5 things to know as Georgia’s 2023 legislative session kicks off

These are the new developments that will likely shape this year’s lawmaking agenda

5 things to know as Georgia’s 2023 legislative session kicks off

Photograph by Rachel Garbus

It was a busy first week back for Georgia’s elected officials. Freshmen lawmakers were sworn in, new congressional leadership was elected, and Governor Brian Kemp was inaugurated for his second term. Amidst the glad-handing and gavel-pounding echoing under the Gold Dome, one could still catch the week’s most popular refrain: “Go Dawgs!”

Now, it’s official: The Bulldogs are back-to-back national champions, and Georgia’s 2023 legislative session is ready for business. Here are five new developments that will likely shape this year’s lawmaking agenda.

New House Speaker Jon Burns will attempt to fill big shoes

Last November, the Georgia political community suffered a serious blow with the death of Representative David Ralston, who had served as House Speaker since 2010. The Blue Ridge Republican stepped down from office a few weeks before his death. He was deeply respected on both sides of the aisle and effective at steering bipartisan legislation into law. His passing “has left a hole in the heart of this House,” said Rep. Jon Burns, who on January 9 was elected to replace Ralston as Speaker of the House.

The Republican caucus nominated Burns (R-Newington) back in November. Unlike the chaos of Kevin McCarthy’s contested bid for the U.S. House Speakership earlier this month, Burns was elected unanimously in a single vote, receiving a standing ovation from the entire chamber as he ascended to the Speaker’s dais. “This House will continue to lead,” Burns told his colleagues.

Burns has served in the House for 18 years and is popular with his fellow lawmakers. In his inaugural address, he vowed to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, championing bipartisanship and close cooperation with the state Senate. He also promised to carry on Ralston’s legacy in improving the state’s mental healthcare services: last year, the late Speaker backed passage of the Mental Health Parity Act, which mandates that health insurers cover mental health conditions as they do physical ones.

Rep. Jan Jones (R-Milton) was elected House Speaker Pro-Tempore, who presides over the House in the absence of the Speaker. Jones has held this post since 2010; she briefly assumed the Speakership following Ralston’s death, making her the first woman to hold that office in Georgia’s history.

5 things to know as Georgia’s 2023 legislative session kicks off
New representatives are sworn in on January 9, 2023.

Photograph by Rachel Garbus

A Trump-backed lieutenant governor helms the state Senate

Burt Jones, a former state Senator, was the only Trump-endorsed candidate to win statewide office in Georgia during the 2022 election. He also served as a fake “alternative elector” in an unlawful attempt to flip Georgia’s 2020 election results for Trump. (Jones is excluded from Fulton DA Fani Willis’s investigation of that scheme, however: A judge ruled that a fundraiser Willis held for Jones’s opponent disqualified her from questioning Jones.)

This past week, Lt. Governor Jones shed some light on how he’ll approach the legislative session, and it was fairly typical. At the annual Eggs & Issues Breakfast, sponsored by the Georgia Chamber of Congress, Jones promised to be business-oriented and focus on job growth and creating more employment opportunities for Georgians with only a high-school diploma. He also plans be tough on crime, saying, “We’ve got to be tougher on repeat offenders and gangs.” He touted his new Senate Committee on Children and Family, which he said will work to improve child mental health, invest in education, and improve foster care and adoption services.

More controversially, the new lieutenant governor has promoted eliminating the state income tax, a measure Governor Kemp says he opposes. Jones is also the highest-ranking state official to endorse the Buckhead Cityhood movement, though it’s not clear he’ll push the measure in the senate. (His predecessor, Lt. Governor Geoff Duncan, tanked it during the 2022 legislative session.)

And as proof that you can be controversial across the political spectrum, Jones is also the highest-ranking Georgia Republican to support same-sex marriage. “Be with who you want to love,” he told Axios back in August.

The 2023 General Assembly, the most diverse in state history, will include the first Asian American-Pacific Islander Caucus and Hispanic Caucus

Non-white representation has been steadily growing in the Georgia General Assembly, an important step in creating a statehouse that mirrors Georgia’s growing diversity. The 2023 legislative body is the most diverse in Georgia history, with 83 non-white members out of a total of 236. Notably, this session will be the first to include an Asian American-Pacific Islander caucus and a Hispanic caucus, which will include lawmakers from both chambers and parties.

Caucuses are official working groups that bring together lawmakers with a shared interest or affinity. When they straddle party lines, they serve as critical engines for bipartisan legislation, helping to pass laws on behalf of constituencies that might otherwise go overlooked.

“One thing we’ve heard from many Asian Americans is a dismaying sense of invisibility,” Rep. Michelle Au (D-Johns Creek) said in a press release announcing the AAPI caucus. “But times are changing, as is the face of Georgia.”

“We really want to build . . . real prosperity for Georgians all over the state,” said Sen. Jason Anavitarte (R-Dallas) in an interview with Georgia Public Broadcasting, “regardless of your background or where you came from or what your individual or family story is.”

In addition to its historic diversity, the 2023 freshman class includes several big firsts. Rep. Ruwa Romman (D-Gwinnett) is the first Palestinian-American state lawmaker and first Muslim woman in the House; Sen. Nabilah Islam (D-Lawrenceville) is the first Muslim woman in the Senate; and both chambers have their first Afro-Latino representatives in Rep. Phil Olalaye (D-Atlanta) and Sen. Jason Esteves (D-Atlanta), respectively.

Housing looks to be a top priority on both sides of the aisle

Republicans refer to it as “workforce housing,” Democrats prefer “affordable housing”—call it what you will, Georgia needs more of it. Huge population booms in metro Atlanta, coupled with record numbers of businesses moving to the state, have strained existing housing stock and sent rents and home prices skyrocketing. Building more housing across the state is a legislative priority where we can expect some bipartisan action.

“We want people to live in the area where they’re working—it makes for a better quality of life,” said Kemp, addressing the Chamber of Congress. Local restrictions on zoning and density have bedeviled construction projects in multiple counties, frustrating business owners and adding to a growing affordable housing crisis. The governor said his 2023 budget proposal will include money for local-state partnerships to build more housing across the state. He’ll also propose a $1.1 billion fund to provide one-time property tax relief grants, to help homeowners cover rising property taxes.

For lawmakers in the metro Atlanta area, legislative priorities will likely include addressing high rental costs, curbing investor purchases, and funding the city’s affordable housing trust, which helps finance low-income housing development.

After a decisive election-night victory, expect an emboldened second term from Governor Kemp

Governor Kemp is officially on his victory lap. While Democrats had high hopes for high-profile candidate Stacey Abrams after the party’s national success in 2020, Kemp earned wide praise from conservatives for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, the economy, and President Trump’s election denial scheme. In their second face-off, he beat Abrams by more than seven points, hustling nearly an entire slate of down-ballot Republicans over the finish line with him. (Former U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker was the lone exception.)

It was a decisive victory that Kemp said he’ll treat as a mandate to keep delivering on conservative promises. “The deal that we offered voters was that your state government should care more about safe streets, good schools, and good-paying jobs than about what the pundits are saying on cable news,” Kemp said in his inauguration address last week. “Over the next four years we’re going to be focused on growing Georgia, not growing government.”

To that end, Kemp said he’ll focus on job growth, business investment, and sending government revenue back to Georgians through tax relief and refunds. He plans to increase salaries for state employees, especially for police officers and K-12 teachers and staff. And he touted several large-scale manufacturing projects coming to Georgia in the near future, including a QCells solar panel plant in Dalton and a Hyundai electric car facility in Bartow County.

“By the end of my second term as governor, I intend for Georgia to be recognized as the electric mobility capital of America,” he said to wide applause. (He added, without a trace of irony, “To accomplish this, we’ll be keeping our foot on the gas.”)

Electric vehicle investment, good for business and the environment, is popular on both sides of the aisle here in Georgia. But don’t expect Democrats to sign off on the entire Kemp agenda. For their part, the General Assembly’s Democrats say they’ll be focused on healthcare, public transportation, and affordable housing. They’re the minority party in both chambers—a consistent trend that was only further entrenched by Republican-led redistricting last year—but that doesn’t mean they don’t wield influence over lawmaking.

“If we stay focused, we have the opportunity to build on what we learned from last year,” House Minority Leader James Beverly told the AJC. “We can win some of these battles.”