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Perdue pushes redistricting overhaul

A dusty shelf out of sight is a typical landing place for reports from study commissions created by governors.

To avoid that fate, Gov. Sonny Perdue has introduced a constitutional amendment that would take away much of the General Assembly's control over congressional and legislative redistricting and give it to an independent panel.

But Republican legislative leaders don't appear to be moving with any sense of urgency to surrender the power to draw the districts they represent as they see fit.

"We haven't talked about it yet," Senate Majority Leader Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, said last week. "It hasn't been on our radar screen."

In all fairness, redistricting hasn't been at the top of Perdue's priority list either. The governor has been occupied with trying to get Congress to bail out Georgia's financially struggling PeachCare program, an issue that's important enough to have prompted the Legislature to take a recess until March 19 in hopes of resolving the short-term funding uncertainties in children's health insurance by then.

Perdue, however, did take time late last month to submit to the Senate a plan to create an independent redistricting commission to draw congressional and legislative maps following the next census in 2010.

"You can't take politics out of politics," he said. "But an independent commission would come closer."

The proposed constitutional amendment closely follows the recommendations of a study commission Perdue created last year to look for ways to make redistricting decisions less political.

The current process in Georgia, which gives the Legislature complete control, has drawn bitter complaints from both major political parties since the last census in 2000.

In 2001, then-minority Republicans were incensed when Democrats shoved through maps that contorted districts into strangely twisted shapes in an effort to protect Democratic candidates against voter habits that were increasingly trending toward the GOP.

The effort failed to hold back the Republican tide, however, and by the end of the 2004 elections, the GOP had captured full control of the General Assembly.

Republicans used that power to craft new districts that met the test of appearing more compact.

But GOP leaders then gave Democrats reason to object about redistricting abuses when they zeroed in on a small portion of the Senate map last year, redrawing districts in the Athens area to sink the candidacy of Jane Kidd. She turned her misfortune into a positive in January by winning election as Georgia's new Democratic chairman.

What the study commission came up with was middle ground that would give much of the power over redistricting to an independent panel but still leave lawmakers with some say in the process.

As recommended by the study group, the proposed constitutional amendment would give the first crack at drawing congressional and legislative maps to an independent commission, whose members would be chosen by the governor, lieutenant governor and legislative leaders from both parties.

After completing its work, the panel would submit its recommendations to the General Assembly. The Legislature could not make changes, only vote the plan up or down.

If either the House or Senate refused to approve it, the plan would go back to the commission for reworking. Then, if either legislative chamber failed to approve it a second time, lawmakers would take over the process and draw their own maps.

"The Legislature will still have control at the end of the day," said Sen. Ronnie Chance, R-Tyrone, the amendment's sponsor and one of Perdue's floor leaders in the Senate.

Indeed, Bill Bozarth, executive director of Common Cause-Georgia, said the proposal would leave the General Assembly with more of a role in redistricting than he would prefer. But he said he understands why the commission went in that direction.

"It's an attempt to put a compromise out there that the Legislature can live with," he said.

Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University who was a member of the study commission, said the amendment probably would be a winner at the polls, if the Legislature agrees to put it on next year's ballot.

He said Georgia voters likely would identify overhauling the redistricting process as part of ethics in government reform, which tends to be a popular cause.

"The public has seen it as an issue of trust between them and legislators," Swint said. "They'll see this in the same light."

But whether voters actually will get to decide redistricting reform in November 2008 is far from certain.

While Republican legislative leaders have grown reluctant to criticize the proposal now that it has Perdue's seal of approval, they were decidedly cool to the idea as the study commission conducted its work.

"There is certainly going to be some resistance from the General Assembly," Bozarth said. "But we've got until 2010 to do it."

Williams said much the same thing, that the Legislature can afford to take its time with the measure.

"It's one of those bills that's not going to get voted on until 2008 anyway, so it doesn't have to pass this year," he said.

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com. Have any thoughts about this column? Share them with us at letters@gwinnettdailypost.com. Letters should be no more than 200 words and are subject to approval by the publisher. Letters may be edited for style and space requirements. Please sign your name and provide an address and a daytime telephone number. Address letters for publication to: Letters to the Editor, Gwinnett Daily Post, P.O. Box 603, Lawrenceville, GA 30046-0603. The fax number is 770-339-8081.