Old flag debate may not be over

By Michael Davis

Thought the flag debate was over? It's not.

A bill awaiting a hearing in a state legislative committee would put another referendum on Georgia ballots regarding which flag Georgians want to fly over the state.

House Bill 15, sponsored by a freshman Republican from Villa Rica, would give voters a choice of the current flag, adopted in 2003, or the 1956 flag with its prominent, and divisive, Confederate stars and bars. But just how far it will get is anybody's guess.

"There are a lot more important issues that the legislature needs to attend to," said Henry County resident Teri Hightower, who lives in the Kellytown area. "I thought it had been settled."

But to heritage groups, the flag debate won't be settled until Georgians vote on a nonbinding referendum that includes the 1956 flag, a measure they have pushed since 2001.

The bill's sponsor, Timothy Bearden, R-Villa Rica, is sure if he can get it out of committee and onto the House floor for a vote it will pass. But Governmental Affairs Chairman Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, would not discuss the bill Monday.

"I need to talk with him first. He and I (Bearden) are to meet on Wednesday," Scott said.

It's not clear whether the bill will ever make it out of committee. Committee member Howard Mosby, D-Atlanta, whose district includes parts of northern Henry County, said he will not support the measure and wasn't sure Republicans would either. "I doubt if the Republican leadership would want to cause that type of division," he said. "Personally, I think it's a waste of taxpayer money."

The flag issue split the state in 2001 after then-Gov. Roy Barnes unveiled a new flag that displaced the Confederate battle emblem. Some argued that move played a role in his ouster, giving Gov. Sonny Perdue, who campaigned on offering a referendum, a boost among rural Georgians.

"Sonny was elected on the promise he would give people a chance to vote on a referendum that would include the 1956 flag," said McDonough resident Ray McBerry, who chairs the Georgia chapter of the southern heritage organization League of the South. "He knew full-well the 1956 flag was the flag the people of Georgia wanted to vote on," he said.

Perdue spokeswoman Heather Hedrick said the governor could not comment on proposed legislation not on his agenda until it came to him for a signature.

When the March ballot was unveiled without a choice of the 1956 flag, Confederate groups were incensed.

"It's time to put this behind us and end the debate, and the best way to do that is to put it to the people," said Bearden.

Bearden points to a poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, Inc. and paid for by the Georgia division of Sons of Confederate Veterans, showing interest among those surveyed for another referendum.

"Fifty-four percent did not think it was a fair referendum," Bearden said. "To me, that's the people yearning to be heard."

Bearden and members of the SCV are scheduled to hold a press conference at the Capitol Wednesday afternoon.