Originally created 07/30/01

Special session to start



ATLANTA - If Georgia politics were a schoolhouse playground, next week's General Assembly special session would be the part where captains line up their classmates to pick teams.

Lawmakers will be choosing their voters - and their colleagues - when they redraw the state's political lines.

Similar to the schoolyard, this game will have winners and losers.

For voters, the final score will depend on their opinion of the candidates in their newly created districts.

For the politicians, winning will mean going home to a district packed with friendly voters.

The losers will just go home - sometimes for good. And they'll often have their former political friends to thank.

Every 10 years, lawmakers meet in a called session to redraw the boundaries for legislative and congressional districts to make sure they contain the same number of people.

Figures from the census aren't available until after the regular January-March session ends, so governors call for a special session.

Slicing the pie again would be simple, except that changes in population aren't the same in every district.

The state of Georgia grew 26 percent since the last census, but areas such as suburban Atlanta exploded at a faster rate than places such as Augusta and Savannah.

Keeping about the same population in each district requires drawing fewer districts in slow-growing parts of the state and adding more districts in the fast-growing regions.

Complicating the process are two factors - politics and incumbency.

Politics comes in because the places that have grown the most are suburbs home to predominantly Republican voters.

Democrats who control the Statehouse aren't eager to erase Democratic seats to draw GOP ones. And incumbents of both parties are reluctant to end their political careers.

Redistricting is almost the opposite of elections. Elections are when voters pick their representatives. Redistricting is when politicians pick their colleagues - and their voters.

"It's not a very pleasant process," said DeWayne Hamilton, a member of the Savannah-Chatham County school board who was a Democratic state representative in 1990 when the General Assembly redrew political lines. "A lot of friends will be lost."

In the weeks leading to the August session, local political leaders have been hoping to influence the shape of districts in their areas, some wanting to be part of a single district and others wanting to divide their communities so they will have more lawmakers representing their home turf.

But redistricting isn't so much about taking care of Georgia cities as it is about the politicians elected by them.

"Legislators think in terms of personalities," said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist.

As a result, freshmen legislators who haven't built friendships with their colleagues are more likely to see their districts changed or eliminated than veterans are. Republicans, especially those who buck the Democratic leadership, are also vulnerable.

Freshmen Republicans, such as Rep. Sue Burmeister of Augusta and Rep. Danae Roberts of Columbus, have an almost visible target on their backs.

"Probably partisanship will play a larger role than it has in the past because this is the first time that Republicans have had a chance to gain a majority," Dr. Bullock said.

To keep Republicans off balance, Gov. Roy Barnes and the Democratic leadership have kept their map drafts under wraps.

"I guess you're always afraid of the unknown," said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Sharpsburg, the House minority leader. "So far we've seen nothing (from Democrats) except these little pieces of maps."

Some Republicans have speculated that Mr. Barnes has already prepared the maps he wants and plans to push them through the General Assembly much as he did the new state flag - which took many lawmakers by surprise and was approved by both chambers in less than three days.

But Democrats say they're far from having a final map.

"Everybody seems to think that, but it's not true," said Rep. Tommy Smith, D-Alma, the chairman of the House Reapportionment Committee.

Meanwhile, Georgia taxpayers will be picking up the tab for the extra lawmaking to the tune of about $32,000 to $35,000 a day.

Lawmakers are paid $128 a day while the Legislature is in session, plus mileage money for their trips to and from the Capitol.

Extra staff, usually only needed for the General Assembly's 40-day session, will be called in, although government budget writers are trying to keep their numbers down.

"We probably bring on 200 people for the regular session," said Robyn Underwood, of the state Legislative fiscal office. "If they bring 50 on (for the special session), that's a high estimate."

The number of staff won't be the only reduction in the hallways.

"Lobbyists are staying out of the way," said Scott MacGregor, a lobbyist for the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce. "This is not something legislators need a whole lot of input on. They know where the lines ought to go."

Because the only issues that can be discussed are local legislation and redistricting, most lobbyists plan to skip the session.

Video poker, an issue some lawmakers hoped to tack on to their discussions about redistricting, is not expected to be on the agenda when the General Assembly convenes Wednesday.

During the regular session, a Republican-led effort to ban the machines - which critics say are regularly used for illegal gambling - ran out of time in the closing seconds of the 40-day session.

GOP leaders asked Mr. Barnes to add the issue to the list of items they might consider next week.

According to the Georgia Constitution, the governor can call for a special session of the Assembly and only issues that he lists may be officially considered. The governor did not include the video poker issue during the first session, for redrawing state lines.

But his staff says he's still considering the issue. According to the constitution, Mr. Barnes can add items to the agenda any time before the session starts. He may also add items once the session has begun, if three-fifths of the members of both chambers agree.

Mr. Barnes also might add video poker to the agenda for the second session, to redraw federal districts.

Reach Doug Gross and Walter Jones at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.