Georgia Senate chambers with ornate antique furniture and traditional architecture
The Georgia Capitol Senate Chambers in Atlanta. (Nagel Photography/Shutterstock)

ATLANTA (AP) — Republicans pushed a proposal to overhaul the county commission in Georgia’s second most-populous county through a state Senate committee on Thursday, a day after the same panel approved changes to Gwinnett County’s school board.

The Senate State and Local Governmental Operations Committee voted 4-3 along party lines for Senate Bill 6EX, which would add five new members to the all-Democratic Gwinnett County Commission and draw new district lines for elections beginning next year. Senate Bill 5EX, approved Wednesday, would change elections from the county school board from partisan to nonpartisan and redraw school district lines.

Both measures move to the full Senate for more debate.

Republicans say both measures will improve governance, while Democrats say they’re a Republican power grab after GOP candidates lost their longstanding majorities on both bodies in Gwinnett, as Democratic-aligned nonwhite voters have taken power in the Atlanta suburb of nearly 1 million people.

The bills are advancing even as Democrats dispute whether it’s proper for the General Assembly to be considering them at all. Sen. Clint Dixon, a Buford Republican sponsoring the measures, said he advertised the measures as local bills, but they were instead introduced as a general bill, meaning Dixon didn’t need signatures from a majority of Gwinnett’s seven senators to proceed. All of the county’s senators except Dixon are Democrats.

Special session exceptions to procedures

Because lawmakers are meeting in special session, Gov. Brian Kemp has excluded most general bills from what lawmakers may consider. But Dixon, a floor leader for Kemp, says that if the bills pass, they will qualify under an exclusion where Kemp said local laws can be considered “to avoid unreasonable hardship or avoid undue impairment of public functions.” Dixon argues that because candidates would have to qualify for new districts in March, lawmakers have to move ahead now to give them and the county time to plan.

That means senators will describe the same measures as general bills and local bills.

Democrats reject that Republicans can properly proceed on that basis. Rep. Sam Park, a Lawrenceville Democrat who heads the Gwinnett House delegation, told the Senate committee it was proceeding “illegally.”

“To characterize this as general legislation when clearly both of these bills amend local legislation does not allow you to bypass Senate rules,” Park said.

The procedural dispute threatens to engulf the merits of the question. Republicans argued Thursday that the county’s growth means the four part-time district commissioners have far too many people in their district to represent them effectively. Rep. Chuck Efstration, a Dacula Republican, told the committee Thursday that expanding the commission has been repeatedly debated, with Democrats previously sponsoring such measures. He rejected claims that his changes would violate the federal Voting Rights Act by discriminating against nonwhite voters.

“Any argument that there’s some illegal basis for doing this now is completely untrue and is really unfair to the folks who have been working in support of this issue for many years,” Efstration said.

But opponents questioned why Efstration was moving ahead after Democrats, including four Black members and one Asian-American member, swept to power in 2020.

“The fact that this bill seeks to reconstitute a historic board of commissioners governed by members of color, and that this bill precisely and uniquely targets one of the most diverse counties in the state all indicate that race was a driving factor,” said Pichaya Poy Winichakul, a voting rights attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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