Wanda Jackson casts her vote at the Best Friend Park precinct at 6224 Jimmy Carter Blvd in Norcross to vote on Gwinnett's MARTA referendum early Tuesday, March 19, 2019. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Gwinnett MARTA: GOP effort to delay future votes killed at Capitol

Lawmakers’ last-minute attempt at legislating a delay in future Gwinnett MARTA votes died on Tuesday, the final day of the legislative session. 

But those behind the controversial push hope county officials “got the message” nonetheless.

Last week, Gwinnett’s Republican state representatives — who for the first time in many years represent a minority on the county’s legislative delegation — added an amendment to Senate Bill 200 that would have stopped the county from calling a MARTA-related referendum until at least 2026.  Led by state Reps. Chuck Efstration and Brett Harrell, the GOP lawmakers argued that such a “cooling off period” would make sure the voices of Gwinnett voters, who rejected MARTA during a March 19 special election, would be respected. 

The maneuver was largely a reaction to Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash’s post-referendum vows to call another vote in the near future, perhaps as early as 2020.  

The amendment to SB200, which was stripped by the House Rules committee around lunchtime Tuesday, would not have prevented a transit referendum altogether. But by banning one involving MARTA, it would also have tied Gwinnett’s hands by effectively removing heavy rail from the county’s repertoire in any vote held prior to 2026.

When the amendment was filed Friday, Nash, a Republican, said she would prefer to have as many options as possible. Democrats and other advocates also called foul, calling it an infringement upon local control and refuting suggestions that the results of the special election— for which 17 percent of registered voters turned out — represented a true mandate. 

The controversial rider did not resurface after its initial removal from SB200.

Gwinnett Commissioner Ben Ku, a Democrat, said he was pleased that “the system worked.”

“The referendum delay amendment was unnecessary and could potentially cripple progress and economic development in Gwinnett,” Ku said. 

State Rep. Dewey McClain, D-Lawrenceville, called the proposal’s ultimate failure a “real win for the citizens of Gwinnett.” 

But Harrell, the Republican representative from Snellville, said he hoped that the county commission still “got the message to respect the will of the voters.”

Whether or not the posturing will convince Nash and the current commission to avoid MARTA in future transit plans is yet to be seen. But the involvement of the agency — and the heavy rail line it would’ve run into the Norcross area — were by far the most contentious aspects of last month’s referendum.

Nash has said nothing will be off the table as the commission regroups and plots its next transit-related steps. 

And all bets may be off after 2020, regardless.

The county commission gained two Democrats in last November’s election and the remaining three seats — including Nash’s — will be up for reelection next year. There’s a good chance Democrats pick up at least one of them, giving them a majority on the five-member commission. 

“We are pleased to have as many options as possible available as the Board considers how to move forward with transit,” Nash said Wednesday. “As indicated by comments from commissioners at our planning session last week, the Board sees this as a critical decision to focus on in the coming months.”

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