As the August special session on reapportionment approaches, Sen. Jack Hill is certain of one thing. He doesn’t want to split any counties apart into multiple state Senate districts.
“For the record, I am not going to agree to the splitting of Bulloch County as far as the Senate district is concerned,” he said. “In fact, I hope not to split any county that’s presently intact.”
The District 4 senator recalls that splitting Bulloch became a sensitive issue before. A resident of Reidsville, Hill has served in the Georgia Senate since 1991 and seen redistricting and other issues from the perspective of both parties, first as a Democrat and then, since a 2002 party switch, as a Republican.
Now state lawmakers are awaiting Gov. Nathan Deal’s formal call for a special session, tentatively slated to begin Aug. 15. There they will lock in new legislative districts for themselves and approve new districts for Georgia’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Those lines must change significantly, since Georgia earned a 14th Congressional District with the 2010 Census. Meanwhile, the number of seats in the state Legislature remains constant, but lines must shift to keep the districts roughly equal in population. Since growth over the past decade favored metro Atlanta and northern Georgia, most districts in rural southern Georgia need to expand in area.
Defying the trend, Senate District 4 grew faster than the state average, thanks largely to concentrated growth in Bulloch and Effingham counties. While Georgia’s population grew by 18.3 percent overall, Bulloch posted 25.4 percent growth and Effingham, 39.2 percent. The portion that Hill represents of his home county, Tattnall, posted 41.4 percent growth, but the county as a whole grew much more slowly. Other counties in the district, including Candler, Evans, Treutlen and part of Emanuel, grew at a slower pace than the state.
With Georgia’s population at 9,687,653, each of the 56 Senate districts needs to be adjusted to within 1 percent of a target population of 172,994. District 4, with a 2010 population of 182,797, must shed about 9,803 residents, and will do so by ceding territory to one or more neighboring districts.
Both Sen. Jesse Stone’s District 23, which includes the rest of Emanuel and counties to the north, and Sen. Tommie Williams’ District 19, with the rest of Tattnall and counties to the west, are below the target population.
“The 9,800 that I have, the senator to the north of me needs all 9,800 of them,” Hill said.
He added that it might be worked out by adjusting at least one of his two split counties, Emanuel and Tattnall.
Reapportionment is seldom that easy. All of the state legislators mentioned here are members of the Republican majority, but that is no guarantee they will see eye-to-eye.
“It’s a very human process,” Hill said. “All the frailties of human beings come into play, and it’s a net-sum game sometimes in that for you to win, somebody else has got to lose.”
He jokingly advises other members of the Legislature to bring a photo of the family dog with them to Atlanta, “to remind them that that dog is the only friend they have in reapportionment.”
During the special session, representatives will work out details of the House map while senators work on the Senate map. After each body approves its own new districts, the other chamber traditionally approves them without further debate.
On the State House side, each of the 180 districts will need to be adjusted to near a new target population of 53,820. District 158, held by Rep. Jan Tankersley, has grown to 57,393 people, and so will need to give up about 3,573. Meanwhile, Rep. Jon Burns’ District 157 has 49,943 residents and so needs to pick up 3,877 more. Rep. Butch Parrish’s District 156, with 51,000 people, is 2,820 short. The numbers were provided by Hill from data at the state Reapportionment Office.
While this will be the first time around for Burns and Tankersley, Parrish has served in the Legislature since 1985 and has seen it all before. He noted that the House and Senate Reapportionment Committees have been putting a plan together, holding hearings around the state. So the process won’t be starting from scratch in August, but nothing will be decided until the session.
“I’m sure you could talk to 180 members in the House and each one would have an idea. I can draw you a perfect district for me, but it may not be perfect for everybody else and then it all has to fit together,” Parrish said. “The good news is I’m not too far short.”
Negotiations over the new congressional map are likely to be the most complicated because they involve both legislative chambers. As with other issues, the House and Senate draw up separate proposals for a conference committee to meld into a final form.
Hill expects that the four districts held by African American congressmen will be given first priority.
“There are four minority congressional seats in Georgia, and I suspect those four will be drawn first, because under the Voting Rights Act they cannot reduce minority voting strength, so their representation is going to be sacrosanct,” he said.
After that, the Republican majority will probably look to preserve the seats of new Republican incumbents, such as 8th District Congressman Austin Scott in Middle Georgia. That puts debate about seats such as the 12th District, currently held by Congressman John Barrow, a Democrat, “third in line,” Hill said.
Unlike state legislators, members of Congress are not required to live in their districts, only somewhere in the state. But Barrow previously moved from Athens to Savannah, keeping himself within his district after the lines were changed.
Meanwhile, the 1st District, held by Congressman Jack Kingston, a Republican, was also reshaped in the past decade. Previously centered on Savannah, the 1st now splits metro Savannah with the 12th and stretches across the southeastern corner of Georgia to Valdosta.
Hill makes no secret of his desire to see the 1st District return to its historic center, but said he hadn’t talked to Kingston about it.
“You know there used to be a First District that was centered around Savannah. And frankly, I’d love to see that again,” Hill said. “I thought that the economic engine for the area was centered more in that area. But it’s all got to join together, and I just don’t know whether it’s feasible or not.”
Parrish gave a more general answer when asked about this potential clash of congressional districts.
“Hopefully, you would love to be able to have what I call communities of interest together,” he said. “But there again, there are certain guidelines you’ve got to go by so that it will stand up to the Justice Department as well.”
Georgia’s redistricting plans following the 2000 Census faced legal battles that coincided with the state’s transition from a Democratic to a Republican majority. After federal courts threw out the original state maps, current district lines weren’t settled until 2004-05.
With the Republicans now in control of the state government, Democrats signaled their unrest in February when they questioned the transfer of administrative responsibility for redistricting from the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government to a new Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office.
Given the track record, legislators can only hope that reapportionment will be finished this year.
“We won’t control that. First the Justice Department will review it, and usually the opposing party files suit. It’s almost routine,” Hill said. “So it’s not something we’ll choose to do, but I won’t be surprised if we wind up in federal court simply because that’s the way it’s been done the last 30 years. Whoever is not in power, I mean, it has been on either side: if the Democrats are in power, the Republicans file suit.”