3/7/19 - Atlanta - Chuck Efstration, representative of district 104, presents HB 426, a bill involving hate crimes, at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, Georgia on Thursday, March 7, 2019. HB 426 passed. Today was the 28th day of the General Assembly, “crossover” day. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com
Photo: Emily Haney
Photo: Emily Haney

Late GOP push to delay future Gwinnett MARTA votes angers Democrats

A group of Republican Gwinnett lawmakers stunned some local officials and drew criticism from across the aisle Friday with a surprise effort to delay future MARTA referendums for seven years.

The GOP lawmakers, who represent the minority on the county’s legislative delegation, crafted a last-minute amendment to an unrelated transportation bill on the penultimate day of the legislative session.

With the new rider, passage of Senate Bill 200 would prohibit Gwinnett from calling any new MARTA votes until at least 2026. It had not been voted on by the House as of press time Friday.

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The county’s referendum failed just 10 days ago — after it was pushed off the November 2018 ballot, a date that advocates thought would assure passage. County Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash has said she wants a new referendum in the near future, perhaps as soon as 2020.

Friday’s filing wouldn’t necessarily prevent a transit vote altogether. But it would effectively restrict the possibility of heavy rail being included in Gwinnett’s plans before 2026 if it becomes law.

“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 19. And calling a series of votes until a desired outcome is reached is not respecting the message that the voters sent.”

Caught off guard by the surprise addition, Gwinnett Democrats quickly tried to mount a defense. They called the measure a betrayal, and criticized Republicans for refusing to work across the aisle.

“Seven years of cooling off? What kind of cooling off is that? We could be frozen by then,” said state Rep. Dewey McClain. “For those of you on that piece of paper,” he said of the GOP supporters, “watch out.”

The two parties held a tense press conference in a cramped conference room across the street from the Capitol. There, 11 Democrats gathered to spell out their opposition to the bill – and Efstration and three other Republican supporters defended it.

By the end of the meeting, McClain and Republican state Rep. Timothy Barr were gripped in a heated conversation, inches from each other’s faces.

“We are going to flip your seat,” said McClain.

‘It reduces flexibility’

After decades of Republican control, Democrats carried the county in statewide elections the last two cycles and won a majority of Gwinnett’s legislative seats. And they called the attempt to block another MARTA vote without consulting them a knife in the back.

“It’s like we don’t exist. It’s like new voices don’t exist. We weren’t asked,” said state Rep. Shelly Hutchinson. “And if we said something, we aren’t being listened to.” State Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick of Lithonia called it “not fair, not respectful.”

State Rep. Sam Park of Lawrenceville called the maneuver “undemocratic, self-serving, and will undermine long-term economic growth in Gwinnett.”

The power to actually call a transit referendum rests with the five-member Gwinnett County commission, which gained two Democrats in November and seems likely to pick up at least one more seat — giving it the majority — in 2020.

The effort’s biggest champion, though, remains Nash, the Republican commission chair. And Friday’s sleight of hand was likely a product of Nash’s reaction to the transit referendum’s defeat. She called last week’s failure “a pause, not a stop” and made no secret of her desire to call another referendum.

Nash 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,” Nash told the AJC. “We’ll try to assess what it really does mean.”

Rep. Brett Harrell of Snellville, who was publicly opposed to the referendum and to the inclusion of heavy rail in Gwinnett’s wide-ranging plans, was one of six Republican Gwinnett lawmakers to sign the letter supporting the amendment. Others included Barr; Efstration; Tom Kirby of Loganville; David Clark of Buford; and Bonnie Rich of Suwanee.

Harrell said the county could still hold another referendum before 2026. Such a vote could still involve Gwinnett opting in to a 30-year transit funding sales tax, but would not directly involve MARTA an that would rule out heavy rail.

Gwinnett’s current transit plan — which was already likely to be tweaked before a new referendum was called — includes a rail extension from the Doraville MARTA station into the Norcross area. But it also includes more than 50 miles of high-capacity bus rapid transit lines; another 110 miles of arterial bus lines; and dramatic expansions of local and Express bus offerings.

If last week’s referendum had passed, MARTA would have been contracted to provide all of those services.

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