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Historic week at Capitol

By Michael Davis

Lawmakers were still settling in Friday to their new office space after the historic first week of the 2005 Georgia General Assembly.

Members of the Republican caucus of the House of Representatives were moving boxes, arranging furniture and generally getting to know the space they now occupy in the formerly Democratically controlled Legislature.

Even as they gathered in a Capitol atrium to commemorate Monday's King holiday, Capitol workers tried to figure out how to squeeze high-backed chairs through the doors of Capitol offices.

When the House clerk banged the gavel Monday, opening the session, Republican House members wasted no time appointing Paulding County attorney Glenn Richardson as the chamber's first Republican speaker in more than 100 years, and Alpharetta realtor Mark Burkhalter as speaker pro tem.

Republicans then passed a major overhaul to the rules of procedure that govern that chamber, creating committee on assignments (office, seating and committee assignments had been previously doled out by the speaker alone) and infusing the House rules committee with more power to control the content of debate on the House floor.

The rules committee decides which bills come to the floor for debate and a vote. Now, the committee can decide which bills can be amended once on the floor and which cannot.

The changes angered members of the new Democratic minority. Some said the rules made Richardson too powerful. Minority Leader, Dubose Porter, D-Dublin, said some changes, such as the appointment of "hawks" who can vote in any committee and subcommittee, strip ordinary committee members of their power.

"The independence of your rank-and-file member is pretty much gone," he said Monday.

Other Democrats, such as the more moderate Rep. Mike Barnes, D-Hampton, took it all in stride.

"The bottom line is, when you've got the votes, you get your way," he said.

Changes similar to those were also affected during the first day of the session in the Senate.

"We'll just have to wait and see. I don't want to pre-judge it and be critical and say it won't work," said Sen. Terrell Starr, D-Forest Park, who has spent 37 years in the Senate. "We will live under it and we will operate under it," he said.

Starr will be enjoying many of his privileges, including assignments on the Senate appropriations, education and ethics committee.

Wednesday evening, Gov. Sonny Perdue outlined his combined budget plan for the amended 2005 budge and the $16.5 billion 2006 budget before a joint session of the Legislature in the House chambers.

The lieutenant governor, who has traditionally presided over joint sessions, was told at the last minute he would not be given that privilege and Richardson took the role -- a move many Democrats took as a snub meant to keep Mark Taylor, who has announced his intention to unseat Perdue in 2006, out of the spot light.

Also Wednesday, House Republicans rolled out a list of committee assignments for each member.

The chamber's only independent, Ron Dodson a hospital administrator from Lake City, was handed down a position on the health and human services, insurance and public utilities and telecommunications committees.

Shortly after declaring his independence from either party, the former Democrat said it would likely be his last term in office.

McDonough Rep. John Lunsford was tapped as one of three of Richardson's hawks, members who can fly into any committee or subcommittee and cast a vote.

Decatur Democrat Stan Watson, whose district includes portions of northern Henry County, was sworn in Wednesday as the chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus.

Friday, he delivered an address to commemorate the 20th Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday at the Capitol, reminding those in attendance of King's message.

"We should reflect on his dream, but let's activate his vision," he said.