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New House map restores 4 seats in Hall County

District changes still need Senate vote, Deal’s signature and federal approval

POSTED: February 3, 2012 11:30 p.m.

Friday's debate over a new map for House districts in Hall County reopened the wounds of last summer's redistricting session.

The new district boundaries passed the House chamber before lawmakers took a weekend break. But representatives from Southeast Georgia to metro Atlanta cried foul that their requests for amended boundary lines were never heard.

The changes to Hall's boundaries were proposed by Rep. Roger Lane, R-Darien, chairman of the House Committee on Reapportionment.

They promise to reduce what some lawmakers called a dilution of the county's voting strength in the House.

Any changes still must be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act because of racial discrimination in the state's past.

The map approved last summer lumped East Hall voters into a district mostly made up of Banks and Stephens counties.

It grouped some West Hall voters in a district largely composed of Lumpkin and Dawson counties. South Hall, too, was divided among two majority-Gwinnett County districts.

Lane's proposal, released last week, keeps Hall's number of House delegates at four, as it is now, cutting the county's voters out of the bigger districts in nearby counties.

The proposal easily gained approval from the key committees it needed to make it to the House floor for a vote.

It also made slight changes to districts in Carroll and Coffee counties.

But once there, the bill faced scrutiny from a number of Democrats and a jilted Republican who also requested revisions to boundaries in their districts but didn't get the relief Hall County did.

Hall is home to Gov. Nathan Deal and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. Deal lobbied for the changes last summer, and approved the old boundaries with the promise that House leadership would revisit the county's boundaries.

Rep. Ralph Long, D-Atlanta, questioned whether deciding to revise Hall's district boundaries might be "opening a can of worms." Other Democrats made similar complaints to those made last summer, saying the redistricting process had not been open and transparent.

And they said that other counties with similar complaints, such as Fulton and DeKalb, likely wouldn't get the same treatment Hall did.

"It turned out I wasn't part of the chosen few that got the changes made," Waycross Republican Mark Hatfield said.

House Republicans once awarded Hatfield the "off the reservation" award for his tendency not to vote along party lines.

In last summer's redistricting process, Hatfield was drawn into a district with Woodbine Republican Jason Spencer, meaning the two will have to run against each other for re-election this year.

Addressing boundaries drawn for Southeast Georgia, which lost enough population to cut out four districts, Hatfield called the decisions made in the committee "political payback pure and simple."

Lane has repeatedly said every lawmakers' fingerprints were on the new map, which received preclearance by the Justice Department.

Standing before the House chamber Friday, Hatfield said he was glad the word "fingerprint" was used, and called the map a "crime scene."

"It butchers southeast Georgia," Hatfield said. "They murdered my constituents. They murdered the good folks of Southeast Georgia."

Hatfield admitted there were issues with Hall's districts, but he said fixing those without considering other requests "added injury to insult."

Hatfield asked other members to vote against the proposal to send a message that the process had not been transparent. About 50 did.

Lane said he would consider changes from other delegations "if they came up," but he added that he was "happy with the statewide plan we have right now."

The answer prompted Rep. Elly Dobbs, a Democrat from Atlanta, to ask: "For clarification, then, if the Fulton County delegation provides you with new maps, then your committee would reconsider them?"

Lane answered that he "didn't say the committee would reconsider them," only that committee leaders would "look at it."

"It doesn't mean that we're going to revise the plan that's been precleared by the Justice Department," Lane said. "We're not going to do any other tinkering with that plan unless it's absolutely necessary. If you show us it is, then we'll look at it."

Majority Whip Ed Lindsey said Democrats were rehashing "the same exact arguments" they made last year. He said lawmakers had a limited time to make changes to district boundaries to make sure the Justice Department had time to approve them before qualifying for elections begins this spring.

Despite the complaints, more than 100 representatives voted in favor of the amended map Friday.

The bill calling for the changes to Hall's boundaries includes a caveat that if Justice officials haven't approved it in time for qualifying, Hall will have to go with the seven-member delegation until 2014.

The changes would give Hall only four House members.

Some voters from Hall's Buford precinct (Roberts) and all those from the precincts at Chestnut Mountain Presbyterian Church, The Springs Community Church and Friendship Elementary School would be represented in a new district mostly located in Gwinnett County.

The rest of South Hall's voters are included in districts drawn wholly in Hall.

The North Hall district now represented by Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, would include portions of Hall and White counties. It takes in portions of East Hall, including Gillsville, and some voters from the Tadmore and Gainesville Masonic Lodge (Gainesville III) precincts.

Collins is not seeking re-election to his seat and is instead campaigning for a new 9th District U.S. House post.

The map awaits approval from the state Senate and from the governor. The governor's office declined to comment on Friday's vote, noting that he does not comment on pending legislation.

 



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