House votes to change local elections to July



ATLANTA — The House voted largely along party lines Friday to change the date of elections in Augusta.

The measure by Rep. Barbara Sims, R-Augusta, shifts the election date for consolidated cities and counties from November to July. She argued that legislation last year that changed the election date for judicial elections was intended to include Augusta as well.

Augusta officials have relied on a letter from the attorney general stating that last year’s judicial bill didn’t apply to Augusta because of how the city’s charter is set up. Sims’ bill, House Bill 776, leaves little doubt that Augusta’s voting would move to the summer date, the time when partisan primaries are held.

The chairman of the House Governmental Affairs Committee that reviewed her bill and recommended its passage, Rep. Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming, said no one testified against it during two hearings.

“It was an open process,” he said.

However, Rep. Wayne Howard, a Democrat who chairs the Augusta delegation, said he was caught unaware.

“We don’t know when these bills are being heard,” he said.

Sims’ bill passed 95-58. It could come up for a second vote Monday if Rep. Quincy Murphy, D-Augusta, follows through on his stated intention to ask the House to reconsider its action.

“We’ll have the opportunity over the weekend to talk to some folks,” he said.

The Democrats didn’t discuss the bill in their caucus meetings, according to Howard. Instead, the members who voted against the bill picked up clues from the debate on the House floor.

While the House was gearing up to change the election date, the Senate stalled consideration of the district boundaries for the Augusta Commission and Richmond County Board of Education. The House had already passed the maps as local legislation sponsored by Howard, meaning the approval of a majority of the local House delegation led to formal passage by the full House.

In the Senate, where the local delegation is evenly split, with one Republican and one Democrat, action halted. The bills sit in the Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee, which considers statewide bills rather than the committee that normally rubber-stamps local legislation.

“I anticipate there will be an attempt to try to change them,” said Sen. Hardie Davis, D-Augusta.

Howard, Murphy Davis said they were unaware of the committee assignment. None had heard from Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro, about his intentions to alter the maps, which were based on the work of a special committee of legislators, commissioners and school-board members and designated R3. Stone did not immediately respond to a message seeking a comment.

Last Friday, Davis said he was surprised by Senate Reapportionment’s legislation that would move the district of Sen. Bill Jackson, R-Appling, to include a tiny part of Richmond County. That change, if approved by the full Senate and House, would give the Senate delegation two Republicans and one Democrat starting next year, while the House delegation would maintain its Democratic majority.