The General Assembly’s redistricting session has reignited the issue of Milton County. The proposed maps for the state House and Senate would shift the majority in each chamber’s Fulton delegation to Republicans, many of whom want to re-carve that erstwhile county out of North Fulton.
It will be an intense debate during the next two or three years — the minimum time it would take for new districts to first be used in an election, then play a role in putting Milton County back on the map.
But as I sat through a Tuesday legislative hearing, I was also struck by Georgia’s smallest counties.
Georgia, as you may know, has 159 counties, second only to Texas. We have 180 state House seats. Yet dozens of our counties are too small to qualify for their own House district.
The average district, after the 2010 census put Georgia’s population at just less than 9.7 million, will have 53,820 people.
Only 39 of our counties are so populous. The other 120 counties together contain just one-quarter of all Georgians.
Break down the counties into thirds, and the bottom tier would have nine state representatives, the middle tier 23 — and the top tier a whopping 148.
In fact, the dozen smallest counties’ populations combined are about 3,000 people shy of the average district size.
This disparity, of course, in part reflects the extremely rapid growth of metro Atlanta relative to the rest of the state. Consider some comparisons between the least-populated counties and the state’s largest high schools in 2010:
The trend lines suggest the gap will only grow.
But the disparity is also a vestige of Georgia’s county-unit system, which gave small, rural counties disproportionate clout in state government. That advantage — abolished in the 1960s — made it beneficial for them to exist in as many little fiefdoms as possible.
Today, this splintering gives people in those areas little — other than higher costs for maintaining separate county governments, sheriff’s departments and school systems.
The argument for merging small counties to achieve efficiencies in government costs has been obvious for a while, to no avail. But Tuesday’s hearing made me think mergers might give them better representation under the Gold Dome, too.
At the Legislature, they are tied to other small counties — proposed House District 151 in southwest Georgia comprises eight counties and part of a ninth — making it hard for their lawmakers to represent their (often competing) interests equally and adequately.
Either that, or they are tacked onto a district dominated by a much larger city or county, whose residents elect one of their own to represent them in Atlanta.
But if smaller counties were merged, they would have one unified local government, at a lower cost to taxpayers. It could set unified priorities, which could then be better represented at the state level.
What these counties’ residents lost in hyperlocal control, they might gain in powers now held by the state. If they were a bit larger, the General Assembly could contemplate transferring more authority to local control. Today, 30 counties can’t even maintain their own websites.
Before the next redistricting in 2021, lawmakers would do well not only to argue about Milton County, but to study how consolidating smaller counties might make government work better for them.
– By Kyle Wingfield