Ga. House committee OKs limiting development authority per diems

Bill also places development authorities under jurisdiction of state ethics commission

A state House of Representatives committee on Wednesday approved new ethics guardrails for metro Atlanta development authorities that supporters say will improve accountability in the powerful local agencies, which often avoid much public scrutiny.

House Bill 923, which is backed by a bipartisan roster of legislators, had many of its strongest provisions cut by the House Government Oversight Committee.

But the bill still tightens rules governing “per diems,” or stipends paid to development authority board members, by limiting the amount paid to them. It also brings authorities under the jurisdiction of the state ethics commission.

Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, brought her bill before the House Governmental Oversight Committee on Wednesday. The committee cut from the bill a portion allowing school districts to legally challenge incentive packages — some up to hundreds of millions of dollars.

“This is an important issue of accountability and who has the right to know what deals are being cut and whose impact it benefits,” Oliver said.

But the committee members didn’t agree, and Oliver accepted the removal.

A factor for pushing the bill through is that time is running out — March 16 is Crossover Day at the Georgia Capitol, the Legislature’s self-imposed deadline for bills to pass at least the House or the Senate.

“I think you could come back and address this in another bill at another time,” said Committee Chair Rep. Darlene Taylor, R-Thomasville. “We’re getting close to Crossover and I want to be able to move what we can get moved.”

The bill is in part a response to reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that revealed a culture of loose financial oversight under previous leadership at the Development Authority of Fulton County, or DAFC.

Most of what current DAFC Chair Michel “Marty” Turpeau IV found objectionable was removed from the bill.

“Procedures for transparency are important, but if implemented incorrectly they could drive up land prices and destroy development opportunities,” he told the AJC before the hearing. “It also allows interested states a competitive advantage when lobbying for a business Georgia and the local jurisdiction is trying to attract.”

Reporting by the AJC triggered calls by some legislators to overhaul rules governing the authorities in general and to potentially abolish Fulton’s authority. The AJC revealed how DAFC granted hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks in recent years, mostly for projects in hot areas of the county that critics say didn’t need incentives.

The investigation also uncovered how some members paid themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars in per diems or stipends over several years. They sometimes received multiple payments a day for official duties performed on the same day despite “per diem” meaning “per day” in Latin.

Fulton commissioners later determined they had no record of ever approving the per diems, as required by state laws, calling into question whether they were ever legal. Commissioners have since set a new $150 daily stipend and DAFC has strengthened its bylaws to limit such payments to only one per day.

These new rules would only apply to development authorities in Georgia’s four largest counties – Fulton, Gwinnett, Cobb and DeKalb. These are the four county authorities that are allowed by state law to pay their board members stipends or per diems, though Fulton’s is the only one that currently does.