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Freshmen make splash in Legislature

ATLANTA --- The newcomers to the General Assembly are having an impact unusual for freshmen legislators.

The old advice for freshmen to sit, listen and shut up for a few terms doesn't apply this year, when nearly one in five lawmakers is new to the Capitol. The flood of replacements was so great that Senate leaders wound up making some of them committee chairmen, including two veterans of the House who moved to the upper chamber.

"True freshman" Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, is chairing the Senate State and Local Operations Committee, although he had never served a day in elective office before being sworn in as a senator in January.

Senate leaders have also tasked freshmen with carrying significant legislation. For example, Sen. Frank Ginn, R-Danielsville, is sponsoring a bill to repeal planning requirements on local government. Sens. John Albers, R-Roswell, and William Ligon, R-Brunswick, introduced a bill to require fingerprint verification of Medicaid recipients during doctor visits to reduce fraud.

"We have the brightest freshmen you can imagine," said Senate President Pro Tempore Tommie Williams.

In the House, they're having an impact as well, notes House Majority Leader Larry O'Neal.

"Just from the sheer volume standpoint, they are already more significant in outcome than most of the classes," said O'Neal, R-Bonaire. "A lot of them are already playing in the varsity, which would have been unheard of in the past."

Not only are they taking to the well of the House and making speeches, but they're also passing bills. Plus, they're affecting the bills of others.

One of those bills belonged to House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.

His proposal, House Bill 107, to extend health coverage to the spouses of troopers and other state employees killed in the line of duty was the first bill considered by the full House. After it had already passed through the Public Safety & Homeland Security Committee and Rules Committee, a group of freshmen succeeded in sending it back to Rules for various minor changes.

"That did two things," said freshman Rep. Brett Harrell, R-Snellville. "That told the freshman class the leadership is going to listen and not just shut us out. ... And it said the speaker was going to be open to suggestions."

After all, HB 107 wound up passing the House unanimously, so Ralston could easily have ignored the newcomers and still passed his bill.

Freshmen also won changes in the controversial immigration-restriction bill that the House passed last week, Harrell said.

The freshmen have bucked the majority on some votes.

For instance, most of them voted no on a bill by Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, to require antifreeze makers to add a bitter taste to their product. And they mostly opposed legislation that would extend to 8 the age in which children must ride in car seats.

The freshmen argued that both bills represented too much government interference. Both still passed overwhelmingly.

O'Neal and other leaders recognize that the newcomers have, at least for the moment, a finger on the public pulse that veterans who were re-elected unopposed last year might not feel. At the same time, he knows the freshmen will undergo a metamorphosis as they gain experience and appreciate the implications of their philosophical stances.

"I call it the transition from our political self to our governing self," O'Neal said.

(Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News. He has been covering Georgia government since 1998. He can be reached at, (404) 589-8424 or on Twitter at MorrisNews.)

Web posted on Thursday, March 10, 2011

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