House gives final passage to Public Service Commission maps
ATLANTA (AP) — A map that would prevent a Democratic challenger from running for Georgia Public Service Commission against incumbent Republican Commissioner Tim Echols passed the state House by a 97-68 vote on Friday, sending the measure to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature or veto.
The vote on Senate Bill 472 comes as qualifying begins Monday for two commission seats up for election in November, although a federal judge could still intervene to alter the election plan by ordering commissioners to be elected by district. Now, commissions are elected statewide while required to live in one of five districts.
The commission controls how much Georgia Power Co. can charge on electric bills and also regulates private natural gas companies.
Echols, a District 2 Commissioner and Hoschton Republican, is up for reelection to a six-year term this year, while Republican District 3 Commissioner Fitz Johnson of Atlanta is running for the remaining two years of former Commissioner Chuck Eaton’s term. Gov. Brian Kemp appointed Eaton to a judgeship and named Johnson to replace Eaton.
Democrat Patty Durand of Peachtree Corners in Gwinnett County had filed to challenge Echols, but won’t be able to run if Kemp signs the map, because her county will be drawn out of Echols’ district and into Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald’s District 4. Durand can’t move, because candidates must live in their district for a year before November’s election.
A group of Black voters in Fulton County has sued to overturn the system of statewide elections, saying that it unfairly dilutes the votes of African Americans.
The group wants the judge to order district-based elections and to draw at least one majority-Black district. The U.S. Department of Justice joined the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs in June. In a January ruling that mostly favored the plaintiffs, U.S. District Judge Steven Grimberg said the case should go to trial.
Opponents emphasized their opposition to this latest plan on those grounds, saying they believe statewide elections illegally prevent minority communities from electing a candidate of their choice. Republicans voted down a Democratic effort to draw Gwinnett County back into the district. GOP representatives also rejected an effort to have commissioners elected only by the voters of the district each commissioner lives in.
“We would be adopting a statute that is likely unlawful and discriminatory,” said Rep. Sam Park, a Lawrenceville Democrat. “We should, instead, heed the court’s warning and switch to elections by district.”
Rep. Houston Gaines, an Athens Republican, argued lawmakers would have to amend the state constitution to elect commissioners by district.
Legislative & Congressional Reapportionment Committee Chairman Bonnie Rich, a Suwanee Republican, repeated claims made earlier that all five incumbent commissioners had approved the new maps. Echols has denied that claim.
Residents in Gwinnett County, as well as in 10 middle Georgia counties, including Bibb and Houston, would go 10 years without being able to run for the commission under the proposed changes that draw them out of Echols’ District 2. The middle Georgia counties would be drawn into Republican Commissioner Jason Shaw’s District 1. Both Shaw and McDonald won reelection in 2020, meaning their seats won’t be on the ballot until 2026. Echols was last on the ballot in the current District 2 in 2016.
Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.