David Ralston covered a range of topics during an address last week to a packed clubhouse in the Big Canoe community.
Ralston briefed the gathering about the 2011 session of the General Assembly, over which he presides as Speaker of the House, as well as upcoming issues.
Among other areas, Ralston touched on the economy, criminal justice, illegal immigration and redistricting of legislative and congressional lines.
A member of the group playing host to the event, the Squires and Stags, thanked him for coming.
"We're delighted to have him here to give us a recap of the session," Chuck Gordon said.
Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge whose district includes parts of Dawson, Fannin and Gilmer counties, took office in 2003 and was elected speaker in January 2010.
Regarding the current economic status, he told the crowd of more than 100 that "state government is not unlike a lot of other things."
"We have gone through a very severe economic downturn in the last few years of truly historic proportions," he said.
Ralston said state government has "managed to pass a budget in a very responsible way...it hasn't been a fun way...but over the last three fiscal years, we have cut your state budget by over 22 percent."
"What we have not done is raise taxes," he added, drawing applause from the crowd.
Ralston then shifted to the state's criminal justice system and questioned ways in which the money could be better used.
"We're spending over a billion dollars a year housing prisoners in our prison system...about 70 percent of those people are there because of drug possession and dependency problems," he said. "Now, do I advocate being soft on crime? No, but I do advocate being smart on crime."
Ralston referenced the drug court program used by Superior Court Judge Jason Deal of the Northeastern Judicial Circuit, which includes Dawson and Hall counties.
"When I went to watch the drug court graduation, I became a believer," Ralston said. "I think we can take that concept and expand it and save Georgians money and do a better job of what we ought to be doing with criminal justice."
Ralston said another "very, very complex issue" at the state level is illegal immigration.
"We want to make sure at the end of the day there's a law in Georgia that says simply this: ‘We're not going to wait on Washington anymore. We're going to take care of Georgians, because the cost [of illegal immigration] has become exorbitant, whether it's education, public safety, the prisons, the jails or public health...they've all been hit by expenses related to this issue."
Ralston also mentioned the upcoming redistricting session, which will be held this summer.
Following each U.S. Census every 10 years, lawmakers are required to redraw congressional legislative districts to address changes in population.
Georgia is set to receive a new congressional district, Ralston said.
"That's really going to set the tone for where the political power in Georgia is for the next 10 years," he said.
"I'm often asked, ‘What will the maps look like?'" Ralston said. "I don't know what they'll look like. But I can tell you they're going to be fair, sensible, legal and constitutional."
In closing, Ralston offered words of optimism to the group.
"People may get frustrated with what's going on in Washington ... they may get frustrated with what's going on in Atlanta too," he said.
Still, he said, Georgia remains a powerful state.
"We have a college and university system and technical college system that is second to none in this nation," Ralston said.
He also said the state's port cities like Savannah could soon "explode" with growth.
"I've been all over Georgia...it's a great, exciting state. I have a sense of optimism for our future here."