The budget - and where to cut it - will be the Legislature's top priority. That includes areas that are usually off-limits, such as education and public safety. Gov.-elect Nathan Deal, who will be sworn-in as the House and Senate return on Monday, campaigned on fiscal conservatism and has planned a modest inauguration.
Deal, a veteran congressman, is also a former state legislator and has relationships with many Georgia lawmakers, including GOP colleagues Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston. The two chambers will be even more firmly in Republican control with the defection of nine Democrats since the Nov. 2 election.
The GOP is now just shy of a supermajority in both chambers, with more power to push its agenda. Dozens of freshman lawmakers will also make their way to the Capitol this year, as many veterans left after last session to jump into the crowded 2010 elections.
The state's finances will present them with daunting challenges. Though revenues have been on the rise for seven straight months, Georgia still faces a shortfall of about $1.8 billion.
That's in addition to $3 billion in cuts to state spending since the recession began. The state's budget woes will only worsen in the absence of federal stimulus money in the upcoming fiscal year beginning July 1.
Ralston acknowledged that he and his colleagues would be challenged in the weeks ahead.
"We've got a deep shortfall, there's no question about it, but we did it last year," Ralston said. "Everything is going to get scrutiny this year."
That includes areas that are usually off-limits, such as education and public safety. Ralston said he would resist tax increases, but couldn't promise they were off the table this year.
"When you've got an unemployment rate at 10 percent, I don't think that's a good time for us to tell Georgians that we need more of their money," Ralston said. "I'm going to resist that again this year."
The lawmakers' focus on the state's finances shows in the lack of prefiled legislation. Among the few bills submitted ahead of the session are a proposal to ban Georgia's public colleges from admitting undocumented students and an Arizona-style immigration law - expected to be one of the session's few hot topics. As a member of Congress, Deal was an early and repeated sponsor of legislation to deny automatic citizenship to children born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants.
Lawmakers will also consider the recommendations of the Special Council on Tax Reform and Fairness for Georgians, including reinstating the 4 percent state sales tax on groceries. Their report to Ralston and Cagle, handed in just before the start of the legislative session, now moves to the Special Joint Committee on Georgia Revenue Structure, where House and Senate leaders will hold hearings that could result in legislation.
The state's beloved HOPE scholarship could also be a budget casualty. Lawmakers have warned of imminent cuts in HOPE benefits for months as spending on the scholarships continues to outpace income from the sale of lottery tickets.
Ralston said he strongly supports HOPE, which he said has been left "a tremendous legacy" in the state.
"I am absolutely committed to preserving this program as intact as possible," Ralston said. "It is important that it be a priority."