We are heading into Day 24 of the 2015 legislative session, and this time of year, a girl’s thoughts often turn to legislation that could potentially impact the way she does her job as a local elected official.
This year, I have my eye on several bills. I’ve written before on the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission (formerly the State Ethics Commission) and how it was a bit of a hot mess during several transitional years. Others agree, and the House and Senate are each considering bills that would provide waivers for fines that were accrued – frequently in error on the part of the GGTCFC(FKASCE) – during this special time in GGTCFC(FKASCE) history.
House Bill 442 addresses conflicts of interests for county and municipal governing authorities. I thought this was already a thing, but I’m all for anything that further clarifies to my colleagues throughout the state that if you have a substantial interest – and by “interest,” I mean money – in something before your elected body, recuse thyself! I’ve always felt like conflict of interest recusals is not something an elected official – at any level – should need to be told to do, but as I am often wrong (yet rarely in doubt), it can’t hurt to spell it out as clearly as possible, in ways that are as subtle as an anvil to the head.
Let that visual provide a nice segue to another bill addressing the shortcomings of a few bad apples, HB 192. I’ve held office in one of Georgia’s larger cities for seven years and have yet to encounter an opportunity where I needed to spend any amount beyond what could – and should – be charged on my personal credit card and submitted to the city for reimbursement. When I attend the annual Georgia Municipal Association meeting in Savannah, for example, the City of Smyrna pays the hotel and GMA directly for my registration fees, the classes I attend, and my lodging. There’s not much I need to spend out of pocket besides a few meals and incidental expenses. I truly cannot see how limiting the use of purchasing cards could be an issue for any elected or appointed official in this state, and I suspect that in city and county offices across Georgia, finance and purchasing directors are pumping their fists in solidarity with this bill.
Which leads us to SB 139, which passed the Senate on Thursday. You can read more about the bill here, and here. Essentially, SB 139 restricts Georgia cities and counties from regulating “auxiliary containers” (that’s legislator-speak for “plastic bags”). Many cities throughout the United States, including Austin and Seattle, and the state of California, have enacted plastic bag bans, and other cities, like Washington, D.C., have imposed nominal – like, a nickel, so they just codified what Aldi’s been doing for years – user fees on plastic bags in an effort to curb their use. Plastic bags are accused of various ills that range from leaching harmful chemicals into the environment to suffocating sea turtles; in Georgia, the City of Tybee Island began exploring a plastic bag ban in part because it is in keeping with Tybee’s awareness that protecting their marine life is critical to their economic vitality.
Supporters of the plastic bag ban ban argue that because Georgia has 159 counties and 536 cities, any cities or counties that elected to enacted a ban on plastic bags would unleash “regulatory mayhem” upon the citizens of this state. Apparently, while cities and counties can be trusted to make their own rules for Sunday alcohol sales and sign ordinances, we lack the regulatory fortitude to approach the plastic bags that are ubiquitous to stores and restaurants.
A fun exercise when reading SB 139 is to replace “auxiliary containers” with other things that cities might want to independently regulate, like “alcohol,” or “fences,” or “animal control,” or “waffle shops,” to illustrate the absurdity of a bill that takes such an egregious approach to usurping local control. I have no doubt that were the Georgia Legislature to attempt to implement a statewide ban on plastic bags, more than one city might choose to take a Battle of Gonzales approach, exhorting any overzealous regulators to “Come And Take It” – and that would be entirely their right. The economy of Ocilla is not as inextricable from marine life as that of Tybee Island, so it’s understandable that Senator Tyler Harper, who introduced the bill, might not fully appreciate why the City Council in Tybee Island might explore a measure that would help their city preserve the lives of endangered sea turtles. Situations like this are the reason so many Georgia lawmakers, particularly GOP lawmakers, try to respect local control, whether it regards the local tree ordinance or the county school system, and it makes no sense to support legislation that so boldly diminishes the role of local policymakers.