Perdue: Flag referendum will ‘tear down walls’

ATLANTA – In the chamber where his predecessor urged the Legislature two years ago to change the state flag without a public vote, Gov. Sonny Perdue called Monday for a referendum “to tear down the walls that separate us.”

“Let us decide and let us move forward,” the new Republican governor said in his first State of the State address to the Legislature. “I’m willing to trust the people of Georgia to make the best decision for Georgia and I trust you are, too.”

Perdue defeated Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes on Nov. 5 in an election which turned partly on Barnes’ push in 2001 to shrink the Confederate fighting banner on Georgia’s flag. The step was accomplished in a week by a vote of the Legislature. Public input was not sought.

The rebel symbol occupied two-thirds of the old Georgia flag. The new flag is dominated by the state seal. On a ribbon below that are small images of five historic Georgia flags, including the last one.

Perdue called throughout the campaign last year for a referendum on the flag. Since taking office, he has proposed a nonbinding straw poll as the fastest way to get the issue to a vote, but has said he is leaving it to lawmakers to decide exactly what choices to put on the ballot and when the vote should occur.

He offered no further details in the prepared text of his remarks, but insisted the state must heal its divisions and added, “That process begins with giving the people a say, a voice, a vote on the symbol that represents them.”

Perdue used another portion of the speech to announce he is abandoning a plan announced just two weeks ago that likely would have raised taxes for hundreds of thousands of property owners.

On two other key issues, he challenged lawmakers to pass his proposed new ethics laws and to tackle redistricting.

Like the flag, both issues could prompt partisan battles in Georgia’s first divided Legislature since Reconstruction. Democrats control the House, Republicans the Senate.

Perdue is the first Republican governor of Georgia since 1872.

On the tax issue, Perdue initially announced plan to scale back the homeowners tax relief program instituted by Barnes four years ago, part of his overall strategy for managing the state’s budget in an economic slump.

He drew a standing ovation after declaring he will leave the program intact and make it permanent because he has found other ways to balance the budget.

Perdue said the ethics legislation he will introduce on Tuesday will help restore trust in government. “I urge the House and Senate to pass these ethics reform bills swiftly and decisively,” he said.

Among other things, the legislation would prohibit lawmakers from trying to influence the treatment of state prisoners.

He reserved his toughest talk of the speech for redistricting, a topic near the top of the Republican agenda after Democrats used their clout two years ago to draw new legislative election districts which favored Democrats at the expense of Republicans.

Perdue wants lawmakers to redraw new district lines after first adopting a statement of principles banning the use of past election data in drawing the lines.

Republicans in the chamber stood to applaud after Perdue asked, “Why should partisan political data even be part of the process? Elections should be about the future, not the past.”

Perdue also announced he has asked Attorney General Thurbert Baker to withdraw an appeal of the state’s redistricting case, which the U.S. Supreme Court already has agreed to hear. The appeal asks the court to reinstate a state Senate map that is tilted even more toward Democrats.

Baker, a Democrat, issued a statement thanking Perdue for his thoughts but declaring he also will talk to legislative leaders before deciding whether to drop the case.

After the speech, House Speaker Terry Coleman, D-Eastman, said redistricting is a “traumatic, gut-wrenching, expensive process. I don’t think we could do it in a regular session.”

Senate Republican Leader Tom Price, however, said Perdue received a “stupendous” reception for his redistricting proposals. “I’m encouraged by what I heard. People in the state want new maps and their legislators need to listen to their constituents.”

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