ATLANTA – The first day of the 2016 legislative session Monday featured a pageant queen, professional entertainers, a tribute to victims of a deadly vehicle crash and the first phase of discussions about major proposals to be addressed during the 40-day session.

A casual observer might have thought all that happened was the General Assembly was in session for a couple of hours to hear from preachers, some honorees and to pass a resolution setting the days off for the next three weeks. (They’ll take off next Monday and the following two Fridays.) They recessed for the day to attend a memorial service for five Georgia Southern University nursing students who perished last spring on Interstate-95.

While Miss America, Betty Cantrell of Warner Robins, did serenade the House of Representatives with “Georgia on my Mind,” and the Senate honored performers with Collective Soul and the Zac Brown Band, real legislative work was also taking place in all the informal conversations around the Capitol.

Usually before votes are taken, legislators do a lot of talking with their colleagues.

The author of a bill to allow the growing of medical marijuana, Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, showed off the signature of another cosponsor gained from his conversation with a colleague who arrived early.

The chairman of the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee, Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, held a morning strategy session with fellow supporters of expanding legalized gambling to casinos.

“There’s all kinds of opportunity,” he said.

He’s cooperating with Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, who is sponsoring a bill to legalize betting on horse races. The strategy includes designating some proceeds from the tax on gambling to a needs-based scholarship, like the merit-based HOPE Scholarship, as a way to draw Democratic support, Stephens said.

“Once we fully fund HOPE, I’ve got no issue at all with a small piece of that going to needs-based,” he said.

The sponsor of another high-profile bill dealing with protecting the exercise of religious beliefs from discrimination lawsuits, Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, was also actively lining up backing for what he calls his religious-liberty bill. He spent the morning talking to reporters from across the state and speaking privately with legislators about the support he’s received from interest groups he’s addressed since last session.

“Maybe the third time is in the charm,” McKoon told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. “I feel we have a pretty good chance to get it through. There has been a lot of momentum in our direction.”

Legislators use the informal conversations to gauge the support for their proposals and learn where they may need to compromise to be successful.

“I am willing to work through the process, come to the table and have a discussion,” McKoon said.

Besides the measures already drawing statewide attention are local initiatives about to be introduced.

One example is from Rep. Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah, to require a 30-day notice before a violent felon is released or moved to transitional holding. It’s in response to uproar in Savannah over crimes by repeat offenders.

“When you look at 70 percent of violent crime is due to recidivists, you really have a problem,” he said.

Follow Walter Jones on Twitter @MorrisNews and Facebook or contact him at walter.jones@morris.com.

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