Massachusetts election foreshadows 2010 elections in Georgia?

With Massachusetts voters electing the state?s first Republican United States Senator in 32 years, Tuesday?s outcome may foreshadow likely results in Georgia?s election in November.  Although some White House officials seem to have indicated behind the scenes that perhaps the Democratic candidate in Massachusetts could have been stronger, everyone generally agrees that the outcome is a reflection of voters? frustration and sentiment toward the economy and healthcare reform.

Given the state?s recent history of favoring Republican candidates, Georgia could be preparing for a strong GOP sweep and will likely elect a Republican governor again this year. U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, while already secure in his reelection, becomes even more assured of a November victory and less likely to attract a credible Democratic opponent.
Session starts with new Speaker and daunting issues

The 2010 Georgia General Assembly convened on January 11, 2010 with the House of Representatives electing David Ralston (R - Blue Ridge) as its new Speaker. Speaker Ralston is the third man to occupy this position in the past eight years. In 2008, Ralston was soundly defeated in his attempt to unseat then House Speaker Glenn Richardson. In a dramatic turn of events, Richardson?s ex-wife came forward in November 2009 with specific allegations of the extra marital affair that had been rumored between Richardson and a female lobbyist for Atlanta Gas Light, whose parent company is AGL Resources.

While the affair was ongoing Richardson was a co-sponsor of a bill that would have funded a $300 million pipeline expansion for AGL. The legislation passed the House but ultimately failed in the Senate. Richardson?s resignation as Speaker went into effect on January 1, 2010, and he resigned from the House entirely on January 11, 2010, the day the new legislative session convened. Governor Sonny Perdue has since called for a special election on February 23, 2010, to fill Richardson?s unexpired term.

Ralston surprised many when he was elected by the Republican Caucus on December 17, 2009. At the opening of the Session Democrats fielded longtime legislator and caucus leader Calvin Smyre (D - Columbus) as their candidate for Speaker as a mostly symbolic gesture. Representative Jan Jones (R - Alpharetta) became the highest ranking woman in the history of the Georgia State Assembly when she was elected Speaker Pro Tempore. Democrats fielded Representative Kathy Ashe (D - Atlanta) as their candidate for Speaker Pro Tempore.

The opening day of the legislative session was marked by promises of cooperation and participation on both sides of the aisle. Speaker Ralston reached out to Democratic legislators in perhaps the most magnanimous bipartisan gesture since 2002, when Georgia elected its first Republican Governor since Reconstruction and Republicans gained control of the Senate. Eleven Democrats voted in favor of Ralston over Smyre.

The State budget deficit gap will be the most daunting issue for legislators as the Session gets underway, with Governor Perdue aiming to cut another $1.2 billion from the current budget. The Governor also warns that there could be an even larger budget deficit gap next year when Georgia will no longer be receiving federal stimulus funds. State legislators hope to bridge the current $1.2 billion budget gap by requiring mandatory furloughs for state employees and teachers, along with reducing funding to state agencies an average of 8 to 9 percent as compared to the last fiscal year.
2010 Governor?s race

Georgia gubernatorial candidates John Oxendine and Roy Barnes lead the Republican and Democratic fields respectively in collecting campaign contributions. Oxendine is in his fourth term as Insurance Commissioner of Georgia and is the GOP front runner to replace current governor Sonny Perdue. Meanwhile former governor Roy Barnes, who held the office from 1999 to 2003, is the front runner for the Democrats.

As of January 9, 2010, Oxendine has raised just over $3 million, with over $1.5 million raised in the second half of 2009 alone. Former governor Barnes has reported his campaign took in over $2.7 million and has $2.2 million in cash on hand. Oxendine also reports to have $2.2 million cash on hand. Both Oxendine and Barnes have far outpaced their opponents. Secretary of State Karen Handel has resigned her office in order to focus fully on her attempt to win the Governor?s seat. Her resignation allows her to raise money during the current legislative session, something she would have been prohibited from had she remained in office.

Following are the details of how the leading candidates compare:

John Oxendine (R)- raised $3,008,044 with $2,202,423 on hand
Eric Johnson (R)- raised $1,695,683 with $1,300,032 on hand
Nathan Deal (R)- raised $1,875,667 with $940,275 on hand
Karen Handel (R)- raised $1,000,611 with $439,998 on hand

Roy Barnes (D)- raised $2,719,029 with $2,230,595 on hand
Thurbert Baker (D)- raised $1,382,547 with $874,564 on hand
David Poythress (D)- raised $679,437 with $264,353 on hand
DuBose Porter (D)- raised $387,423 with $303,808 on hand
Court opens door for corporate involvement in campaigns

The U.S. Supreme Court announced on Thursday a dramatic 5 to 4 decision striking down federal limits on corporate spending in campaigns.  The landmark ruling invalidates part of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance act passed in 2002, which sought to limit the influence of corporations in the political arena, as well as a previous court ruling.  The Court found that the limits violated the constitutional free speech rights of businesses to engage in campaigns and the political dialogue.  The decision eliminates restrictions on political advertising by corporations, unions and other advocacy groups before elections, allowing the groups to spend freely on behalf of candidates.

?No sufficient governmental interest justifies limits on the political speech of nonprofit or for-profit corporations?, wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy.  Republican leaders praised the decision, while President Barack Obama said it was a ?major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington.?  Watchdog groups for campaign reform warned that the ruling will lead to a flood of new corporate and union spending in elections, potentially greatly increasing the influence of the groups in elections.  As part of the ruling corporations will still be required to disclose any involvement in political advertising.
Mayor assumes leadership role facing daunting challenges

Newly elected Mayor of Atlanta Kasim Reed faces some serious obstacles as he assumes the head leadership role in Georgia?s capital city. Budget shortfalls coupled with aging municipal infrastructure and equipment are just a few of the many issues the newly elected mayor has on his hands. Mayor Reed is also tasked with fulfilling a campaign promise to hire more officers for Atlanta?s Police force.  Reed has stated that in order to fulfill his promise of hiring more officers, as well as fund the necessary upgrades to equipment, he plans to do a better job of collecting revenue for the city than his predecessors. Reed has also suggested cuts in the City?s IT Department as a way of saving City funds.
PSC natural gas rate hike

In a 4 to 1 vote on January 19, 2010, the Public Service Commission approved a SCANA Natural Gas plan that would allow for expansion of natural gas service to new areas, while placing a surcharge on existing customers in order to fund the expansion. The PSC will allow the gas company to circumvent the normal process of supplying supporting data for the addition of a surcharge to their customers. Consumer advocacy groups as well as the AARP are steadfastly against the ruling, stating that the rate hike will place more of a burden on existing customers at a time when many are unable to afford it. The gas company contends the expansion of new gas lines as well as the replacement of antiquated gas lines would bring more jobs and revenue to the state.
Water conservation

Grappling with Georgia?s lack of water is a key issue facing the Legislature in 2010 as lawmakers take up the report of the Governor?s task force. Chairman of the Natural Resources and the Environment Committee in the Senate, Senator Ross Tolleson (R - Perry), has indicated he will hold all legislation pertaining to water use until the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Speaker can agree on how to prioritize water conservation. In many circles the task force report is seen as failing to adequately address important issues such as water conservation and the amount of water currently devoted to the production of energy in the state.
New ethics legislation

Georgia lawmakers are focused on passing new ethics legislation after the scandal that ended former Speaker Glenn Richardson?s tenure as Speaker of the House. Representative Wendell Willard (R - Sandy Springs) has proposed a bill that would limit the size of a gift a lawmaker can receive to $100. Representative Mary Margaret Oliver (D - Decatur) has introduced multiple ethics bills and calls for a $25 limit on gifts received by legislators. In another bill, Oliver has proposed that all judicial races be publically financed. Lawmakers on both sides are hopeful that that ethics reform will help to repair public confidence.
Texting while driving

Representatives Amos Amerson (R - Dahlonega) and Allen Peake (R - Macon) have introduced similar bills that would fine drivers found guilty of reading, receiving, or sending a text message while operating a motor vehicle in the state of Georgia. Fines would range from $50 to $300 depending on which version passes. Two points would also be placed against the license of the guilty driver. Both bills have been supported by the AAA Auto Club South and various safety organizations.
Ralston names new Rules Committee chairman

Speaker David Ralston has removed Representative Earl Ehrhart (R - Powder Springs) from his position as Chairman of the House Rules Committee. Representative Bill Hembree (R - Winston) was named to the position. Hembree was a supporter of Ralston after his own bid to become Speaker fell short. Recently Hembree chaired the Higher Education Committee and is viewed as a thoughtful, conservative Republican with a stellar reputation. Indications from Speaker Ralston are that powers given to the Rules Committee chairman to rewrite legislation that has been voted out of other committees, and also the power to impede amendment attempts once legislation reaches the House floor, will be changed. The Chairman of the Rules Committee is seen by many as one of the most powerful people in the House of Representatives.

Other chairmanship changes in the Georgia House  of Representatives include:

Budget and Fiscal Oversight - Richard Smith (R - Columbus)
Governmental Affairs - Mark Hamilton (R - Cumming) replaces Austin Scott who is running for Governor in 2010
Higher Education - Len Walker (R - Loganville) replaces Bill Hembree who is new Rules Committee chairman
Human Relations and Aging - Clay Cox (R - Lilburn)
Insurance - John Meadows (R - Calhoun) replaces Tom Knox who is running for State Insurance Commissioner
Transportation - Jay Roberts (R - Ocilla)
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