Georgia lawmakers say they respect local control — until they don’t

Republican-led General Assembly passes state laws that override locals
Representatives in the Georgia House throw paper in the air following Sine Die, closing the 2021 session of the General Assembly on March 31. (Alyssa Pointer /

Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

Representatives in the Georgia House throw paper in the air following Sine Die, closing the 2021 session of the General Assembly on March 31. (Alyssa Pointer /

The principle of local control has long been a cornerstone of Georgia conservativism, the idea that the state government should stay out of city and county decisions.

Yet this year, the Republican-majority General Assembly passed bills to prevent communities from reducing police budgets, allow the state to take over underperforming county election offices and prohibit local bans on fossil fuels.

Republican legislators say they have no choice but to intervene when local governments get out of line.

“We’re all for local control until the locals get out of control,” said state Rep. Kasey Carpenter, a Republican from Dalton. “Everybody likes to stand behind the mantra of home rule and local control, but at some point you’ve got locals who are making it harder for businesses to operate or individuals to do certain things. We have to step in.”

State-level directives come even as Republican lawmakers lament any perceived mandates from the federal government.

For example, when legislators learned coronavirus stimulus relief money couldn’t be used to cut taxes, Gov. Brian Kemp and other GOP leaders held press conferences, wrote letters and appeared on talk shows to lambast the stipulation. Republican Attorney General Chris Carr signed on to a letter calling the move “the greatest invasion of state sovereignty by Congress in the history of our Republic.”

The U.S. Treasury Department later said the prohibition didn’t necessarily apply to tax cuts that are separate from COVID-19 relief funds, and the General Assembly passed a small state income tax cut without any controversy.

Democrats say GOP lawmakers have abandoned their core small government values in an effort to send signals to their supporters for reelection campaigns.

“There was no evidence of anything — voter fraud, defund the police, changing environmental rules — but yet they preempted (local) control,” said state Rep. Karla Drenner, a Democrat from Avondale Estates.

“They did it because they could,” she said. “They had to do something to show their base they were fighting back in some form or fashion.”

This year was far from the first time state lawmakers have trumped county commissions and city councils.

Twenty years ago, legislators passed a state law prohibiting local governments from moving Confederate monuments. In 2018, lawmakers prevented governments from banning the use of wood when constructing high-rise apartments, a measure backed by the forestry industry.

Local governments had put the restriction in place for fire safety reasons, saying having wood frames for large structures puts lives at risk.

Legislation prohibiting local governments from instituting bans on things such as the sale of pets or the use of plastic bags are also repeatedly introduced by Republican sponsors, though they have not passed.

“Rarely do we need a one-size-fits-all approach coming down from Atlanta, when in fact our local governments are doing just fine to make those decisions that fit their local jurisdictions,” said Todd Edwards of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, which advocates for counties. “That’s why our county commissioners are elected to make those decisions. When does it stop?”

Kennesaw State University political scientist Kerwin Swint said state legislatures are well within their powers as a governing body to impose certain restrictions on local governments.

“Historically and institutionally the state legislature has the power to give, to take away, to limit, to shape and form government, and they’ve done so over the years,” Swint said.

And that’s what Athens Republican state Rep. Houston Gaines said his intent is with House Bill 286, which would prohibit local governments from decreasing their law enforcement budgets by more than 5% in one year or cumulatively across five years.

“I believe in local control, but if you have local governments that get out of control, that’s where the state has to step in to make sure people are safe,” he said.

He filed the legislation in response to national calls to “defund the police” by reallocating money from law enforcement budgets to fund services such as mental health treatment or education. Local politicians in Atlanta and Athens considered shifting law enforcement money last year but opted against it.

Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz said budget decisions are best made at the local level.

“You’ve never really seen anything like this from the Georgia General Assembly,” Girtz said. “There hasn’t been a point where they said, you know, we’ve got to spend a specific amount of funds on our water supply, or we can’t modify our paving budget by X percent a year. I mean, this is totally outside the framework of what state governments tend to suggest to local governments.”

Georgia’s new voting law, Senate Bill 202, imposes several requirements on local election officials, including allowing the State Election Board to replace county election boards with new management. The law also imposes costs through requirements to print ballots on more expensive security paper, add a second Saturday of early voting and quickly report election results.

The energy measure, House Bill 150, would prevent local governments from limiting the type of energy that can be used in buildings and homes. Supporters said the legislation would protect freedom of choice; opponents said it would eliminate the ability of communities to seek cleaner energy sources. Advocates for the bill included Georgia Power, whose parent company, the Southern Co., owns Southern Company Gas, a large natural gas provider.

The General Assembly this year also passed bills to ban communities from penalizing security companies for the cost of police response for false alarms, require local governments to allow security fence alarm systems, and raise the pay of local chief magistrates.

Bills passed this year that would reduce local control