Can Georgia be trusted ?

If they gave an "I Told You So" award in Washington, Lynn Westmoreland ought to be among the first recipients.

Back in September, Congressman Westmoreland startled his colleagues by committing an unthinkable political act. He opposed a federal spending bill. Not just any old spending bill, mind you; he voted against a $52 billion aid package passed in almost the blink of an eye. It was meant to be Congress' lightning-fast reaction to Hurricane Katrina's devastation.

Only 10 other House members and not a single senator dared say, "Wait a minute. This is too much, too fast."

Despite being nearly alone, Westmoreland didn't flinch. He said no, and his peers wondered if he had lost his mind. Within weeks, Westmoreland's warnings have come back to haunt. The Georgia lawmaker foresaw runaway waste, massive incompetence and barely concealed fraud mushroom as a tidal wave of federal cash sweeping the storm-battered area.

As the first fat checks were issued, Westmoreland warned that a new devastating storm might strike.

He cautioned that the nation would need even more billions for a new emergency. Westmoreland must have sensed that Wilma was on the way. His colleagues brushed him aside. Then Wilma hit, and - Well, you know what happened.

As far as I know, Westmoreland has not received a single "Atta boy!" or even more lavish recognition for his prescience. In fact, many of his Republican friends would just as soon he shut up.

Not Lynn. No one told Lynn that freshman House members are to be seen and not heard. Apparently no one told Lynn, "Sit down and shut up" or "Stay in line, freshman!" If they did bark at him, he ignored their irritation.

Just as the hurricane season is about to settle down, Westmoreland is trying to stir up a storm of his own, this one over renewal of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The congressman from Grantville wants Georgia dropped from the special scrutiny section of the historic law when the act comes up for review in the House next year.

As you may know, Georgia and seven other states plus portions of six additional states are treated separately from the rest of the nation because these jurisdictions have a long history of blatant racial discrimination in the electoral process.

In a procedure known as "preclearance," Georgia and its Dixie sister states must submit for clearance to the U.S. Justice Department any changes that may affect the electoral process.

After 40 years, says Westmoreland, Georgia has proven it has been a good little soldier and kept its hands mostly clean on the election front.

In an interview with the Washington newspaper Roll Call last week, Westmoreland said, "In 1965 there may have been a need for the Voting Rights Act. I'm sure there probably was. What I do know now is that Georgia has made great progress. We've got one of the highest black registered populations. We have one of the highest black voter turnouts of any state in the union."

Westmoreland's cause may set off a civil war within the Georgia House delegation. Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights leader largely responsible for passage of the VRA, vigorously opposes any efforts to abolish the preclearance provisions. Lewis says plenty of evidence exists that blacks are still discriminated against.

In rebuttal, Westmoreland rolls out a sheaf of impressive statistics tracing blacks' political progress in Georgia in the past four decades. He points out that:

n Four of the state's 13 House members are black. Between 1973 and 2005, blacks won 29 congressional elections - 13 in majority-white districts.

n Nine of 34 elected statewide officeholders in Georgia are black.

"Georgia has come a long way in 40 years, and the Voting Rights Act played a major role in that positive evolution," says Westmoreland, adding it is now time to drop Georgia from the preclearance provision.

Westmoreland may be right, of course. It may be time to let Georgia control its own political destiny.

Before we move on, however, let's acknowledge that Lewis appears right also.

If Georgia is doing so well in opening up voting opportunities to blacks, why did the 2005 state Legislature feel compelled to enact a Voter ID law that even election experts say is aimed squarely at suppressing the vote among elderly and disabled black Georgians?

Before Lynn gets his "Free Georgia" campaign going at full speed, perhaps he should seek an explanation from Gov. Sonny Perdue and from his former legislative colleagues as to why they would approve such a state law.

No matter what happens in the federal courts regarding the Georgia Voter ID law, the statute has given the state a nationwide black eye.

Its existence also makes Westmoreland's proposal to unshackle Georgia much harder to sell to the rest of Congress.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail bshipp@bellsouth.net. His Web site is www.billshipp.com. His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.