author/source: John Fredericks / Beacon Media
What a difference a year can make.
The re-creation of Milton County - to be carved from existing Fulton County - will have to wait until the 2010 Georgia legislative session to see the light of day. The stakes for the new county, and those who have staked their political reputations on it, will reach an apex next year. If they can get it through both chambers - it's a constitutional amendment so it will take two-thirds majorities - then the new county resolution can still make it on the 2010 general election ballot. If they fail by a single vote in the House or Senate next year, you can stick a fork in it, it's done.
JONES PULLS THE PLUG
House Speaker Pro-Tem Mark Burkhalter (R-Johns Creek), who has heralded the creation of the new county as the single most significant piece of legislation in his storied political career to date, had hoped to pull it off in 2009. It just wasn't in the cards. With time running out on him and his Majority Whip, Jan Jones (R-Milton), they pulled it from the floor last week. "We pulled the plug. I didn't think we had the votes in Senate," Jones admitted. "We may have gotten it through the House - it would have been razor thin, but some senators wanted more time to review the study, which was just released by UGA and Ga. State last week." The study, sanctioned and paid for in last year's session, was favorable. "When you have the numbers and facts on your side, you by definition have time on your side," offered Jones. "The more the study is digested, the more votes we will get. It just makes sense, and it is good policy." Jones summed up the study up this way: "It not only says the plan is viable, it says it's vibrant."
By all accounts, the process to re-create Milton County, at least on paper, would seem to favor a three-year plan. The issue was raised in 2008, and the major accomplishment was getting the House to approve - and pay for - the joint university study. This year the study was completed and released. The amendment quickly passed out of committee by a 7-1 margin. "We had robust bi-partisan support," Jones said. "It was gaining steam every day. We just didn't have the luxury of time this year. That will change come the next session," Jones explained. "I am very confident we will pass this resolution in both chambers with the required majorities in 2010" She promised a floor vote "early next year." Jones also acknowledged it was a "timing thing" this session. "We have several amendments being considered this session - like transportation - that are pressing and we didn't want to load this on top of those," Jones said. "There is just no downside to waiting until 2010," she added. "Remember, Sandy Springs took 30 years to create. Three years is pretty good, and we are in great shape from my vantage point," she said.
Jones succinctly outlined her and Burkhalter's next moves. "We will have more time to get the facts out, we can engage our constituents in the process, and we will have more political leverage come next session." Jones confirmed that many Democrats are intrigued by the concept. "This would be a county like no other in history," Jones said. "Many of our colleagues want to see how this will work. It may prove to be a new model of county governance in the state, maybe even in the country," Jones opined.
From a purely political standpoint, many House and Senate members from the outlaying regions of Georgia do not view Milton County as terribly significant to their constituents. They may think it is good statewide policy or they may be in philosophical lockstep with more local governing sovereignty, but a senate member from Valdosta, for example, just doesn't have a dog in the Milton County hunt. That same senator, however, may have another issue that his constituents want passed next year, and Burkhalter and Jones may be in a better position to do some old fashioned political horse trading. Another vote here and a one vote there and all of a sudden you've got two-thirds. This is the way the system works. And Burkhalter and Jones are very good at it. "Everything is in negotiation," Jones said.
STEERING COMMITTEE TO BE FORMED
Supporters of the new county say they will set up a "Steering Committee" over the next several weeks that will be comprised of several prominent officials who represent different perspectives. "Our Steering Committee will most likely include representatives of the state legislature, school board members, city council members, judges and business people. We want to encourage and solicit the help and input of all the different domains that will be effected by this change," said one Milton County backer.
The plan is to get the Steering Committee out into the community to engage Fulton County residents in the process. "We are determined to make this initiative both seamless and transparent," Jones said. There are many details to consider for both counties, like water, Grady Hospital, sales tax revenue, etc., Jones maintained. "Part of the Steering Committee's mission will be to help and untangle the remaining issues, all of which are surmountable."
Although he has indicated he has not yet made a final decision on whether or not he will run for governor in 2010, the delay in the Milton County vote may take some wind out of Burkhalter's prospective gubernatorial sails, especially in the short run. Had he pulled off a favorable vote now, Burkhalter may have been able to leverage that undeniable success as a powerful campaign launch springboard in May. His popularity in North Fulton County, already high, would have eclipsed into "rock star" status, bringing him both money and notoriety quickly. Now he will have to wait for that scenario to play out next year. If he decides to throw his hat in the ring, and he pulls Milton County off in 2010, he will still have sufficient time to take full political advantage of his success, grab statewide headlines and thus catapult himself as the dominate GOP vote getter in the Republican ballot rich north metro suburbs. The gubernatorial primary is in July 2010, just a few weeks after the session ends. On the minus side, if he runs for governor and fails to pull off Milton County in 2010, his campaign could very well be toast. A lot more may be riding on the re-creation of Milton County than meets the eye.