When legislators sit down next year to redraw the state's political boundary lines so that they align with the new census figures, they will complete a process that has taken half a century: the transfer of political power from rural Georgia to metro Atlanta.
After the legislative redistricting in 2011, a majority of the seats in the General Assembly will be located within the area now defined as metropolitan Atlanta. For the first time ever, like it or not, Atlanta will lead and rural Georgia will follow.
Population shifts have been transforming the state's political map since 1962, when federal judges ended Georgia's county unit system of legislative representation. After that historic ruling, pine trees no longer counted as people. Legislative districts had to reflect their population.
You can gauge the effects of these population changes by looking at the fall line, that geographical boundary that stretches from Columbus through Macon and on to Augusta.
Every 10 years, legislative districts from south of the fall line are shifted into North Georgia because that region has continued to grow faster than South Georgia. In 2011, at least six House seats and two Senate seats from south of the fall line will be shifted to metro Atlanta. Additionally, one House seat in the rural areas of Northeast Georgia probably will be moved to the Atlanta region.
Just because a majority of the legislators will be representing a district in metro Atlanta does not mean that the region becomes a cohesive political force. There are conservative Republicans in suburban districts just as there are liberal Democrats in urban districts. They will always disagree on important issues.
Where they are most likely to make their influence felt is on the issue of water. This has become a more urgent need for Atlanta because of outgoing Gov. Sonny Perdue's failure to negotiate any kind of settlement with Alabama and Florida over the allocation of water from Lake Lanier.
With a 2012 federal court deadline rapidly approaching that could mean the shutoff of access to the water in Lake Lanier, Metro Atlanta lawmakers will be compelled to vote together on one and possibly two initiatives:
1. Legislation allowing the transfer of water from basins outside metro Atlanta into the Atlanta region. These inter-basin transfers have been bitterly fought by rural Georgia legislators over the years, but Atlanta will now have the votes to override that opposition.
2. The allocation of budget funds to pay for the development of a string of reservoirs across North Georgia. It takes a lot of money to build a reservoir and competition for budget funds is fierce because of the calamitous drop in state revenues caused by the economic downturn. But again, metro Atlanta will have the votes to spend the money on reservoirs if it can hold a coalition together.
Another issue where metro Atlanta's political clout could have an influence is in the area of transportation.
Throughout Georgia's political history, transportation money has traditionally been spent to pave highways through the state's rural areas. A politician's success rested upon how many road projects he could deliver for his constituents. Jim Gillis, the legendary highway commissioner, was credited with paving so much of his native Treutlen County that chickens had to go to the next county to scratch.
More recently, governors have contended that building new highways across rural Georgia would bring economic development to those areas of the state.
With Atlanta in the driver's seat, that will probably change. Whatever money is available for transportation will be spent mostly on highway enhancements and transit facilities in the Atlanta region. The construction of new highways through sparsely settled rural areas will be a thing of the past. Roads will go where the people are.
Obviously, there are many who will not be happy with those changes, but they are inevitable. As the population of North Georgia and metro Atlanta has continued to grow, so has its political influence. That's why the state's top political leaders — from the governor to the lieutenant governor to the House speaker to the attorney general — are all from locales far north of the fall line.
That's where the people and the power are.
Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.