Once a week during the General Assembly session, Bartow County Administrator Peter Olson meets with lobbyists for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG.)
So far, he said 2020’s Legislative session has been unlike anything he’s ever seen.
“The unusual thing about the session is the battle that’s coming to a head between the Governor and the Speaker of the House of Representatives over the budget,” he said. “The Governor, I guess, has been somewhat resistant to the Legislature’s request for information and from reading what Speaker Ralston has said, he’s a little irritated with that and he’s called a halt to the session for a couple of weeks of appropriations meetings.”
That impasse between Gov. Brian Kemp and Speaker David Ralston, Olson said, leaves many question marks concerning the State budget.
“Issues that got cut in the Governor’s proposed budget include money for the dual-enrollment program, money for mental health, money for public health, money for juvenile courts,” he said. “So a lot of issues that the Legislature had just recently upped the funding of in the last two years have gotten rolled back … where that’s going to go, I don’t know.”
At least one local lawmaker — District 14 State Rep. Mitchell Scoggins (R, Cartersville) — was also in attendance at Monday morning’s Cartersville-Bartow County Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event.
Scoggins said he had no indication of when the Legislative session — as normal — would resume. As he put it, “down there, they’re still butting heads.”
With “Crossover Day” set for March 12, Olson said he anticipates this year’s Legislative session to last longer than originally scheduled — and that very well could be a factor at the ballot box.
“This is an election year,” he noted, “and anybody who’s running down there can’t raise money when you’re in session.”
Per State analysts, Olson said the bill would generate at least $80 million a year in additional sales tax for Georgia.
“That meant that Amazon Marketplace and eBay and others like that who are platforms for sellers will collect sales tax for those sellers — if they do, I think it’s $100,000 a business in a year, so it won’t affect really tiny operations,” Olson said. “They like to point out it’s not a new tax, it’s just collection of tax that should’ve been getting collected. And it helps level the playing field of your brick-and-mortar stores and your online stores, so everybody’s paying the same sales tax.”
The County is also watching House Bill 523 closely, Olson said. The proposal would limit the abilities of local governments to regulate short-term property rentals, a’la Airbnb and Vrbo.
“There are a lot more cities and counties out there that have passed more aggressive bills, we just tried to get a registry going so we could understand who’s doing this,” Olson said of the County’s regulations. “We had complaints from the hoteliers that all these Vrbos and Airbnbs were undercutting their business, because they don’t pay the tax.”
Cartersville Mayor Matt Santini was also in attendance at the Chamber event.
“The City’s going to be working on something very similar, if not exactly identical to what you’ve got,” he told Olson.
While very little movement has been made on the matter in the current session, Olson and Santini said their respective municipalities are still watching developments on House Bill 302 — a piece of legislation that would, effectively, bar local governments from adopting or enforcing ordinances or regulations pertaining to building design elements “as applied to one- or two-family dwellings.”
While Scoggins said he believes that particular bill is “dead,” he said he anticipates its primary sponsor — District 133 State Rep. Vance Smith (R, Pine Mountain) — introducing a similar legislative proposal before the 2020 Legislative session comes to a close.
Olson said the County does have concerns over House Bill 895 and House Bill 440. The former would reduce fines for failure to obey traffic control devices to $100 “unless it can be demonstrated at the time of the violation such vehicle was traveling at a speed greater than five miles per hour or the violation resulted in a direct threat of harm to persons or property at the time of the occurrence.”
That’s “problematic,” Olson contends. “That seems against the policies of the State and the whole point system if you go soft on those," he said.
Meanwhile, HB 440 would rewrite the State’s juvenile justice code, increasing the jurisdiction of said courts to include 17-year-olds, although superior courts would maintain "exclusive original jurisdiction" in cases involving those ages 13-17 charged with serious felonies, such as murder, rape and armed robbery.
“So if a 17-year-old gets a speeding ticket or something, that would go to juvenile court instead of just going to probate court,” Olson said. “Juvenile courts are just a lot more expensive to run, they’re going to assign attorneys and it’s going to increase the caseload of juvenile courts a lot.”
While Senate Bill 317, textually, has a limited scope, Olson nonetheless said the County has some apprehensions about the consequences of the proposed legislation becoming law.
The bill, sponsored by District 3 State Sen. William T. Ligon, Jr. (R, Brunswick), would allow referendums to abolish county police departments.
“That’s somewhere where the ACCG feels like the local delegation shouldn’t go right to a vote without the local government agreeing that, “Yeah, let’s put this to a vote,’” Olson said. “We worry about the precedent of if you’re going to go around your county government, or your city government, and throw it right to the ballot.”
And there’s the contentious issue of “religious liberty,” which Olson said could be revived as a legislative issue due to Senate Bill 368.
“It would allow religious organizations to refuse same-sex adoptions,” Olson said of the bill proposed by District 16 State Sen. Marty Harbin (R, Tyrone.) “So if you were an adoption agency with a religious mission, you could say ‘I don’t agree, your values aren’t our values.’”