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John Bazemore, Associated Press
Rep Mark Hatfield, R-Waycross, talks on his cellphone before the start of the 2012 Georgia General Assembly at his desk on the floor of the House at the Capitol in Atlanta, Monday, Jan 9, 2012.

ATLANTA — Georgia lawmakers returned to the state capitol Monday to start a 40-day session expected to focus on closing a potential budget shortfall, overhauling the tax code in an attempt to attract jobs and steering nonviolent offenders away from expensive and overcrowded prisons.

Legislators in the Republican-controlled chambers got straight to business Monday. House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, largely dispensed with opening-day ceremonies after briefly greeting a handful of new lawmakers from the speaker's podium. The House then started approving its calendar and reading new legislation.

Ralston seemed to give a mild dig to the Senate, the scene of a leadership struggle last year that he had complained made it difficult to pass legislation.

"I really want the Senate to know that we're working," Ralston said, shortly before a vote where House lawmakers officially notified their Senate counterparts of the start of their session.

In the Senate, Lt. Gov Casey Cagle recognized two new lawmakers and attempted to assert himself as the chamber's leader, reflecting a power struggle among his GOP colleagues. The Senate passed two bills carried over from last year's session related to education.

The Senate unanimously passed one bill that would give the state superintendent the ability to hire and fire Department of Education staff. Currently, the state school board controls that function.

After a lengthy debate, the Senate also voted 38-15, along partisan lines, to pass legislation that would prohibit local school boards from requiring teacher layoffs to begin with the most recent hires. Supporters of Senate Bill 184 say the measure would allow those boards to take into account other factors instead of only seniority when laying off teachers. Supporters of the change say it's a way to avoid unnecessarily punishing talented instructors.

Democrats said the proposal would take away local control and called the bill "frivolous."

With Georgia's unemployment rate still hovering around 10 percent, leading lawmakers have vowed to pass legislation this year that would spur job creation and workforce development programs. Legislators also are expected to consider new infrastructure spending, revamped policies to address prison overcrowding and social issues such as abortion.

Gov. Nathan Deal plans this week to outline his proposals from a yearlong study of ways to make Georgia more appealing to businesses. The Republican governor said he will outline his proposals while speaking to business leaders Tuesday morning, then deliver his annual State of the State address to a joint session of the General Assembly that night.

Lawmakers also debated the merits of allowing video lottery terminals in an effort to provide more money for state-funded college scholarships.

On a more contentious issue, protesters at a rally organized by the Georgia conference of the NAACP called on state lawmakers to eliminate the death penalty. State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, has promised to sponsor such legislation but recently became ill and has not yet filed it.

NAACP state chapter President Edward DuBose cited the case of Troy Davis, who was executed last year after being convicted in the 1989 shooting death of an off-duty Savannah police officer. Davis said he was innocent and his supporters, including former President Jimmy Carter and Pope Benedict XVI, argued there was too much doubt to allow the execution to proceed. The slain officer's family and prosecutors said the right man was convicted of the killing.

DuBose said the lives of blacks, including Davis, have "no meaning to most folks." DuBose said that Davis asked shortly before his execution that DuBose and others continue their work against the death penalty.

"He said there are people on death row, innocent people, who are being executed simply because they do not have the legal resources to wage a fight," DuBose said.