ATLANTA — Thirsty Georgians looking across a state line they dispute at the Tennessee River are a step closer to a fight for what they say is rightfully theirs.
The Georgia House and Senate overwhelmingly passed separate resolutions Wednesday that would create a commission to work with Tennessee and North Carolina officials to put the state line between them at the 35th parallel.
Surveyors plotting that boundary as designated by Congress mistakenly marked it 1.1 miles south in 1818, Georgia lawmakers claim.
“This is a serious effort to secure our border and begin a discussion of water sharing,” said Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, who sponsored the resolution and revived a border dispute that is relevant today due to the drought pinching North Georgia’s water resources.
Tennessee lawmakers are trying not to take it seriously.
“I think they’re embarrassing themselves, and I think it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money to have them going into session and doing such silly things on taxpayers’ time,” said Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, chairman of the Hamilton County legislative delegation.
He called “idiotic” and “crazy,” the proposal that seeks to take a mile-wide strip of southern Tennessee, including a chunks of Chattanooga and East Ridge.
“I don’t think we’ll do anything but ignore them and laugh at them,” Rep. McCormick said about a Tennessee response.
There were a few dissenters in the Georgia House, which passed its resolution 136-26.
Rep. David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, wondered how to keep the peace in his district, which borders Tennessee and North Carolina.
“This error was made, by my calculations, 190 years ago,” said Rep. Ralston, who voted against the measure. “Have we sent property tax bills (to residents of the disputed area) or let them vote in Georgia?”
The Catoosa County, Ga., home of Rep. Ron Forster, R-Ringgold, nearly borders Tennessee, and he urged House members to vote against the resolution.
“The line has been there 100 years,” he said. “Let’s vote ‘no’ and move on.”
But most of his fellow North Georgians voted for the border commission.
“The dispute needs to be resolved,” said Rep. Martin Scott, R-Rossville, who voted against Georgia’s statewide water-management plan because of concerns about Atlanta taking water from the Tennessee River.
The joint resolution’s Georgia authors make no secret that if successful in moving the border so the Tennessee River dips into the northwest corner in Dade County, Georgia would seek to negotiate the transfer of water to the metro Atlanta area.
“There are no great cities in this world that don’t have an interbasin transfer,” said Rep. Harry Geisinger, R-Roswell, referring to current bans on moving water out of one river basin and into another. He said Georgia water sources supply 6 percent of the Tennessee River’s water.
Meanwhile, Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield called the legislative measure “a waste of hot air.”
“The Georgia Legislature should be considering serious matters relevant to conservation matters and reservoirs ... instead of going off chasing imaginary rabbits,” he said.
Sen. Shafer’s resolution would direct Gov. Sonny Perdue to contact Tennessee to initiate a settlement of the dispute.
Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen’s spokeswoman, Lydia Lenker, said since that since the governor has not been contacted, the state is in a “wait-and-see mode. But, I think you can surmise from other comments he has made that he’s not taking it very seriously at this point.”
Will Pinkston, a senior adviser to Gov. Bredesen, called the resolution “absurd and laughable.”
“The reality is that Georgia failed to plan appropriately for growth over a period of decades, and now they want to go and rewrite 200 years of history to correct their mistakes,” he said.
“Governor Bredesen,” Mr. Pinkston said, “is not going to turn over Tennessee’s water to Georgia.”
In his speech to the Senate, which passed the resolution unanimously, Sen. Shafer said the Tennessee River would give Georgia a much-needed additional water source, but lawmakers need to work on conservation and reservoirs to better store its current water supply.
“Drawing water from the Tennessee River is not a solution to the drought,” he said.
Either the House or the Senate resolution must pass through the other chamber before it goes to Gov. Perdue.
Tennessee Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap, who represents Marion County where Georgia lawmakers are hoping to grab a section of the Tennessee River, said he has asked Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper for “advice on what possibly to do,” though he expects the border will remain as it is.
Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, said he does not anticipate the Tennessee General Assembly would set up a border commission or let go of the south end of his district.
The Georgia Boundary Line Commission would be made up of three House members appointed by the speaker and three senators appointed by the lieutenant governor. It would have until the first day of the 2009 legislative session to meet with similar commissions from Tennessee and North Carolina and report any border line resolutions or make recommendations.
If Tennessee officials are not cooperative, the commission has permission to take other steps, including taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where state border disputes are heard.
The resolution directs Gov. Perdue to communicate with the two governors, just as a similar resolution did former Gov. Jimmy Carter in 1971, the last time the debate flared up.
In 1974, the U.S. Court of Appeals suggested to reserve the decision on the border until a later date.
Georgia senators, as Sen. Shafer began to speak Wednesday, broke into a quiet refrain of “This Land is Your Land.”
Staff writer Andy Sher contributed to this story.