You may not have felt it, but the ground shifted in Georgia last week.
On a tectonic plate set in motion by 236 members of your Legislature, the state’s center of gravity slipped several miles north, out of Georgia’s rolling farmland and into the fringes of metro Atlanta.
It took a pair of disparate bills to point out the new fault line that now divides suburban and rural Republicans.
During the three-month session of the General Assembly, nothing spoke of suburban Atlanta’s growing clout like passage of the bill to permit the Sunday sale of packaged alcohol.
After a five-year fight, Republicans shook off opposition from a weakened conservative Christian lobby and embraced the concept of a well-lit beer aisle in the grocery store that can be visited after church.
Final passage in the 180-member House on Tuesday produced 40 “no” votes from Republicans. Of those, only seven came from metro Atlanta.
Blame the state’s changing population. In the past 10 years, Georgia grew by 1.5 million people — 18 percent, according to new census figures. Many of those new residents are Catholic or Episcopalian or Presbyterian or altogether unchurched, rather than Southern Baptist or Methodist.
And most new residents are two or three generations away from the traditions of farm life. Which has produced another change.
Nothing during the just-finished legislative session pointed out rural Georgia’s waning influence like its all-out — and unsuccessful — fight to escape the illegal immigration argument.
It would be hard to exaggerate the influence once wielded by rural lawmakers in the state Capitol. For 22 years, owners of pickup trucks were exempted from Georgia’s mandatory seat belt law because lawmakers were loath to inconvenience the farmer who might drive across a public road as he rolled from field to field.
The exemption ended last year. This year, farming interests declared that the stringent illegal immigration measure being contemplated by lawmakers would jeopardize a $69 billion industry — the state’s largest.
Their protests fell on deaf ears. Suburban ones.
House Bill 87 calls for expanding the authority of law enforcement to stop those suspected of illegal residency, and it would require most businesses to use a federal data base called E-Verify to screen new hires.
The bill’s author is state Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City. In the final Senate debate on the measure, the most urgent voices in favor of the measure represented metro Atlanta.
State Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, declared that, as a registered nurse, she thought herself one of the most compassionate people in the Capitol. But emergency rooms in Gwinnett County were being swamped with illegal immigrants — something that needed to stop, she said.
Rural Republicans successfully pushed for some concessions in backroom negotiations but otherwise sat silently in the Senate chamber — which was no longer the place for public arguments about agriculture’s annual need for 87,000 temporary workers at $7.25 to $9 an hour.
John Bulloch, a southwest Georgia farmer and chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, was the loudest Republican opponent of HB 87. But in the end, he voted for it.
“I don’t like the E-Verify, but we’ll live with it,” he told a scrum of reporters after the vote. When asked whether agriculture was losing its clout in the Capitol, Bulloch was silent for a moment.
“Yeah. Yeah. There aren’t many more John Bullochs up here,” he said.
Bulloch was also the primary sponsor of Senate Bill 10, the Sunday sales bill. But even that can be explained in terms of a shift in Georgia’s political power.
He and other rural Republican senators argued the bill would permit local communities to preserve local traditions. In a rapidly suburbanizing Georgia, they declared that SB 10 was actually a bulwark against change, not a catalyst.
Suburban-rural tensions worry some Republicans. President pro tem Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, was the first rural Republican elected to the Senate. “I keep telling our guys in the Senate, if all of our politics surround the metro area, eventually we will be in the minority again,” he said.
Gary Black, the new state agriculture commissioner, tells of an encounter with a GOP voter at a local barbecue during the early days of his campaign.
She asked what he was running for. Black told her.
“I’d love to vote for you, but I can’t,” the woman said. Why not? Black asked.
“I live in Rockdale County,” she said. They don’t have farms there.
Black assured the woman that the post he sought included many suburban duties — such as regulating pest control companies.
Under HB 87, Black has also been handed a most delicate task. He has been ordered to study whether Georgia farmers would benefit from a state-run guest-worker program.
The provision, added at the last minute, is a tacit admission that the arguments made by rural Republicans made an impression — even if they didn’t carry the day. Black has until January to study the issue. If necessary, he’ll make the case for a large — and legal — rural labor force to a suburban-driven Legislature in 2012.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider