ATLANTA — Gov. Nathan Deal has called for the General Assembly's special session to begin Aug. 15, with hopes for a speedy redistricting process and more involvement from voters on a transportation tax aimed at funding state infrastructure projects.
Deal made the announcement joined by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston. Also on the agenda is what to do about the gas tax Deal suspended earlier this year, and urgent local legislation.
The transportation measure adopted by lawmakers earlier this year would ask voters in local communities to decide whether they want to hike the sales tax by one cent to fund local road and infrastructure projects. Legislators initially set the public vote for the July primary, but with no big statewide race to draw voters to the polls, there was concern the measure might not attract the desired interest.
Deal says moving the date from the primary to the general election will attract far more voters. He acknowledged that the tax could be a tough sell, but said he does not think the measure is in trouble.
"Anytime you're in an economy like the one we have now, getting people to understand the need for an additional penny is a significant undertaking," Deal said. "This is a unique opportunity for Georgians to have a say in what's going to happen."
The stakes are the highest in the metro Atlanta area, where traffic congestion is ranked among the worst in the nation. Moving the ballot measure to the November general election — when voters will be casting ballots in the race for president — will make it more expensive for supporters of the issue to buy advertising time. The measure could also easily get lost in the political frenzy surrounding the race for the White House.
In accordance with federal law, state lawmakers meet every 10 years to redraw congressional and legislative district lines to conform to new U.S. Census data. Georgia is one of several states with voting practices that are subject to additional scrutiny under the Voting Rights Act to deter discrimination against minority voters.
"In this work, we are looking to move quickly to adjust our maps," said Deal, who added that his goal is for the maps to pass muster with the Department of Justice. "It will be my aim to create a fair map."
State lawmakers held a series of 12 public hearings around the state to gather input but did not answer questions. They have been busy behind closed doors working on maps, which have not yet been made available to the public. Cagle and Ralston said Wednesday they expect the maps should be available for public view ahead of the session, scheduled to start Monday at 10 a.m.
Cagle praised the work of Senate redistricting committee members and said that public input meetings held this summer were productive and will help expedite the process.
"I believe the maps will reflect the combination of the senators' wishes and the constituents," Cagle said. "We have all learned we have to be responsible to the citizens of our state and make sure their voices are heard."
While he also called for redistricting to go smoothly and quickly, Cagle said the Legislature will take the necessary time to hear from the public before making their final decisions on the new maps. He also said senators would be urged to only bring critical local issues to the special session that cannot wait until the start of the General Assembly's regular meeting in January.
"We're really not having any other distractions," Cagle said. "We will be asking (lawmakers) to try to put that aside and focus on the issues at hand. This is a great time for study committees to continue their efforts."
Ralston repeated the wish for an expeditious session.
"I want to get it done and get out," he said. "I believe the last time we did this, it lasted for six or seven weeks ... I don't plan to be here that long."
He also said that Georgia "has never had a redistricting process as open, transparent and fair as this has been." Ralston condemned comments made earlier this week by House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams that GOP lawmakers were angling to purge the state of white Democrats in the process.
"I was very disappointed in her comments, which were factually wrong and harmful to Georgians," he said. "We have followed to law to a T. To the extent that there aren't that many moderates or conservatives left in that caucus, that's her problem, not mine."