The Times interview
The Times will discuss the 2012 General Assembly session with the state's top leaders: today, House Speaker David Ralston.
Coming Sunday: The Times provides a comprehensive preview of the legislative session that starts Monday. Find information about how to contact local legislators, what their goals for the year are and read articles about voters' concerns and legislators' plans to make Georgia conducive to creating jobs.
INTERVIEW VIDEO HOMEPAGE: Times reporters go one-on-one with Northeast Georgia's top newsmakers
The head of Georgia's House of Representatives is cautious about his words when asked about redrawing state House districts in Hall County.
Speaker of the House David Ralston said he is still committed to revisiting the state's voting maps with regard to the districts drawn in Hall County, but in an interview with The Times this week, Ralston encouraged any lawmaker broaching the subject to "be very careful."
"I think we have to be very, very careful and very restrained in any tweaks that we make," Ralston said.
State officials learned just before Christmas that all three voting maps — including district lines for both chambers of the Georgia legislature and 14 U.S. congressional districts — had met the muster of the U.S. Department of Justice.
"We were very pleased to get that kind of approval, and that was rather unprecedented," Ralston said. "And it was something that we were very, very proud of."
Ralston said the process that lawmakers went through to create the maps in a special session last summer was "fair" and produced "sensible" maps for representation in the General Assembly.
Barring a successful lawsuit, the newly drawn districts will become a reality through the 2012 election cycle.
But Ralston, Gov. Nathan Deal and members of the local delegation have repeatedly said they wanted the Hall County districts revised.
The new districts increase Hall County's representation in the state legislature to nine members — seven from the House and two from the Senate.
When lawmakers got together to redraw the maps, a process they go through every 10 years to make voting districts match population, Deal and members of the local delegation said they wanted the maps changed, claiming the districts as they are currently drawn dilute Hall County's power in the General Assembly.
While each said he was negotiating behind the scenes for the changes, none formally opposed the maps with a vote or a veto.
On Wednesday, Ralston said lawmakers were far along in the map-making process when they became aware of Hall County leaders' objections.
"We had proposals out there, and those proposals kind of got down the road before we realized the extent of the objections," said Ralston.
When the maps passed, there were commitments from Ralston, the local delegation and Deal to revisit them this year.
With the new session only days away, Ralston said he is still willing to "try."
"We did have discussions, and we're going to go back and try to extend those discussions this session," he said.
As is, the maps split the South Hall district represented by newly elected Emory Dunahoo, dividing parts of it into two districts based in Gwinnett County.
A portion of East Hall would be lumped into a larger district currently represented by Michael Harden, R- Toccoa.
The new maps also draw the western bulb of Hall County into a district currently held by Amos Amerson, R-Dahlonega.
Along with the small portion of Hall, Amerson's new district would comprise all of Lumpkin and a large portion of Dawson counties.
The new lines would also mean Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, would no longer represent any portion of Hall County.
Rogers, the new dean of the Hall County delegation, said he has not talked to Ralston about revising the maps this year, but he said he has talked to key committee members who would be responsible for getting the revisions a vote
on the House floor.
He also said there are new drafts of the state House map that he or Rep. Emory Dunahoo could introduce in the form of legislation.
"My goal is to get them changed, but how they end up ... we'll have to wait and see," Rogers said.
Any change to the House map that the House accepts, the Senate will approve as a courtesy to the chamber.
Tax reform on the table
On statewide issues, Ralston said Wednesday he is looking forward to debate on the state's tax code, which he says will help the state become more friendly to businesses.
"I think that's what Georgians expect us to be working on, is creating a climate that will encourage small businesses to maintain levels of employment that they're at now and expand and attract new industry or a new business to come in and bring new jobs," Ralston said.
Ralston said the state has lost business opportunities to neighboring states that don't have a sales tax on energy or an income tax.
One of the ways Ralston said legislators can accomplish the goal is by reforming the state's tax code.
"Frankly, I don't want to lose to those states anymore," Ralston said. "I want those jobs to stay here in Georgia."
The speaker said he favors moving away from a state income tax toward a consumption tax.
"I think it's the most fair tax that we can have, rather than taxing people on their income," Ralston said. "It's tax at the point of consumption. If you choose to make a purchase, you pay a tax. If you don't choose to make that purchase, then you don't. Other states around us don't have an income tax; I hope we get to some day here in Georgia where we can abolish the income tax."
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who presides over the Senate, has said he opposes a move to tax grocery sales in Georgia.
And while Ralston said he is not necessarily advocating the reinstatement of a sales tax on groceries, he said he thinks lawmakers "have to put all of these things on the table and have a good discussion about them and decide where you want to end up."
Still, he said it will take time to make a change that is "that big."
Changes to immigration law unlikely
Yet Ralston doesn't see his chamber revisiting the sweeping anti-illegal immigration bill it passed in 2011 this year.
"I think it's too early to go back and revisit that bill, quite frankly," Ralston said.
He said he'd like to give the state more time to swallow the bill's provisions and wait out a federal court decision on its constitutionality before making any changes.
"I don't think we want to do that every year," he said.
Cagle, who presides over the Senate, has also said he doubts any changes will be made, Already in the Senate, a bill has been introduced to clarify some sections of the bill, and a report by Georgia's Commissioner of Agriculture, citing the bill's effect on the state's agriculture industry, calls for a new federal guest worker program that would address concerns of Georgia farmers seeking an adequate workforce.
Ralston also said local governments — who have complained of the bureaucratic burdens the law places on them to ensure employees, contractors and beneficiaries are legally in the state — will have to learn to deal with its requirements.
"I've never understood the argument that it takes a lot of extra effort to be lawful," Ralston said.