Sen. Lester Jackson column: Relationships rule at Georgia Capitol

[Photo courtesy of U.S. Army]
The only constant in politics is change, and the 2019 session of the Georgia General Assembly is no exception. We have a new governor, a new lieutenant governor, a new Senate majority leader and 40 freshmen legislators.

In my 20 years in the legislature, I’ve served when the Democrats were in charge, then through a transition to Republican rule, then to when the Republicans held nearly a super majority and now this year, when Republicans remain in control but Democrats have picked up seats.

One thing has remained the same: Legislating is all about relationships. It’s more than just party and geography. I have a tendency to work across party lines while keeping my Democratic values. I’m a strong leader in my party, but I do know that we must all work together to reach consensus. Our local delegation has long done that and it has contributed to great growth in our local economy.

We are more than just colleagues; we are friends. That’s not to say we agree on everything. The beauty of our delegation is that we are willing to talk through issues and work through our differences. We understand that the decisions we make are not just for the benefit of the eight of us personally but for the benefit of our communities. We’re all at the Capitol for the same purpose — to represent the citizens of the Savannah area.

That said, we will see a bit of a shakeup on the Senate side. The new lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan, and the Republican leadership has talked of moving committee chairs, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but will require some adjustments early in the session. Everybody has to find and settle into their new roles. But I’m confident that once we get down to business the focus will be on taking care of our constituents and moving the state forward.

As for legislation to be tackled over the coming months, we have several local priorities that we will focus on. But our delegation will also be very active in terms of broader priorities, particularly as it pertains to replacing our voting machines, the debate over destination resorts, increasing our state’s Medicaid reimbursement rate and establishing a needs-based scholarship for students from low-income families.

Adopting new voting machines is perhaps our state’s most pressing need. I have served on the Secure Accessible Fair Elections, or SAFE, commission tasked with crafting a working document for the legislature, a good baseline to work from in identifying a vendor.

However, the legislature is free to deviate from the recommendation, which could complicate our ability to achieve results. We need to secure the necessary funding and get the correct vendor so that every legal vote is counted. Our new machines must include a paper backup, and both the machines and paper trail must both be auditable. I intend to take the Democratic lead on this initiative.

I would encourage all Savannah-area residents to stay up to date on what your elected officials are working to accomplish. I look forward to helping to improve the lives of all Georgians.

Sen. Lester Jackson (D-District 2) is a 20-year veteran of the Georgia General Assembly and is the leader of the Democratic Black Caucus.

Viewpoints: Georgia legislature readies to address full agenda


[Photo from Wikimedia Commons]
Georgia lawmakers go “under the gold dome” as the 155th session of the Georgia General Assembly opens at the Capitol in downtown Atlanta.

Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan and House Speaker David Ralston will welcome the 236 legislators as they begin approximately three months of work. Duncan will preside over the Senate, the first time in 12 years someone other than Casey Cagle had that role. Ralston, meanwhile, enters his ninth year leading the House.

Legislators, including our eight-member local delegation, will address a range of issues facing the state, with bills and resolutions that pass both chambers moving on to new Gov. Brian Kemp to be signed into law. Kemp is expected to present his agenda, including his first budget, during the session’s opening week.

Pressing matters for the legislature include school safety, the state’s voting system, healthcare coverage for the uninsured and support for rural hospitals, education funding and spending, gaming and gambling, gun rights, immigration reform and rural development initiatives.

Our local delegation will be among the leaders at the Capitol. Chairmanships won’t officially be awarded until the session begins, but both our local senators, Lester Jackson and Ben Watson, are expected to lead committees, and Jackson is the head of the Democratic Black Caucus.

On the House side, Reps. Ron Stephens and Bill Hitchens expected to head committees while Reps. Carl Gilliard and Jesse Petrea are considered strong candidates.

The local legislative priorities include continued support for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, funding for a Savannah Convention Center expansion, extension of a historic preservation tax incentive, dollars for funding for facilities and programs at our area public colleges and universities, and pushing for a study on replacing or elevating the Talmadge Bridge.

“All I’ve ever seen in my time in the Georgia General Assembly is a delegation that works together and for the most part a legislature working together,” Rep. Jesse Petrea said. “I’m sure that will continue.”