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Posted: September 4, 2011 12:00 a.m.

A view from the House

The General Assembly spent Aug. 15 through Aug. 31 in what is called a special session. It is referred to as "special" because it is outside of the normal 40 legislative day period, specified in the state constitution, that starts in January. Special sessions can only be convened by a formal proclamation of the governor, referred to as "the call." These sessions are also restricted to legislating only on the topics the governor specifically includes in his call. Governor Deal's call for this session included three topics. First and primary was legislative and congressional redistricting. The second topic was ratification of the governor's executive act in May when he kept the motor fuel tax from automatically increasing. The last one was moving the date of the transportation SPLOST referendum scheduled for next year. Redistricting was, obviously, the real reason a special session was appropriate. The other topics were more a matter of convenience.

Redistricting involved three bills. The first one we saw was our own map, contained in HB 1EX. The state constitution requires that the House be composed of 180 members. Dividing up the roughly 9.7 million people counted in Georgia by last year's census requires that each of these districts have a bit under 54,000 people each. This is up from about 45,000 previously. Since that growth was unevenly spread around the state, the new lines had to accommodate significant changes in some areas. As most people guessed, south Georgia had to lose seats (four of them), but even in Metro Atlanta there were complex changes.

Not being a member of the redistricting committee, I wasn't involved in making those decisions for other representatives, but I did have opportunities to work on the shape my own district would take. House District 112 didn't require significant changes because it only had about 3,500 people too many. Work done in western Newton County resulted in a request that I give up a couple of precincts on that side of the district, but those same changes made Gum Creek available, and I was able to add that precinct in. In the east, the only change was to bring in the remaining two precincts of Morgan County. Thus in the end, I had reason to support this map, both because the district got a fair shake and because my experience of the process of drawing the map was very fair and open.

Still, when it came time to vote on the map, I remembered the oft repeated quote that redistricting is the most political of legislative tasks. So it was no surprise that the bill saw several hours of heated debate, followed by a nearly party line vote. I voted yes, and the map passed by 108 to 64.

SB 1EX was the Senate's reapportionment map. Just as redistricting apparently sets an inevitable majority/minority cast upon a chamber's vote for its own map, so too does it impose a dynamic on how the two chambers of a legislature treat each other's maps. With both sides of the General Assembly being under the control of the same party, the unavoidable relationship here was one of legislative courtesy, with each chamber respecting the other's wishes. Thus the Senate map saw much the same debate in our chamber as our own did, though much shorter and not nearly as spirited, and much the same vote. I voted in favor, and the bill passed by 104 to 56.

HB 20EX contained the U.S. congressional redistricting map. The fact that Georgia's higher population earned it a 14th seat in the U.S. House probably made the redistricting work easier, given the growth imbalance between north and south Georgia. The new, unoccupied U.S. House seat ended up in the northeast corner of the state. In terms of impact on the counties I serve, Morgan comes out the same as before, remaining entirely in the 10th District (Paul Broun). Newton remains split between two congressional districts, though entirely different ones, with the west in the fourth district (Hank Johnson) and the east in the 10th (Paul Broun). While I would have preferred that Newton not be split, I did have to recognize that about half of the metro and near-metro counties ended up with splits, with some of these being three or even four ways. So, with worse alternatives all too readily possible, I concluded it would be wise to accept the map as drawn. When it came time to consider the bill on the House floor, the grooves were now pretty well-worn. The bill saw little more than an hour's debate, of about the same temperature as with the Senate map. The vote was again party line, and the bill passed by 110 to 60, with my support.

There has been a great deal of discussion in the media about the politics and the process of this redistricting, and there is nothing I can personally add to that debate that hasn't already been said. However, in signing the House and Senate map bills, Governor Deal offered some pretty straightforward comments that I think are worth considering: "...we have upheld our vow to keep communities together. House and Senate leaders held hearings across the state and worked individually with members of both parties. Both bodies produced maps that obey federal laws and honor the one-person-one-vote principle. The maps also pass the ‘optics test,' meaning that a casual viewer could look at the districts and tell they make sense. It's a benefit to our state and a benefit to our taxpayers that we have accomplished this important part of the special session so quickly."

Because of some corollary issues raised by the proposal to move the transportation SPLOST referendum date, that issue has been set aside for next year's regular session. We did, however, ratify the governor's suspension of the motor fuel tax increase. That act was contained in HB 2EX, which I supported and which passed by 150 to 10. I haven't discovered any consistent or coherent reason that 10 folks voted against that one.


Doug Holt and can be reached at (404) 656-0152 or by email at Doug@DougHolt.org.

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