Sine Die for the Georgia General Assembly (updated)

Sine Die is not a rare but catastrophic outcome of trigonometry exam-induced stress (rimshot!) but the end of the General Assembly’s regular session at the Capitol in Atlanta. Barring any urgent business requiring a special session, this particular laboratory of democracy is just about done experimenting until next year.

Although the contemplation of a water war with Tennessee over where the state line crosses the Tennessee River has generated the most attention, far more immediately consequential bills revolve around the collection of taxes in Fulton County. HB 541 proposes doubling the Fulton County Homestead exemption to $60,000, while HB 346 would make the Fulton County Tax Commissioner an appointed official.

note: read here a point-counterpoint between north Fulton Republican and Speaker Pro Tem of the Georgia House Jan Jones and Democratic Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves on the impact of the homestead exemption….

update: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the homestead exemption bill’s supporters on Tuesday had largely given up hope of the bill reaching a Senate vote before the end of the session. It’s on the list of pending bills, but not likely to see a vote. that passage now seems likely (after who knows what horse-trading).

These bills join others passed last week that redistrict the Fulton County Commission to create a new Republican seat and give the Fulton County legislative delegation power to choose the head of the County elections board. These bills were sponsored by area Republicans and passed to the floor through a gerrymandered Fulton County delegation that tilts Republican despite the facts that Fulton County is a majority-minority county that voted by nearly two thirds for Barack Obama and five of seven County Commissioners are on record as opposing the slate of local legislation advanced by the Fulton County delegation.

This is an effort by a local minority to appeal to a higher level of government to win its agenda. Jim Galloway explains:

Finally, there was H.B. 347, a bill aimed at the Registration and Elections Board, which came under scrutiny last year when mismanagement caused more Fulton voters to use paper ballots than the rest of the state combined. The fix: allow Fulton’s state legislators, rather than the County Commission, to pick the board’s chairman. That would likely make the board 3-2 Republican rather than 3-2 Democratic.

All this would all happen in an overwhelmingly Democratic county that is 60 percent non-white.

When this involves invoking the Federal Voting Rights Act to protect racial minority interests, it’s an intolerable intrusion on liberty. When it involves a state majority engineering a potential partisan advantage in the administration of elections to boost a partisan minority’s chances, it’s democracy in action.

There’s no doubt that the redrawing of legislative boundaries in 2011 was done to pack the Fulton County legislative delegation with white Republicans (but I repeat myself) from the Atlanta suburbs (but I repeat repeating myself) by creating districts that include small parts of Fulton County and larger parts of outlying (and more conservative) counties. I wrote about this issue without specifying the extent of this districting technique. Johnny Edwards and David Wickert explain:

Until this year, Democrats held a 14-8 majority of Fulton County’s seats in the House and a 4-3 majority in the Senate. But in 2011 the Republican-controlled Legislature redrew House and Senate districts across the state based on 2010 census data.

Now Republicans enjoy a 13-12 edge in Fulton County House seats and a 7-4 majority in the Senate. To accomplish that, they extended districts into Fulton that previously had not included the county.

As a result, 13 of 36 state legislators whose districts now include a piece of Fulton live elsewhere. Four live in Cobb County. Two each live in DeKalb, Gwinnett and Fayette counties. Others live in Cherokee, Coweta and Forsyth. Eleven of the 13 lawmakers who live outside Fulton are Republicans.

State Senator Vincent Fort thinks, as this blog does, that this delegation-packing represents an effort to diminish the authority that local black elected officials can wield over white residents through county government:

“You have a bunch of white Republicans who just resent African-American political power and control over resources,” said state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. “They’re willing to do any and everything to take away African-American political power.”

State Senator Mike Crane, who lives 20 miles from the Fulton County line in Coweta and received 835 votes in his recent unopposed bid for reelection from Fulton County voters (out of more than 60,000 total votes), disagrees, and insists that

Fulton will benefit from the quality and principles of the people added to its delegation.

“Give us a little time,” he said. “We’ll prove it to you.”

This blog suspects that increasing the representation of people with two particular qualities–whiteness and Republicanism–were foremost in the minds of the architects of the redistricting. Over the course of this legislative session, those qualities have certainly proven to support a radical redirection of state policy affecting the county.

I also wrote some weeks ago that legislative delegations fall between the cracks of voting rights law. The courts have generally interpreted county legislative delegations as administrative units of the legislatures, meaning that if the districting and apportionment of the whole legislature pass muster under the VRA, then legislatures are largely free to determine the composition of legislative delegations. It doesn’t matter if all of the seats in a delegation lie within the county or not, how much of a county is contained in a seat that is part of the district, if the members of a county’s legislative delegation actually live in the county or not. Most importantly, while the Voting Rights Act protects the ability of minority group voters to elect representatives and guards against vote dilution, legislatures remain free to dilute the power of legislators within local delegations without running afoul of the VRA, on the assumption that these delegations remain subordinate to the legislature as a whole.

State Senator Jason Carter recognizes, in terms that echo this blog’s analysis, that the gerrymandering of the legislative delegation is part of a plan to bypass the Democratic majority in Fulton County, bring local legislation to the floor where the statewide GOP majority aligns with the GOP minority in north Fulton County, and ultimately to give that Republican minority the power to control elections in Fulton County:

“The next thing you do is pack a Fulton delegation with people from outside Fulton County…Then you give power to that gerrymandered delegation over the elections commission. At some point, someone’s going to say you’ve gone too far.

As Jim Galloway explains, this legal doctrine prevented Georgia Democrats from pursuing a suit under the Voting Rights Act to challenge the composition of the delegation. In this the Assembly may have crossed a line that would open the composition of the Fulton County delegation to scrutiny:

When legislative districts were presented to the U.S. Justice Department for approval – as required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act – Democrats declined to protest the GOP delegation packing.

By law, legislative delegations are only advisory bodies, it was determined. They had no real power.

But H.B. 347 changes that. With the signature of Gov. Nathan Deal, the Fulton legislative delegation will be given real, statutory authority over the county’s election committee. Republicans, Carter explained afterwards, may have just provided Democrats the leg they need to stand on in front of a federal judge and mount a challenge to GOP delegation packing.

We’ll see.

4 comments on “Sine Die for the Georgia General Assembly (updated)

  1. […] It’s also a provocative exploration of the consequences of state interference with local and municipal power, something that’s been on my mind lately. […]

  2. […] wrote last year about Georgia legislation [AJC Paywall] that capped Fulton County’s property tax […]

  3. […] Urban Innovation. Looks like I’ll have to read it now, particularly since it addresses Atlanta’s relationship to the State of Georgia, a particular interest of […]

  4. […] They hamstrung the county’s ability to raise property taxes. And they shifted the power to staff the Board of Elections from the Board of Commissioners (controlled by Democrats) to the state legislature (controlled by […]

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