ATLANTA — The Georgia Legislature kicked off its 2011 session on Monday with snow blanketing the Capitol's gold dome and dozens of new faces among the House and Senate lawmakers that took the oath of office.
The Republican-led House and Senate gaveled in and formally elected leaders, who'd already been selected by their caucuses.
It was a day of ceremony with little in the way of actual state business.
Lawmakers were sworn in for two-year terms, and families jammed both chambers to witness the milestone. But with a snowstorm dumping some 4 inches of snow on Atlanta, the Capitol hallways — normally choked with lobbyists — were nearly empty.
In the House, Clerk Robbie Rivers took the roll call and counted 145 of the 180 members present.
"I believe, on a snowy day, 145 members being here is outstanding," Rivers said. "Congratulations on your election."
There was some drama across the rotunda in the state Senate, where senators adopted new rules that stripped Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle of some of his power and also required the chamber to include a pledge of allegiance to the Georgia flag as part of its daily morning business.
The new rules — approved 40-12 on Monday — will give an eight-member committee on assignments the power to appoint members to committees and name the panel's chairmen. Cagle maintains control of the gavel in the Senate but must recognize Senate President Pro Tempore Tommie Williams, Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers and Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown when they wish to speak.
A draft of the rules was voted on by the Republican caucus in November.
There had been some controversy over the plan to offer up a pledge to the Georgia flag.
But state Sen. George Hooks, the longest-serving member in the chamber, offered his support on Monday saying it was "a powerful statement in support" of Georgia's revamped flag, which no longer features the polarizing Confederate battle symbol.
"It has nothing to do with nullification, secession or snubbing your nose at Washington," the Democrat from Americus said.
Before the vote, Cagle evoked the political battles of last year's campaign season. But he said lawmakers must now concentrate on a full slate of important issues — such as rescuing the state's cash-strapped HOPE scholarship, which provides money for Georgia residents to attend college.
"Now is the time for reason and deliberation," Cagle said. "We are in a position to truly help people. To make decisions that impact this generation and the next. It begins here."
The highlight of the day will be the inauguration of Georgia's new governor, Nathan Deal, and the swearing in of the slate of statewide constitutional officers on Monday afternoon.
Lawmakers this year will be tackling yet another round of budget cuts. Cagle has said the shortfall for the coming fiscal year is about $1 billion.
They'll also be looking at a possible overhaul of the state's tax code. And immigration is expected to be another hot topic under the gold dome.
Both the House and Senate are welcoming a large number of new members this year in bodies that rarely see much turnover.
Several legislative veterans retired last year, while others left their seats to pursue higher office.