Local control legislation, ‘zombie’ bills discussed at Chamber event

County administrator discusses bills impacting zoning, rural internet and tax breaks

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Over the last few weeks, Bartow County Administrator Peter Olson has been meeting with the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG) lobbyist team in Atlanta.

“They keep a close eye on what the General Assembly gets up to that will impact counties,” he said at Monday morning’s Cartersville-Bartow County Chamber of Commerce meeting. “The County’s philosophy while we’re down there is, one, we try to keep local control, so we’re always on the lookout for any bill that preempts local control and wants to have somebody downtown dictating what we do locally.”

Instead of pushing for legislative changes, Olson said the ACCG spends “90 percent of their time” beating back what they consider bad ideas. 

“We can live with the status quo most of the time,” Olson said. “It’s the new ideas that come up that usually upset the apple cart.”

Top of mind for the ACCG, Olson said, were House Bill 302 and Senate Bill 172, which did not survive the pivotal March 7 “crossover” date for proposed legislation underneath the Gold Dome.

The set of bills, Olson said, threatened to bar municipal government from establishing aesthetic standards for local zoning ordinances. 

“That was to preempt local design standards in zoning ordinances,” Olson said. “So that particularly got a lot of the metro-urban cities — the Roswells, the Brookhavens, I know Cartersville was strongly against it, and we were against it.”

While giving a whirlwind recap of General Assembly updates, Olson touched upon two firearms-related bills that failed to “crossover” during the 2019 legislative session. 

“There’s a strong contingent down there that really wants to expand the right to keep and bear arms, so there was a house bill (HB 2) that was going to let anyone, if you were qualified to get a gun license, you wouldn’t need a gun license to carry concealed, but that got defeated,” he said.

Then there was SB 224, which sought to revise provisions for “the carrying of weapons in judicial courts by weapons carry license holders.”

“It wasn’t going to apply to superior courts, but it was going to apply to all the other courts, the juvenile, the magistrate, etc.,” Olson said. “So that got those judges very concerned that people would be able to carry guns into the courtroom.” 

SB 221 — alternately known as “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act” — didn’t make much headway during the legislative session, effectively “dying” before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Although SB 221 failed to crossover in 2019, Olson said there’s a possibility lawmakers haven’t seen the last of the controversial proposed legislation.

“That seems to be dead this year, but there’s sort of a sneaky sidestep to that, that they can take a bill that has passed and gut it and substitute the language of the bill they’re looking for, in certain circumstances,” Olson said. “So even if you think a bill is dead, they might find sort of a zombie vehicle that they can then put their language into and get it passed. A lot of those shenanigans happen in the last days of the session, so that’s really the most frenzied time for lobbyists to keep an eye on.”

That could be the case with two seemingly “defeated” bills  — HB 198 and SB 74 — seeking to eliminate “certificate of need” requirements for health care facility expansions. 

“There’s still a vehicle out there that they could sneak that one back in, I’m told,” Olson said. “So that’s one thing that I’m sure the health care industry is keeping a close eye on."

Olson also touched upon HB 428, another piece of proposed legislation that did not crossover. The bill sought to revamp the way internet, cable and telephone services are taxed in Georgia. 

“This was kind of a big idea to broaden the base of things that got taxed and reduced the rate,” he said. “But I think it’s percolating out there. Sometimes, these big idea changes take a few years to get done, so I think that one will come back in the future.”

Another “defeated” bill that would’ve had big consequences for municipal governments was HB 465, also known as “The Georgia Water Customer Bill of Rights Act.”

“It was really aimed at all the problems they’re having in DeKalb County with billing,” Olson said. “They’re giving estimated bills to customers and when they get the accurate bill months later, it can be a huge bill. So all of the problems they were having was going to highly restrict the rights of water systems and what they can do in terms of billing.”

HB 523, which Olson said looked to “preempt short-term rental regulations” didn’t crossover, either. 

“Savannah and other cities that have a ton of this have been trying to get their hands wrapped around it,” he said. “This was an attempt by the State to say ‘You can’t regulate that at all, just leave it up to us.’”

SB 2, a bill that did crossover, would allow the state’s electric membership corporations (EMCs) to also operate as broadband internet providers. While most of Bartow County would be unaffected if the bill becomes law, Olson noted that there are a few “outlying regions” of the county that would be in potential service areas if Amicalola EMC and GreyStone Power Corp. decided to enter the broadband services arena.

Two other pieces of legislation with palpable consequences on the County government, Olson said, are HB 511 and HB 493. 

“It’s potentially going to reorganize transit all statewide,” Olson said of HB 511. “It sort of disfavors local systems and encourages regional systems, so we’re not sure what the impact of that will be on us. We do have our small, local transit system, but the bill seems to favor multi-county transit systems, so that will have an impact if it passes, and it does raise some additional revenue through a charge on Uber and Lyft type services.”

Also on Olson's radar is HB 493, a bill that would allow residents to pay for private party plan reviews. 

“Instead of going through your county and city permitting, you can just say ‘I’ll pay to get somebody to independently review it,'” he said. “We’re watching that one, because we want consistency in enforcement of our regulations.”

Olson said the County also has its eyes on SB 119 and SB 120, two bills that would require "a good faith estimate" of the results of special-interest tax breaks before they go before a General Assembly vote.

“Every year, they pass three or four special tax breaks, whether it be jet fuel, boat repair, somebody’s special interest,” Olson said. “This bill will at least require them to do an economic analysis of what the financial impact of that’s going to be on the property tax revenue."