats, leaving the chamber with a 101-79 partisan split. A bill needs 91 votes to clear the House.

“Whether you’re Republican, or Democrat, new or returning member, I will work to serve each of you and our house to the very best of my ability,” Burns said from the rostrum Monday.

“This is admittedly a very bittersweet moment. Just a matter of weeks before today, I never would have imagined standing for this office. The passing of Speaker David Ralston has left a hole in the heart of this House,” he said.

Burns, who is a timberland owner and businessman, has served in the House for almost two decades and was most recently the majority leader. He is seen as someone who will lead in the spirit of Ralston, who often had a moderating influence on the House. But he’s been tight-lipped so far on what his legislative priorities will be in his first year as speaker. 

“The House needs a steady hand on the rudder that can navigate calm waters as well as stormy seas. Jon Burns has that steady hand,” said Rep. Butch Parrish, a Swainsboro Republican who formally nominated Burns Monday.

The chamber also gave a standing ovation to Speaker Pro-Tempore Jan Jones, who became speaker after Ralston’s death – making her the first woman speaker in Georgia.

“It matters to girls to know that they’re at the table too,” Jones told the Recorder Monday. “And the significance of me being the first is when one of them becomes the second, it won’t be such a big deal.”

Both chambers also signed off on a full calendar for the formal 40 days lawmakers meet to vote on bills as a full body. It’s a seemingly perfunctory task that often drags on much longer.

Crossover Day, when a bill must pass to have the easiest path to becoming law, will be  March 6. The last day of the session will be March 29, keeping the law-making from spilling over into April as has been the case in recent years.

Majority Leader Steve Gooch remarked about the significant accomplishment of having the calendar settled at this early stage as a positive sign of bipartisan leadership in both chambers.

“This may be the first time in history that we’ve been able to set a legislative calendar on Day 1 for the 40-day session,” Gooch said. 

Senate President Pro Tempore John Kennedy is presiding over the state Senate until Lt. Gov.-elect Burt Jones is sworn in Thursday. (Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder)

All told, 43 new state representatives were sworn in Monday in the House, meaning nearly a quarter of the legislative body will be freshmen. In the Senate, 10 new state senators were sworn in.

But the Senate’s new leader, Lt. Gov.-elect Burt Jones, will not step into his new role until Thursday, when Gov. Brian Kemp and other constitutional officers are sworn in.

That means the Senate is starting the new session with a vacuum of leadership in both political parties. 

Supreme Court Justice Charlie Bethel swore in the 56 senators elected in November. The nine new senators filled seats left vacant by retiring members, officials running for other political offices, or because incumbents decided not to take a chance with the new district maps after redistricting.

Jones, a former state senator, appeared on the Senate floor on Monday but did not say anything.

Instead, leading the way in Jones’ place was ex-Senate Majority Caucus Leader John Kennedy after legislators unanimously elected the Macon Republican to serve as Senate President Pro Tempore.

Among the most significant changes this year for the Senate will be a yet-to-be-named new chairman for the powerful Rules Committee. The lawmaker will oversee the panel that controls which bills make it to the chamber floor and which ones wind up on the chopping block. The new chairman will fill the role of the longtime Sen. Jeff Mullis, a Chickamauga Republican who retired.

In the House, Burns started the committee assignment process Monday and said interviews for leadership positions will be done over the next few weeks.