Ralston re-elected speaker as Georgia Legislature opens

ATLANTA (AP) -- Speaker David Ralston was re-elected to the state House's top job Monday, calling for civility among Georgia lawmakers and reasserting the chamber's independence from the governor as the state Legislature opened its 2017 session.

The House and Senate got their 40-day session off to a typically slow start, with lawmakers being sworn in and both chambers electing leaders and adopting changes to internal rules. Things should pick up at the Capitol midweek as Gov. Nathan Deal is scheduled to lay out his legislative agenda in his State of the State speech Wednesday.

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Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, easily won another term as speaker by a 169-6 vote. All votes against him were cast by Democrats, including House Minority Leader Stacy Abrams of Atlanta. The last time Ralston was re-elected to the speaker's post two years ago, he received unanimous approval.

"It is my hope we will begin this work with a spirit of optimism and with a commitment to the ideals of civility, mutual respect and decorum," Ralston said. He also told lawmakers that "regardless of gender, age, ethnicity or sexual orientation, you are each a member of this people's House."

As lawmakers prepare to hear from Deal this week, Ralston noted that 50 years have passed since the House staked its independence from the governor by taking the power to elect its own speaker and to control the appointment of committee heads.

"While we are proud of the partnerships we enjoy with the executive branch, partnerships that are good for Georgia, we must be reminded the power to legislate for the will of the people will be honored and protected by this body," Ralston said.

One rule change adopted on the session's first day will require lawmakers to work just a little faster to get their proposals moving through the House and Senate.

The Senate voted to move up the deadline for bills to pass from one legislative chamber to the other. The so-called "Crossover Day" deadline for bills starting in the House to reach the Senate, and vice versa, was changed to the 28th day of the session. It had previously been day 30.

The House doesn't have an explicit rule imposing the same deadline. But Ralston and other House leaders agreed to the change, said Kaleb McMichen, Ralston's spokesman.

The shift was among more than 20 rule changes approved by the Senate in a 37-18 vote. No senators objected to changing the crossover deadline. But Democratic leaders opposed a new rule further limiting the time Senate lawmakers are granted to speak on any topic of their choosing during the last half of the session.

Previously senators could take up to five minutes a day to speak from the floor, whether to introduce visiting constituents or to make policy arguments. The new rule will cut that time to three minutes after the session's 20th day.

Senate Democratic Leader Steve Henson said the change shortchanges lawmakers who want to discuss complex issues. Senate President Pro-Tempore David Shafer, the top-ranking GOP senator, said the three-minute rule was limited to the final half of the session as a concession to opponents.