A sign indicating the MARTA and Gwinnett County transit referendum voting calendar is displayed at the Doraville MARTA Transit Station in Doraville in the days leading up to the vote. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

The Jolt: GOP lawmakers in Gwinnett would push next MARTA vote to 2026

We are about to begin the 39thpenultimate day of the 2019 session of the General Assembly, and sharp moves are afoot.

Six Republican lawmakers from Gwinnett County are pushing a rider onto Senate Bill 200, an otherwise innocuous transportation measure, that would delay another MARTA referendum until Jan. 1, 2026.

Republicans no longer control the Gwinnett legislative delegation, which means there’s no pathway for the move though local legislation. This is an appeal to the GOP-controlled House as a body.

The MARTA referendum failed last week – after it was pushed off the November 2018 ballot, a date that advocates thought would assure passage.

“It would simply provide for a cooling off period so the will of the voters is respected,” said state Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula. “It’s important that we respect the message that was sent by voters on March 2019. And calling a series of votes until a desired outcome is reached is not respecting the message that the voters sent.” 

Democrats in Gwinnett and beyond were seething. State Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick of Lithonia called it “not fair, not respectful.” And state Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero of Norcross questioned GOP claims that the vote was a mandate. 

“Obviously 17 percent of voter turnout is slightly higher than average turnout,” she said, “but it still doesn’t represent the people of Gwinnett.” 

In the days since the referendum, according to our AJC colleague Tyler Estep, Gwinnett County chair Charlotte Nash has called its failure “a pause, not a stop.”

She and her fellow commissioners and other department heads were in Athens on Friday for an annual strategic planning retreat. She spent the morning answering a blizzard of phone calls. 

"My concern is that it reduces flexibility by appearing to take one or more options off the table for us related to transit," she told the AJC. 

"We’re gonna have to take a little bit of a look at it to see what it really does mean. Because the MARTA legislation is very complicated and trying to figure out how it all fits together takes more than just a cursory look at it."

Asked if the county had been given a heads up about the amendment, Nash said she wasn't "going to get into that." ​​

She has made no secret of her desire to call another vote sometime in the relatively near future – perhaps in 2020 or 2022 -- and vowed that it would be during a “big election,” not a special one.

Here’s the content of the letter, dated today, informing state lawmakers of the move:

Dear House Colleagues:

As members of the Gwinnett County Delegation in the Georgia House of Representatives, we are unified in our support of the substitute of Senate Bill 200.

Both Republicans and Democrats turned out to opposed the MARTA ballot initiative on March 19, 2019. This measure was soundly defeated, with a turnout that exceeded the 2018 Primary Election for Governor.

Whether we agree or disagree with the outcome from March 19, the voice of the voters should be respected. Local officials should not call for repeated ballot questions until their desired outcome is realized.

This amendment to SB 200 applies only to the defeated ballot initiative from March 19. It does not apply to other counties or other transition options for Gwinnett.

The missive is signed by Republicans Efstration; Brett Harrell of Snellville; Tom Kirby of Loganville; David Clark of Buford; Tim Barr of Lawrenceville; and Bonnie Rich of Suwanee.

A note from Efstration: “As you know, HB 930 provided a different mechanism for a transit vote in Gwinnett. That remains unchanged with this substitute. This only applies to the defeated referendum.”

It’s worth noting that Democrats are likely to take control of the Gwinnett County Commission in 2020.

"They have got to stop this. They have already suppressed the vote, gotten the outcome they wanted," said Bianca Keaton, who chairs the Gwinnett Democratic party. "And again, this is not a partisan issue. ... They continue to try to cut Gwinnettians off at the knees."

***

Our AJC colleague Maya Prabhu reports that the state House voted Thursday to increase the penalties against those who damage the state’s public and private monuments — and would make it more difficult to remove or relocate Confederate markers. It passed 100-71.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, has said he proposed Senate Bill 77 “to protect all monuments.”

The legislation would also require a local government seeking to relocate a monument to place it in “site of similar prominence.”

We’re not advocating for its return, but a double-standard appears to be at work here. In 2013, ostensibly as part of a renovation effort, the statute of Tom Watson, a famous if erratic advocate for white supremacy in Georgia, was removed from the front door of the state Capitol.

It was moved across the street to a lonely park. Hardly a “site of similar prominence.” 

***

Changes made in the state Senate to a new medical marijuana proposal winding through the Senate is attracting significant opposition. 

A coalition of families whose children rely on cannabis oil to treat debilitating diseases has come out forcefully against the latest version of House Bill 324, which aims to provide access to medical marijuana oil to patients who are allowed to use it but have no legal way to buy it

A previous version the group backed allowed the legal cultivation and distribution of the product through as many as 60 dispensaries. 

The latest version would let two private companies grow medical marijuana, clear the way for universities to start a manufacturing program and authorize Georgia to import cannabis from other states. 

The group, which calls itself Georgia’s HOPE, questions whether the approach violates federal law. Further, limiting sales to two vendors reduces competition, they argue.

The medical marijuana movement was started by state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, who left the Legislature last year. Via Twitter, Peake said on Wednesday that the Senate changes “at have not worked anywhere in the US. Do they really want a solution or are they just kicking the issue down the road, again…”

***

Dear Stacey Abrams: Your advice and counsel is needed in Savannah. Stat.

The Savannah Morning News this week reported on a “unity” meeting attended by two of three African-American candidates for mayor, in an attempt to rally black voters behind a single candidate.

Two restrictions were set down by the gathering’s organizers: No video or audio recordings would be permitted; and only African-American members of the press would be allowed in as witnesses.

Savannah’s population is majority African-American. Nonetheless, in 2015, voters elected Eddie DeLoach, who is white, and unseated incumbent Mayor Edna Jackson after drawing her into a runoff. Hence this week’s meeting.

Jackson was one of those attending. A third black candidate for mayor, former state lawmaker Regina Thomas, did not attend – and good for her.

If Abrams proved anything last year, it was that race-based campaigns aren’t in this state’s future. Ask any Republican.

***

The U.S. Supreme Court held two hours of oral arguments this week on the question of how far lawmakers can go to select the voters who will select them. Gerrymandering, in other words.

One case alleges Democratic hanky-panky in Maryland. The North Carolina case was argued, in party, by Atlanta attorney Emmet Bondurant.

One facet of his argument: In 2016, Republican congressional candidates won 53 percent of the statewide vote in North Carolina, but retained – as planned -- 10 of 13 congressional districts. That’s a win rate of 76.92 percent.

A high-court decision isn’t expected until June, but whatever direction the justices take will have a deep impact on the redistricting that occurs across the county in 2021 and beyond.

So it occurred to us to do the 2018 math for Georgia’s congressional districts – acknowledging shifts in population that might have occurred over the previous seven years.

Proportionately, Republican congressional candidates performed better than GOP candidate for governor Brian Kemp in 2018. A total of 1,951,191 votes were cast for GOP congressional candidates, or 51.8 percent. Kemp took 50.2 percent of the gubernatorial ballots, or 50.2 percent, though he tallied 27,000 more votes than GOP candidates for Congress.

Likewise, Democratic candidates for Congress underperformed when compared to their ticket-topper, Stacey Abrams. They tallied 1,814,469 votes, or 48 percent of all congressional votes cast. Abrams scored 48.83 percent in her race, and nearly 109,000 votes more that all Democratic candidates for Congress.

With Lucy McBath’s victory over Republican incumbent Karen Handel in the Sixth District, Georgia’s congressional delegation consists of nine Republicans and five Democrats.

In other words, Republicans, who collected 51.8 percent of the vote on Nov. 6, 2018, hold 64 percent of Georgia’s voting power in the U.S. House. Democrats, who scored 48 percent of the vote last year, control 35.7 percent of Georgia’s congressional clout.

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