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Hall lawmakers still set on changes to redistricting maps

First vote in House and Senate is today

POSTED: August 17, 2011 11:19 p.m.

As maps for representation in Georgia's General Assembly receive their first full vote in House and Senate chambers today, lawmakers are still lobbying — and hopeful — for changes.

Speaker of the House David Ralston has limited debate on the proposed House districts to three hours today and won't allow substitute maps to be introduced on the floor.

In the Senate chamber, however, Democrats plan to introduce an alternate map for state Senate districts before today's vote.

Members of the General Assembly took up the once-in-a-decade process of reapportionment Monday, redrawing the state's political boundaries to reflect changes in the state's population.

Votes on proposed maps for state House and Senate districts are coming less than a week after the maps were released to the public last Friday.

House districts drawn for Hall County increase the local delegation to nine members - seven House members and two senators.

Only four of those members would be entirely based in Hall County, however. And members of the current delegation said they are still hopeful that they can influence change in the districts, though the windows of opportunity for changes to the map seem to be closing.

"The negotiations are still in progress," said Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville. "We feel positive about the way they're going. We feel like the process is working."

Under the proposed maps, residents of an area east of Gillsville Highway and Harmony Church Roads would be part of a larger Senate district currently held by Cornelia Republican Jim Butterworth.

They would also become part of a House district comprising Stephens and Banks counties.

The representative for that district currently is Toccoa Republican Michael Harden.

Residents of South Hall would be divided among a district held by Rep. James Mills, R-Chestnut Mountain, and two Gwinnett County districts.

A number of voters in West Hall would fall into Rep. Amos Amerson's district, which is largely based in Lumpkin and Dawson counties.

"We ended up with tails of four (House districts), and we don't like tails in Hall County," said Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville.

Mills says his best argument against the current House district map is the way district lines are drawn in South Hall, particularly Flowery Branch.

"I think using that argument is very persuasive in trying to bring about some change," Mills said. "...To have a population of only 5,700 and have that many representatives — that's a little unusual."

Those districts will be included in the map that the House of Representatives votes on today.

If the map fails, it will likely be sent back to the House Committee on Reapportionment for changes. If it receives a majority of votes, the map will be sent to the Senate's reapportionment committee where it could also see revisions.

If the Senate makes changes to the House maps, those changes will then have to be approved by the House, and vice versa.

And all through that process, Mills, Collins and Rogers, will be lobbying leadership in the House and Senate for the changes.

A spokesman for Ralston, Marshall Guest, said the speaker is "certainly aware" of negotiations for a new map that reduces the number of districts for Hall County.

Guest did not comment on whether the negotiations would be fruitful or whether the speaker would support the delegation in its efforts.

"He thinks that the Gainesville delegation, as it stands now, is doing exactly what they should be doing, and that's advocating for what they believe is in the best interest of their community," Guest said. "...There are still several days left in the process before the maps are finalized."

Rogers says the maps, as proposed, could cause problems with passing local legislation. Hall County's Republican Party members and local elected officials have written letters to the governor about the maps.

"We get push back when people don't have their own local representative," Rogers said.

Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine, has mounted a similar effort for districts drawn in Southeast Georgia. Spencer offered a substitute map for districts comprising counties stretching east from Lowndes to Camden that he said made more sense geographically and eliminated districts in which a representative serves two communities with competing interests for economic development and transportation projects.

His substitution did not receive the needed stamp of approval from the House Reapportionment Committee Tuesday.

But, like Hall County's delegation, Spencer told The Times he is still lobbying legislative leadership for changes.

"The only thing I know to do is fight for my district," Spencer said. "That's the only thing I know to do, and I think I'm making some progress."

Spencer said he believes he has offered a viable solution to the districting issues in South Georgia, where many districts have lost population and are geographically larger as a result.

But as he is uncertain of the outcome of his efforts, the Camden County Republican says he will leave the outcome of the political process "to the Lord and let Him decide."

"There's so many moving parts to redistricting," said Spencer. "There's a lot of moving parts, and you've got to make sure that all the wheels and gears are turning and it's hard to predict in this kind of a process."

Along with House leadership, members of the local delegation are exploring "numerous outlets," Collins said.

Mills said he believes "it's very likely" the House maps will change for Hall County in the coming days, whether that change comes in the Senate or in representatives' deliberations today.

"People don't need to get nervous if everything's not exactly in its place at this time," said Mills. "We're working this process as best we know how and hopeful that we're going to see some changes that will make it better."

Collins will also present a bill on the House floor today to ratify Gov. Nathan Deal's suspension of a hike of the gas tax that had been set for July 1.

The state gas tax had been set to rise 1.6 cents a gallon, as a result of a formula tied to fuel prices.

The action means that the rate will remain at 12.9 cents a gallon rather than rising to 14.5 cent a gallon.

Collins said the bill will suspend the hike in gas taxes until Dec. 1, saving motorists about $40 million in taxes.

Collins said he expects the bill pass easily.

"It's a good fix and a good plan for all involved right now," Collins said.

Associated Press contributed to this report.



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