With many of the issues from last year still simmering, the Georgia General Assembly will usher in a new administration as the 2011 session begins.
Gov.-elect Nathan Deal from nearby Gainesville is scheduled to take office Monday. He'll be joined by fellow Hall County resident and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who's entering his second term, and Speaker of the House David Ralston of Blue Ridge to give the capitol a distinct north Georgia, and Republican, feel.
“I would expect we might see a closer working relationship between the governor and legislature than we’ve seen in previous sessions,” said Charles Bullock, professor of legislative and Southern politics at the University of Georgia. “Voters like to see their political leaders work together smoothly.”
And the state legislature has even more "red" seats than last year, as Republicans strengthened their presence in the 2010 elections.
In a shift of two seats, the state Senate will feature 36 Republicans and 20 Democrats.
There’s an even greater change in the House, where the 2011 session will open with 114 Republicans and 63 Democrats and two vacancies in previously Republican districts.
Last year, the chamber was made up of 105 Republicans and 74 Democrats.
But Ethan Underwood, chairman of the Forsyth County Republican Party, said the budget and other pressing issues may make for an unpopular year to be in charge.
“You don’t want to cut government to the point where you make Georgia an unattractive place," he said. "But on the other hand, we don’t want a lot of pork barrel spending being passed. We want to run lean and mean.”
Facing an expected $1.5 billion deficit in the budget, lawmakers have indicated just about everything that receives state funding will be examined.
Bullock said elected officials will “probably look into how to pare back the spending on HOPE and pre-K programs.”
“That’s not going to be good news for families that are currently taking part in these programs who have to ante up more money,” he said.
Forsyth County Democratic Party Chairman Tom Colkett said he hopes the cuts will be different from previous years when “they’ve chosen to go for teacher furloughs and education cuts and property tax increases that we all wind up paying for.”
“There are better ways we could be spending our time and money to help Georgia families deal with this recession,” he said.
Underwood said the Republicans’ focus on business promises to help the state’s recession and unemployment rate.
“We’ve got a lot of good business-minded people with a lot of experience trying to head down to the state legislature and try to fix the state budget,” he said.
“I think you’re going to see a lot of movement in the legislature to make Georgia a more business friendly state and of trying to attract more businesses and more jobs.”
Citing Deal's history in north Georgia, Underwood said the governor-elect could bring a positive shift in funding to Forsyth and surrounding counties.
“I think he’ll take into account a little more the needs of the metro Atlanta area in analyzing state expenditures and prioritizing expenditures,” Underwood said.
Colkett didn't always agree with Deal’s efforts when he was a congressman, but said “ his intentions are good and that there is some way we can work together with him.”
Still, it will be a difficult time to be a Democrat in Georgia, Bullock said.
“Democrats do have new leadership in the House ... Stacey Abrams has a reputation of being very, very bright and very capable, but she’s also going to be new on the job and with a smaller team to work with,” he said.
“And outside of the legislature, Democrats aren’t going to have any kind of leadership in the executive branch, since the three Democrats who held statewide posts have all been replaced by Republicans. It can’t get much worse.”
But Colkett fears it can.
“They’re getting pretty close to a two-thirds majority of Republicans in the House and it concerns me that Democrats could be frozen out by that if it got to that point,” he said. “It’s very important that the Democratic point of view be included in the legislature.”