published Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Dispute erupts over legal counsel in Georgia redistricting

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Proposed Georgia Senate districts
Proposed Georgia Senate districts
Proposed Georgia House districts
Proposed Georgia House districts

ERRIN HAINES, Associated Press

SHANNON McCAFFREY, Associated Press

ATLANTA — As the Georgia Legislature prepares to vote on maps that would redraw the lines of state House and Senate districts, a dispute broke out Wednesday over the Republican lawyer helping lead the effort.

Anne Lewis, who also serves as general counsel to the state Republican Party, told House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams that she must funnel all legal questions through the House speaker's office, who would determine whether she needed to answer them.

Abrams called that arrangement unacceptable, noting that Lewis' consulting fee — she is charging between $225 and $425 an hour — is being borne by taxpayers of both political parties.

"All Georgians have to pay for this, not just GOP Georgians," Abrams told The Associated Press,

In a letter to Abrams, Lewis said it would be costly and impractical to field questions from all members of General Assembly.

Lewis likened the arrangement to the counsel of a corporation who does not respond to questions from individual shareholders but only requests that come from corporate officials.

"The same rules apply here," Lewis wrote.

Lewis said nothing prevents the Democrats from hiring their own legal counsel.

Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature.

Abrams said she had asked Lewis to offer her opinion on the Voting Rights Act and its application to minority and non-minority members.

State lawmakers are poised to vote on new proposed political boundaries Thursday, less than a week after the maps were unveiled to the public.

Republican lawmakers called for a speeded-up redistricting process, and have moved swiftly since the special session began Monday. After the joint redistricting committee approved the maps Tuesday, the House and Senate Rules committees on Wednesday sent the legislation to their respective chambers.

Democrats say the process is being rushed and that the proposed maps could violate the Voting Rights Act, the civil rights law to protect minority voting interests. Senate Democrats plan to introduce alternate maps on the floor on Thursday after they were denied an opportunity to present their plan at the committee hearing, and are hoping to amend the current GOP proposal — which is unchanged from when it was unveiled to the public Friday.

House Democrats attempted to amend that chamber's map during its committee hearing, also without success. The House has limited floor debate on the map to three hours.

The House on Wednesday will also will take up a measure to keep in place a freeze on Georgia's gas tax. Gov. Nathan Deal signed an executive order in June halting an increase that would have kicked in July 1. State lawmakers need to ratify the move, which Deal aides say will save motorists an estimated $40 million in taxes.

The House Ways and Means Committee approved the bill Tuesday. The state gas tax had been set to rise 1.6 cents a gallon, as a result of a formula tied to fuel prices. The action means that rate will remain at 12.9 cents a gallon rather than rising to 14.5 cent a gallon.

Both chambers must approve redistricting plans for the House and Senate before they can head to the governor for his signature. This is the first year Republicans have controlled the partisan process from start to finish, and Democrats have alluded to a legal challenge to the current proposals.

Redistricting must be done once a decade to adjust political lines to conform to the U.S. Census. Due to a past history of racial discrimination, Georgia and some other southern states must submit redistricting plans and other election-law changes to the Justice Department or a federal court for review, to safeguard against minority disenfranchisement.

After a busy four days, the Legislature is scheduled to be off on Friday and will return Monday to take up the remainder of its business. Lawmakers also intend to approve new congressional district maps — including a new U.S. House district as a result of population growth — and the transportation tax referendum.

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