Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan dealt a blow to the effort to create a Buckhead City by assigning the legislation to a Senate committee controlled by Democrats critical of the push to split Atlanta into two municipalities.
Duncan’s move on Thursday effectively bottled up the legislation sponsored by Republican state Sen. Brandon Beach, though it’s far from scuttled. A similar House measure is pending, and the provision that allows for a cityhood referendum could be tacked onto other legislation.
Still, the move was applauded by critics of the secession initiative from both sides of the aisle. Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, who has pleaded with legislators for time to implement his plan to fight crime, cheered the development at an event heralding the opening of a new police precinct in Buckhead.
“I’m elated. That’s great information,” Dickens said. “I thank Lt. Gov. Duncan and his leadership and being able to be thoughtful in that.”
The fate of the legislation will now be up to the Senate Urban Affairs Committee, which is composed entirely of Democrats, including several who are outspoken critics of the cityhood effort. State Sen. Lester Jackson, who chairs the committee, said the panel would be “transparent and fair” with the proposal.
“It’s one of the most controversial issues this session, and the lieutenant governor made the right decision to place the bill in the right committee so it will be fairly debated,” said Jackson, a Savannah Democrat.
Others went further. State Sen. Sally Harrell, D-Dunwoody, predicted the measure would “die” in the committee and that the overall effort is in “a body bag but not necessarily dead.”
Duncan’s decision is not unexpected. He’s expressed skepticism about the cityhood movement, saying he’s yet to hear a “compelling argument” from Buckhead cityhood supporters about how they would curb crime or fund city services.
“The details matter here. The financing issues. The education issues. The governance issues. These are all issues that must be fixed before — and not after — a referendum is passed,” Duncan said in a recent interview. “My hope is that we’re able to figure out a way to help all of Atlanta significantly cut crime.”
Gov. Brian Kemp and House Speaker David Ralston have both declined to endorse the legislation, but they also haven’t shut the door on the idea.
The Republican-backed bill, if passed by both chambers and signed by the governor, would allow a November ballot referendum in which Buckhead residents would vote on whether to leave Atlanta and form a new city.
The forces pushing for the split, led by the Buckhead City Committee, have picked up powerful Republican allies from outside Atlanta’s city limits who are egging on the rift. They include former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who backed the proposed legislation shortly after entering the race against Kemp.
Perdue on Thursday called Duncan’s decision “ridiculous,” heightening a rift with Kemp on the issue.
“The people of Buckhead deserve a vote,” he said. “They need the final say. It’s time for Kemp to stop hiding, speak out against this and demand a vote.”
Dickens won a mandate in part because of his pledge to keep the city united, and he’s tried to reset city-state relations by meeting with state leaders and promising a more aggressive approach to curbing crime.
He appealed to hundreds of corporate and community leaders this week at the Georgia Chamber of Commerce’s annual Eggs & Issues breakfast about the economic argument for preventing an Atlanta divorce. And he said Thursday that he’s continuing to appeal to Kemp, Duncan and Ralston.
“I’m continuing every day to fight that fight,” Dickens said. “We don’t need separate cities.”
Bill White, who heads the Buckhead City push, said in a statement that he is “very pleased with the progress” of the legislation but didn’t elaborate.
The initiative’s critics, meanwhile, expressed hope that the cityhood effort was on its last breath.
“Buckhead City will cause more problems than it solves,” said Democratic state Rep. Shea Roberts, who represents a slice of Buckhead. “I’m hopeful his decision signals an end to this divisive legislation so we can focus on working with Mayor Dickens to address crime and services issues.”