A banner year for Georgia Legislature telling people what to do

In the space of fewer than three hours Monday, the Georgia House voted to:

  • Ban cities from banning gas leaf blowers and gas stoves, which none of them are doing.
  • Make cities enforce ordinances against sleeping on or obstructing sidewalks.
  • Create a state board with powers to investigate, punish or even oust locally elected district attorneys.

A few hours later in the same chamber, on the lengthy 39th day of the 40-day session, representatives voted to make it a felony for local governments to accept private money to help pay for extra staff and facilities at election time.

The spurt of votes highlighted one of the trends of this and many recent lawmaking sessions: Legislative majorities — currently Republicans — are for local control and personal freedoms until they’re not. When they don’t like what local officials are doing, or industry lobbyists warn of problems, they act, sometimes quickly. Democrats weren’t all that different when they were in charge.

“Once upon a time, people in this chamber took pride in home rule and local control. I’m not sure where those days have gone,” said Rep. Jasmine Clark, D-Lilburn.

State Rep. Jasmine Clark, D-Lilburn.
Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

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Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

But longtime Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, a member of the House Governmental Affairs Committee, said local control is in the eye of the beholder.

“Local control is one thing. We give them local control. But under the state constitution, they are empowered by statutes of the Legislature,“ Powell said. “Local governments want what they want when it saves their butts. They don’t want petitions coming in saying ‘We want you to do away with gas-powered leaf blowers.’ ”

When it comes to government power, the General Assembly runs Georgia, with the authority to overrule cities and counties at will while also taking away individual decisions, such as parents’ ability to seek medical treatments for children to align with their gender identity, as it did this session.

Local control — the concept that governing is best handled by elected officials closest to the people they govern — is one of the most frequently spoken phrases in every General Assembly session. The notion that state government should stay out of local decisions — and the federal government should stay out of the state’s business — is a cornerstone of legislative politics.

But city, county and school lobbyists spend much of every session playing defense as lawmakers seek to right wrongs they — and sometimes their constituents — see in local governments.

One of this year’s most contentious bills would create a state board that can investigate and punish local prosecutors, a move that would give the state government authority over district attorneys elected by their communities’ voters.

The bill raised the alarm of Democratic prosecutors fearful of Republicans’ reach, and it brought national attention as Fulton County’s district attorney is investigating former President Donald Trump over allegations he tried to get Georgia officials to “find” votes to help him flip the results of the 2020 election.

“This is not oversight but overstep,” said Athens-Clarke County District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez, one of the targets of the legislation. “State legislators want to impose their will on a community who had their voice electing me or any other DA. There’s a difference between not doing your job and not doing your job in the way the Legislature wants.”

Athens District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez said it was "oversight but overstep" when the General Assembly passed legislation this session to create a panel that could investigate potentially oust local prosecutors. “State legislators want to impose their will on a community who had their voice electing me or any other DA," Gonzalez said. "There’s a difference between not doing your job and not doing your job in the way the Legislature wants.”

Credit: File photo

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Credit: File photo

Backers of the bill that passed on mostly party-line votes said it would allow the state to go after prosecutors who aren’t doing their jobs, and they noted there are already review panels for judges.

The long reach of zealous state legislators into local matters predates the Republicans’ two-decade majority in the General Assembly.

For instance, when Democrats were in charge, teachers accused Gov. Roy Barnes of pushing top-down management of education. Democratic leaders pushed measures to forbid local governments from banning or restricting smoking in restaurants, hotels and other public places.

They also passed legislation prohibiting local governments from moving Confederate monuments. And when redistricting rolled around after the 2000 census, critics said Democrats ignored the will of locals when political lines were drawn in an effort to maintain their control in the General Assembly.

Republicans approved legislation in 2018 to prevent cities and counties from banning the use of wood when constructing high-rise apartments in a measure backed by the forestry industry. Local governments said such restrictions were put in place for fire safety reasons.

In response to Trump’s bogus claims that the 2020 election was stolen, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 202, which imposed several requirements on local election officials, such as limiting drop boxes and allowing the State Elections Board to replace county election boards with new management.

After then-President Donald Trump pushed bogus claims that the 2020 election was stolen, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 202, which imposed several requirements on local elections officials, such as limiting drop boxes and allowing the State Elections Board to replace county election boards with new management. (Erin Schaff/Pool/Abaca Press/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

The General Assembly followed up this year with another measure that would reduce local authority over elections by banning counties from receiving donations from nonprofit organizations, a Republican reaction to millions of dollars contributed since 2020 that mostly went to Democratic areas.

County election officials know how to manage their finances, Heard County Election Supervisor Tonnie Adams said.

“Some counties say, ‘Let us get the funds we need because we’re conducting business in a nonpartisan manner,’ ” Adams said. “They’re not trying to favor one party or another. They understand how their election offices work.”

Republicans successfully pushed legislation in 2021 to prohibit local governments from decreasing their law enforcement budgets by more than 5% in one year or cumulatively across five years. The bill came in response to national calls by liberals to “defund” the police by shifting money from police to services such as mental health treatment or education.

Local politicians in Atlanta and Athens had considered reallocating some law enforcement money in 2020 but decided against it.

The General Assembly in 2022 passed a bill to ban communities from penalizing security companies for the cost of police response for false alarms.

This year, city governments fiercely opposed lawmakers’ attempts to override local building standards and to place limits on the amount of time cities could put on construction moratoriums. The bill never made it out of committee.

“Local elected officials know the needs of their communities better than anyone,” said Larry Hanson, executive director and CEO of the Georgia Municipal Association, which advocates for cities. “When legislation restricts local governments, it effectively takes away the rights of community residents to have control over their own communities.”

One bill county lobbyists wanted, to ban or limit the personal compensation superior court clerks and probate judges can earn for processing passport fees through their offices, failed to win approval.

The bill came in response to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation last year that found Cobb County Superior Court Clerk Connie Taylor had personally received over $425,000 in passport processing and expedited shipping fees during her first two years in office — on top of her $170,000 salary.

This year’s leaf-blower bill was one of the most talked about — and heavily debated — measures.

Supporters said no Georgia municipalities have banned gas-powered leaf blowers, but cities and counties in other states have done so. Preventing such measures here would protect landscaping businesses from having to spend big money on tools that backers say don’t have the same power to do the job.

A leaf-blower bill was one of the most talked about — and heavily debated — measures during this year's legislative session, even though no Georgia cities or counties have banned gas-powered leaf blowers.

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Cities shouldn’t be telling citizens what blowers to use or what kind of stoves to buy, Rep. Brad Thomas, R-Woodstock, told colleagues.

“I believe in energy choice. We should be doing things that support that,” said Thomas, who sponsored the leaf-blower bill that won final passage on the last day of the session. “It makes sure the free market is available for those small-business people who are taking care of our lawns or golf courses … or schools.”

Rep. Teri Anulewicz, D-Smyrna, compared the bill to a “snipe hunt,” a prank that sends a mark into the forest to hunt for a nonexistent animal.

“The thing about a snipe hunt is that you send someone on a quest to find something they will never find, and that’s a little bit like what these preemptions are like,” she said. “They are special-interest groups madlibbing legislation in an attempt to send the General Assembly on a quest to keep cities and counties from outlawing something that no one is even trying to outlaw.”

Rep. Ruwa Romman, D-Duluth, described it as “like, the 5,000th bill we’ve read this session about local preemptions.”

It wasn’t 5,000, but some lobbyists counted about two-dozen this session.

A bill that produced a similar “local control” debate would require the state auditor to inspect public spending to help homeless Georgians and bar hospitals and local authorities from dropping people off in another county. It would give the state attorney general authority to step in if local officials block the enforcement of ordinances prohibiting unauthorized public camping, sleeping or obstruction of sidewalks.

The bill passed both chambers Monday.

Democrats said it would criminalize homelessness rather than helping local officials deal with the problem.

Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, who sponsored the bill in the House, said if cities have ordinances against unauthorized camping, they need to enforce them.

“This idea is not to criminalize it,” Dempsey said. “It is to make sure those communities who are ignoring it actually do pick up local control and do what is best for their community.”

Clark shared a different view.

“Our local elected officials and governing bodies do not need the state preempting their authority to govern their communities,” she said.