ATLANTA -- A legislative logjam is building in the General Assembly as the Feb. 15 target date for passing local redistricting measure approaches.
Lawmakers are fond of saying that their only constitutionally required task each session is approving a budget for the next fiscal year. That may be true in most years, but this year they have the added assignment of enacting revised district maps for local school boards and county commissions.
After 14 legislative days, just 58 of the 339 local maps have been introduced in either the House or the Senate. That’s just 17 percent of the total, and 35 percent of the session has already elapsed.
The approved calendar leaves just four legislative days before the gavel falls on Feb. 15. The target date is to give ample time for the U.S. Department of Justice to have its 90 days for review before qualifying begins for this year’s elections.
Major counties like Chatham, Clarke, Bibb, Muscogee and Richmond are all still on the starting line for various reasons.
That suggests a very busy week ahead for the House Intergovernmental Coordination Committee and the Senate State and Local Governmental Operations Committee.
Well, at least their staffers will be busy. That’s because the committees don’t actually meet to consider the hundreds of local bills passing through. It’s merely a formality because the only consideration is by the members of the local legislative delegations.
While having such a small group of locally informed lawmakers effectively decide the bills can streamline the process compared to having the entire General Assembly weigh every local set of maps, it also can bog it down.
Local politics is delaying the redistricting because the delegations from the state’s metro areas are getting involved in the map making.
The usual custom is to let local officials sketch the districts out, and the delegations simply give their approval, according to Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, one of the longest-serving members of the legislature.
“I’ve been 38 years in the legislature and through four reapportionments. I leave well enough alone,” he said. “I’m in the legislature. I don’t even know how to go about drawing a district for a councilman or a school-board member.”
The Columbus-Muscogee delegation hasn’t introduced legislation for its maps, he said, because it is waiting for one from its local school board.
But lawmakers from Athens, Augusta, Savannah and Macon are doing more than serving as rubber stamps.
Macon’s snag is tied up in the politics of a contentious proposal to consolidate its city and county governments, according to Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon.
In Athens-Clarke County, the issue that led delegation members to the drawingboard was a desire by Republicans to improve the chances of electing more of the GOP’s candidates to local office. That’s why it has so far ignored maps drawn by the Democratic local governments.
“I believe it would be better government to have a Republican commissioner to voice and debate another point of view,” wrote Rep. Doug McKillip, R-Athens, in a column for the Athens Banner-Herald. “... Can anyone legitimately argue that it is somehow �wrong’ for me to want just one Republican out of 10, especially when 35 percent to 40 percent of Athens is Republican?”
The Athens delegation, dominated by Republicans, had planned to hold a referendum on the maps until Thursday when it bowed to complaints from local officials that it would be too costly.
The Chatham County delegation has made much more progress. It also opted to ignore maps approved by the local governments but for less partisan reasons.
The Chatham chairman, Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, said he simply thought he could make more people happy with a map other than the one created by the Metropolitan Planning Commission for the local government.
“Since we did not get a consensus from either the school board or the county -- they voted and it was 50-50 and the chairmen had to break the tie,” he said.
The delegation voted Wednesday on Stephens’ handiwork. He said it splits fewer precincts, keeps more neighborhoods together and should satisfy the half of each board that voted against the local version.
Sometimes, bold action is required, notes Rep. Mickey Stephens, D-Savannah.
“We’re not going to please everybody,” he said. “We just have to make a decision, and it will be our decision.”
The Augusta delegation hasn’t introduced legislation for a map either. In fact, it was prevented by not having placed a legal notice in The Augusta Chronicle one week before introduction, as required by state law.
The delegation’s chairman, Rep. Wayne Howard, D-Augusta, expressed no alarm Thursday.
“There might be a slight delay, but it shouldn’t cause any problems,” he said.
He intends to introduce a bill Monday for a map drawn by a committee of four legislators, four commissioners and four members of the school board. The local boards approved it, but there have been second thoughts since.
“Thirty-thousand people got displaced, and after reflection that was just not the way we hoped it would go,” said Rep. Barbara Sims, R-Augusta.
She has said she would introduce her own version of a map, but she had not as of Friday, according to the legislative website.
Smyre said he’s been scratching his head as he’s watched other delegations bog down in local politics. Most legislators stay out of local matters, he said.
“I just think we would be better served if we let the locals do it,” he said.