Not for the Faint of Heart
Security was on the minds of those who entered the Georgia Capitol Monday morning for the 2024 legislative session. Greeted at the door by a State Trooper, Sen. Josh McLaurin and I were asked to walk through the metal detectors, despite flashing our “Senator” badges which would normally get us waved through. I wondered how this new protocol would be received, since I have long suspected some legislators bypass the “no guns in the Capitol” rule. But alas, this new Trooper had misunderstood his instructions — no metal detectors for the electeds.
Mid-week, Capitol Security briefed us on what to do in case of a bomb threat. We’ve been briefed about shootings before, but never bombs.
Several Senators made speeches during our opening session to acknowledge that things have gone too far. I felt a glimmer of hope that we might turn down the divisiveness — at least for the sake of our own safety. I am making my own efforts to approach my colleagues, even those with whom I disagree strongly, in a way that honors our common humanness.
The legislature is one the few places where people of different views come together to debate what divides us. It is up to us to set the example of how to do that with civility.
Armed with Love and Support
Thanks to everyone who gave so generously to my re-election campaign. Each and every donation uplifted my spirits, giving me the courage to face these uncertain times with confidence and hope. If you didn’t get a chance to make a donation, you can do so after the session is over. The end of session, Sine Die, is scheduled for March 28th.
A Glimpse of the Battles Ahead
The first week of session is full of collegiality and anticipation. The President pro tempore of the Senate, who happens to be named John F. Kennedy (he’s a Republican) invited us to lunch at the Capital City Club, where he treated us to an elegant lunch as well as stories from former President pro-tems.
Eggs & Issues: Mid-week I got up super early and headed down to the Georgia Chamber of Commerce’s Annual Eggs and Issues Breakfast, held for the first time at the Mercedes Benz Stadium. 2,600 attendees sat around tables that literally filled the field. Next year I need to remember to wear flat shoes. Heals and artificial turf don’t go well together.
This event is particularly exciting because it gives the first sneak peak at the priorities of the Governor, the Lt. Governor and the Speaker of the House. Sometimes if you read between the lines, you can pick up on what tensions might arise during session, and who might run for what political office.
State of the State: On Thursday Senate members formally processed to the House Chamber to hear the Governor’s State of the State address. I found it to be a mixed bag. On the one hand, it was full of government bashing, anti-union rhetoric and support for for-profit schools and healthcare. But on the other hand, I heard him commit to pay raises for state employees, teachers and retirees, and historic levels of funding for mental health and caretakers.
Immediately following the Governor’s State of the State speech he released his proposed budget, which I am just beginning to study. Next week will focus exclusively on budget hearings, when Commissioners and Department heads make their pitches to the Appropriations Committees prior to the legislature taking up the budget.
A Word about the Surplus: I don’t really like this word because it makes it sound like we collected more money than we need. Nothing could be further from the truth. Since Georgia is required to have a balanced budget each year, the Governor is tasked with estimating how much revenue will come in. Governor Kemp has been lowballing the revenue estimate which means when the revenue comes in higher, he calls that a surplus.
Fighting Fires Already
The second year of a two-year session gets right to business. Bills that didn’t pass last year stay alive and can be acted on this year, but if they don’t pass this year they die.
Two bills found their way to the Senate floor this week.
Gwinnett County Cityhood: On Wednesday, the Gwinnett delegation was handed a bill creating the City of Mulberry. On Friday, the bill came to the floor for a vote, but with the signature of only one Republican Senator. The Gwinnett delegation, which has a Democratic majority, had been bypassed. Following a quick study of the rules, we appealed to the Secretary of the Senate, who agreed that the bill had been improperly moved out of Committee. By Friday, the Republican Senator who signed the bill was appointed Chair of the Committee by the Lt. Governor. Something doesn’t smell quite right.
Sports Betting: The other bill that came to the Senate floor this week was Sports Betting. Talk about priorities! In all fairness, the author of the bill said he brought it forward quickly so that we could get it over with. It didn’t work — we didn’t take a vote this week.
Re-Charging in the District
Spending time in the district helps recharge my batteries. On Thursday, I attended Brookhaven’s historic swearing-in ceremony of its first Asian American mayor, John Park, and its first Latino Councilmember, Michael Diaz, creating the most diverse city council in North DeKalb. This was the result of a deliberate effort by the city and specifically Councilman John Funny, who worked to engage more citizens of color in city government.
Friday night, I attended Temple Emanuel’s Georgia Legislature and Judiciary Welcome Shabbat and then the Georgia Legislative Update breakfast at St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church in Dunwoody on Saturday morning. The spiritual nurturing was much appreciated!
Meet the Team
I couldn’t do what I do without a strong team beside me. This year we have some new team members who will help me serve you.
- Amy Swygert, who has been with me since I began in the Senate in 2019, is back again. I’ve changed her title once again to “Chief of Staff” since we’ve staffed up since the pandemic! Amy helps keep track of my legislative agenda, works with legislative counsel to research and draft legislation, manages my communications, and more.
- I was thrilled to hire Gwinnett county resident Kathlene Dorking this fall as my new administrative assistant. Kathlene also works for Senator Sheik Rahman. Kathlene will be helping with constituent services, scheduling, and keeping up with phone calls and emails.
- Lillian Hanson, a public policy major at Georgia Tech from my district (the younger sister of one of my former Girl Scouts), will be working with us as a part-time intern. Lillian’s interested in criminal justice reform and I have a growing interest in providing better access to educational opportunities for incarcerated people, so she will be tracking relevant legislation and helping me build out a network of experts and advocates in that arena.
If you would like to follow along with “Budget Week” next week, you can tune in to all the budget hearings via the state’s livestream. It’s a great way to learn about how our state government works and all the challenges our state leaders face.