New Georgia House, Senate district maps clear redistricting committees

ATLANTA – The Georgia House and Senate redistricting committees approved new district lines for their respective legislative chambers Thursday, in keeping with a court ruling that the current district maps violate the Voting Rights Act.

On the second day of a special session of the General Assembly to take up redistricting, the committees’ Republican majorities voted in favor of the proposed maps while minority Democrats opposed the changes.

The maps comply with a decision U.S. District Judge Steve Jones handed down in October calling for the legislature to create two additional Black-majority state Senate seats and five additional Black-majority seats in the Georgia House.

But Democrats and redistricting watchdog groups complained Thursday that the Republican-drawn maps alter more districts than would have been necessary to comply with Jones’ order.

Janet Grant, co-chair of the organization Fair Districts GA, said the Republican Senate map would put 14.4% of Georgia’s population in different districts, compared to just 8.4% under an alternative Senate map Democrats presented to the redistricting committee.

“The court order can be met without broad disruption,” she said.

Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, said the Democratic alternative map would move roughly 100,000 Black voters who don’t currently live in Black-majority districts into districts where they would have an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice, compared to just 3,000 Black voters under the GOP map.

But Republican members of the Senate committee said the Democrats’ map was aimed at partisan gain. While the Republican-drawn map could be expected to return the current mix of 33 Republicans and 23 Democrats to the Senate, the Democrats’ map likely would result in the Democrats gaining two seats, said Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens.

“You ended up making a partisan map,” Cowsert told the Democrats.

Democrats made similar complaints about the GOP-drawn House map. House Democratic Leader James Beverly, D-Macon, presented a Democratic alternative that would change boundaries in only 23 House districts, compared to 56 districts under the Republican-drawn map.

Democrats conceded the GOP House map would comply with the court order by creating five additional Black-majority House districts. But Bryan Sells, a lawyer representing the House Democratic Caucus, said the Republican map also would increase the white population in two districts that – while not currently majority Black – have enough people of color to elect a minority candidate.

Republicans on the committee pointed out that the Democratic alternative map would create only four Black-majority districts, not the five the court order requires.

Sells responded that the Democrats’ map would create a fifth “opportunity” district with sufficient minority population to elect a minority candidate.

“The Voting Rights Act does not require majority-Black districts,” he said. “The Voting Rights Act requires districts in which Black voters have an opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice.”

But Rep. Rob Leverett, R-Elberton, the House committee’s chairman, said he would not be comfortable failing to fulfill the letter of Jones’ ruling by not creating five additional Black-majority districts.

“I am leery of construing a judge’s order in a way that could lead me to jeopardy,” he said.

The two Republican maps now move to the full House and Senate, which are likely to vote on them on Friday.

Georgia again collecting gasoline tax

ATLANTA – Georgia’s on-again, off-again gasoline tax suspension is back off.

Gov. Brian Kemp and the General Assembly allowed the latest temporary suspension to expire on Wednesday. That means the state Department of Revenue will resume collecting 29 cents per gallon from motorists.

Kemp reinstituted the temporary suspension in September. Since then, prices at the pump have fallen to an average of $2.79 in Georgia, third-lowest in the nation according to AAA.

With Georgia sitting on a huge budget surplus, the state has been to afford temporarily suspending the gas tax. But with prices dropping so significantly, the governor and legislature opted not to continue the suspension at this time.

Lawmakers call for more investment in public fishing areas

ATLANTA – A legislative study committee recommended Thursday that the state step up its investment in public fishing areas as a way to discourage trespassing on private property.

The House Study Committee on Fishing Access to Freshwater Resources held several hearings around the state in October as a follow-up to legislation the General Assembly passed in March guaranteeing Georgians the right to fish in navigable portions of the state’s rivers and streams.

Senate Bill 115 was introduced after a property owner along a stretch of the Flint River known as Yellow Jacket Shoals banned fishing from the bank on its side of the river. While the measure drew enthusiastic support from sportsmen’s groups, its language left unclear what constitutes a navigable river or stream and what does not.

The study committee recommended Thursday that the state address that issue by determining the navigability of each river and stream in Georgia.

“That was a huge sticking point for many of our property owners,” said House Majority Whip James Burchett, R-Waycross, the committee’s chairman.

Riverfront property owners who testified during the committee’s hearings complained of people traipsing through their properties on the way to and from fishing holes, leaving trash and becoming a general nuisance.

To address that issue, the study committee recommended increasing penalties for trespassing while maintaining the core of Senate Bill 115 intact.

“We want to make clear where our fishermen can fish in the state of Georgia … (but) have a stiffer penalty for trespassing,” Burchett said.

To make fishers less tempted to trespass, the panel recommended additional investment in the state’s public fishing areas. The committee’s report acknowledges the growth of fishing in Georgia, particularly in the trout streams of the North Georgia mountains.

The report now moves to the full state House of Representatives for consideration during the 2024 legislative session starting in January.

Green mutual fund aims third shareholder resolution at proposed mine near Okefenokee

ATLANTA – Mutual fund company Green Century Management has filed a third shareholder proposal asking a prominent company to address risks associated with a plan to mine titanium near the Okefenokee Swamp.

Atlanta-based The Home Depot Inc. is a leading retailer of titanium dioxide-based paint.

“Home Depot acknowledges that sustainability efforts make its business stronger, more agile, and more resilient,” Green Century President Leslie Samuelrich said Wednesday. “A permanent commitment to protect the Okefenokee would do just that.”

The Home Depot shareholder resolution follows shareholder measures filed earlier in November aimed at Chemours, which manufactures and sells chemicals including titanium dioxide, and Sherwin-Williams, a major carrier of titanium dioxide-based paint.

While Home Depot has confirmed that its primary paint suppliers do not currently have plans to source titanium dioxide from the proposed mine, the company has not made a public commitment regarding future titanium sourcing.

Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals is seeking state permits to mine titanium dioxide on Trail Ridge, the Okefenokee’s eastern hydrologic boundary.

While company executives have said the project would not harm the swamp, scientific studies have concluded the proposed mine would significantly damage one of the world’s largest intact freshwater wetlands by drawing down its water level and increasing the risk of drought and fires.

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division has received more than 100,000 public comments opposing the mine. A poll released last year found nearly 70% of Georgians oppose granting permits for the project.

“Mining has no place at an ecological gem like the Okefenokee,” said Annie Sanders, director of shareholder advocacy with Green Century. “With headquarters in the Okefenokee’s backyard, Home Depot has a unique opportunity to bolster its environmental image with customers, employees, and shareholders.”

Republican-drawn legislative maps come under fire

The proposed Georgia House map would pair four sets of incumbents.

ATLANTA – The General Assembly’s special redistricting session kicked off Wednesday with legislative Democrats and redistricting watchdog groups assailing Republican-backed proposed maps for both the state House and Senate as unfair to Black voters.

Both maps comply with a federal court ruling last month that declared the maps the legislature’s GOP majorities drew two years ago violated the Voting Rights Act.

The proposed state Senate map would add two Black-majority districts, while the House map would add five, as U.S. District Judge Steve Jones ordered in a lawsuit filed by civil rights and voting rights groups.

But Democrats argued both maps would make changes well beyond the House and Senate districts the court order identified as being in violation of the voting rights law.

Senate Democrats released an alternative map this week that would alter only the boundaries of the 10 districts Jones targeted in his ruling, said Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain. The Democrats’ map would bring almost 150,000 Black residents now living in white-majority Senate districts into Black-majority districts, she said.

“Democrats did what the court ordered within the confines of the court order,” Butler said. “Unfortunately, the (Republican) proposal fails to do so.”

On the other hand, the Republican-backed Senate map extensively redrew 15 districts, including districts that are not in areas Jones identified in his ruling, added Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta. Parent’s Senate district is one of two white-majority districts served by Democratic senators the new GOP map would eliminate.

“Many Georgians are shifted around unnecessarily,” she said. “It’s a shell game that’s not really giving Black voters more opportunity,”

Democrats and members of redistricting watchdog groups had similar complaints about the House map. Ken Lawler, chairman of Fair Districts GA, a nonpartisan organization that encourages fairness and transparency in redistricting, said the Republican House map strays far beyond creating five Black-majority districts to redrawing districts in areas not targeted in the court ruling purely for partisan gain.

“Partisan gerrymandering may be legal in this country, but it’s absolutely wrong,” Lawler said.

Others objected to the House map pairing four pairs of incumbents against each other, all in parts of the state not identified by Jones as violating the Voting Rights Act.

The map pits three sets of Democrats: Reps. Teri Anulewicz and Doug Stoner in Cobb County, Reps. Becky Evans and Saira Draper in DeKalb County, and Reps. Gregg Kennard and Sam Park in Gwinnett County. In the one Republican pairing, Reps. Beth Camp and David Knight would face off against each other in a district that includes all of Pike County and parts of Spalding and Lamar counties.

“Comply with the court order without doing unnecessary changes for partisan gain,” Janet Grant, Fair District GA’s vice chair, urged members of the House Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee Wednesday.

The special session will continue through this week and for part or all of next week. Jones’ ruling gave the General Assembly until Dec. 8 to redraw both legislative maps as well as Georgia’s congressional map.