Legislature opens for 2005

By Bob Paslay and Justin Boron

Incoming state Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam will be sworn in today at the capitol, culminating her run for the house seat formerly held by current Sheriff Victor Hill.

The General Assembly opened today, but the members of Clayton County delegation said little would be done until they meet with local government officials Thursday to set their legislative agenda.

Senior state Sen. Terrell Starr said the group usually has its agenda ready by January. But, because of scheduling constraints, it fell behind this year, he said.

State Sen. Valencia Seay, chairman of the county delegation, said the first three days of the session would be spent dealing with pre-filed bills.

She said she would refile legislation that would reduce classroom sizes. The bill failed last year, she said, because of the tight budget.

Abdul-Salaam worried the same problem would hamper what could be done for education this year.

"I am concerned about the budget for education. I wish we could do more for the teachers," she said. "Money is tight all the way around. I was surprised at how difficult some of the decisions are going to be. I think it is going to be very tight and those who need assistance the most are going to be affected the most."

She said she is not expecting to be in a bad position as a Democrat in a system in which both the House and the Senate and the governorship are in the hands of the Republicans.

"Even as a Democrat, I don't know what it was like before. I am not going in expecting it to be a certain way. I am just naive enough to believe people are basically fair. I do look forward to the days the Democrats are in charge. It is going to take a lot of getting the true messages out across the state."

Abdul-Salaam said she plans a variety of ways of keeping in touch with the constituents. They include a Web site, some public forums, and a way of publicizing some of the existing things about the legislature that allows citizens to keep up with what is going on.

In addition, she said she plans to have a citizens advisory committee of average citizens. This group will help keep her grounded in what the average people of the district want and need, she said. She also plans to re-address the local voting process.

Clayton County set the state record for the latest precinct to finish voting in November as lines stretched around precincts.

Abdul-Salaam, the first chairperson of the new election board, said she warned of this possibility in late summer. She said additional locations across the county are needed to vote early to keep everyone from having to stand in line at the Historic Courthouse in downtown Jonesboro.

In two years, "I certainly would hope," things are better, she said.

As far as a protest filed in Fayette County, part of her district, about some improprieties during the election, she said, "I didn't violate anything. I wouldn't have. What they are alleging, they never filed anything with me or my people. It is a lot of politics and just political."

Marilyn Watts, the chairperson of the Fayette County Board of Elections and Registration, said during the runoff election on Aug. 10, Abdul-Salaam entered polling places and told poll managers that she was a poll watcher.

Her entrance would violate election code, which requires campaigners to stay 150 feet away from the outer edge of the building.

An administrative law judge will hear the case in the coming months, Watts said.

"We're not going to allow candidates... to disrupt polls in this county," she said.