GOP lawmakers push to keep redistricting powers

ATLANTA - Turning over congressional and legislative redistricting to an independent commission wouldn't take politics out of the mapmaking process, but would make it less accountable to voters, Republican legislative leaders warned Wednesday.

Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson and the chairmen of the House and Senate redistricting committees urged a task force created by Gov. Sonny Perdue to leave the job of drawing congressional and legislative district lines to the General Assembly.

"The legislature can do it right,'' said Johnson, R-Savannah.

The governor, also a Republican, appointed the 11-member task force to recommend whether Georgia should overhaul the way it handles redistricting.

A process that used to occur only once a decade following the census, redistricting has become a political weapon wielded by both major parties with increasing frequency.

Congressional and legislative maps drawn by Democratic leaders after the 2000 census were redrawn shortly after Republicans seized control of the General Assembly during the 2002 and 2004 election cycles.

A dozen states now use some form of independent commission to draw district lines. Six of those states limit their commissions to legislative mapmaking, while the other six use them for both legislative and congressional redistricting.

But Johnson said decisions made by independent commissions are just as political as those made by legislators because the people who serve on them still have political biases.

"Even if you pick 50 people out of the phone book, some are going to be hard-core Republicans and some hard-core Democrats,'' he said.

Rep. Bobby Franklin, chairman of the House Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Committee, said independent commissions would have the added disadvantage of not being accountable to voters.

"If the people don't like (a redistricting map), the people need the right to get rid of the people who did the drawing,'' said Franklin, R-Marietta.

But several task force members questioned whether leaving redistricting in the hands of the General Assembly would improve public trust in the process, one of the goals set forth by Perdue in his executive order creating the panel.

Frank Jones, the task force's vice chairman, said a compromise might involve creating an independent commission but guaranteeing members of the legislature some seats on the panel.

"I sympathize with legislators trying to do this,'' added John Sours, another member of the task force. "(But) this is an issue that could stand greater scrutiny and broader involvement by the citizenry.''

But Johnson said putting a set of redistricting principles into state law or even the Georgia Constitution would be enough to prevent politicians from abusing their mapmaking powers.

Companion resolutions adopted by the House and Senate last year specify that congressional and legislative districts should be compact, avoid "bizarre'' shapes, and should split as few counties and precincts as possible.

"If we establish boundaries that politicians can't exceed, then I think you will help prevent gerrymandering,'' Johnson said.

Jones said the task force will invite Democratic leaders to the task force's next meeting on Aug. 30 to give their input to the panel.