The redistricting of the state Senate and House of Representatives two years ago gave GOP legislators the opportunity to stack Fulton County’s legislative delegation with friendly Republican senators and representatives who live outside Fulton but were added to the delegation by being given a few North Fulton precincts.
The legislative delegation is an obscure feature of state government that provides counties and their cities a conduit to bring local legislation concerning only that county or only that city to the General Assembly, which as a rule then receives rubber-stamp approval in a single motion that approves all acts of local legislation statewide in one vote by the legislature.
So while ostensibly every state senator and representative who has voting districts in the county are members of the legislative delegation, the Republicans control it with a one-vote majority.
So far, this new Republican edition of the legislative delegation has produced more local legislation than any legislative delegation in state history.
One of the duties the GOP majority has in this session is to redistrict Fulton’s commission districts as mandated after the 2010 Census. For years, Democratic leadership ensured an Atlanta-dominated County Commission.
This new Fulton legislative majority created three GOP districts that stretch into friendly precincts of Buckhead and North Atlanta, eliminating an at-large seat. This only reflects the new reality in the growth of population in North Fulton and is appropriate.
North Fulton has grown by leaps and bounds over the last 10 years, but has remained under-represented on the Board of Commissioners. That will change in the next election. Three GOP districts will compete on a level playing field in the 2014 commission election, with the chairman’s seat the only at-large seat to cast a possible swing vote deciding how a $500 million budget will be spent. Three of the last four county chairmen have been North Fulton Republicans, so there could easily be a Republican majority on the commission after the next election.
If that were all the legislative delegation accomplished, it would mean a huge difference in county politics.
But the North Fulton legislators (among them Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, Rep. Lynne Riley, Rep. Chuck Martin, Rep. Harry Geisinger, Rep. Wendell Willard, Sen. Brandon Beach and Sen. John Albers) are not content to stop there. With their majority, these 17 state legislators have seen fit to cast their rods into more ponds to “reconstruct” Fulton County in their own image.
After years of what many see as Atlanta-centric rule, they want to revamp county government. They have submitted bills to reduce county spending by reducing its budget through a doubling of the homestead exemption from $30,000 to $60,000, which will take $48 million off the county’s revenue. A second bill has been proposed that will limit Fulton’s ability to raise the millage rate.
If passed by a majority of Fulton voters, the second bill will require a super majority of four votes on the BOC to raise the millage rate.
On the surface, that seems to be a way to rein in county spending that has been questionable by the lights of many in North Fulton. But more on that later.
These 17 legislators are also using the power of the delegation to wade in other patches. For Milton and Johns Creek, it is critical. After five years as new cities, Johns Creek and Milton had written into their charters to create charter commissions to look at the rules governing their new cityhood to make recommendations for changes now that they had some experience.
Chief among these is the right to change the oppressive wording of their charters concerning a millage cap put on the cities. They cannot raise the millage rate without a referendum passed by the majority of registered voters.
Every other city in Georgia needs only a majority of the votes cast in a referendum to float a bond for improvements or to meet such other needs as the city councils deem fit to put before the residents.
Requiring a majority of registered voters to cast ballots in any election or referendum is so remote as to be an impossibility. The charter commissions of both cities, supported by their city councils, want their hands untied and to be given the same playing field as other cities.
Normally, county legislative delegations act as a conduit to bring such changes to the charter to the General Assembly for legal changes. That has not been the case in North Fulton. Heady with their newfound powers, these legislators, some of whom do not even live in Fulton County, are ignoring the hard work of the charter committees.
State Rep. Lynne Riley, who chairs the delegation, recently told the Johns Creek Community Association that the seven delegates who must approve the charter changes for that city have not reached “consensus” to make the changes to allow a simple majority of voters to decide such issues as a tax increase for a bond referendum.
What they are saying is the citizens of this new city are not competent to make their own decisions.
Milton faced the same problems over its proposed charter changes, but city leaders say theirs have been ironed out. That’s all to the good for Milton. But now it may well be Johns Creek is the only city in Georgia that cannot levy the taxes its voters say are necessary for its needs.
That is nothing short of fantastic. That is far beyond the pale of the role of a county legislative delegation. What they are saying is just one vote by a legislator can negate months of study and work by the delegations. Now remember, these delegations have spent long hours studying the various needs of their city and held public meetings to gauge the sense of the community.
And note also, these legislators do not hold public hearings on these questions and manage all of their affairs by secret vote with no public oversight and no transparency of process. Indeed, all of their work is done behind closed doors in a star chamber in which no one is allowed to know their reasoning.
The delegation also has moved to intrude on the Fulton Board of Education. They were proposing at one time to make BOE elections partisan. BOE members asked why? What would it serve to hold two elections, a primary and then a general election? Does the administration of Fulton County schools require a party test?
We have perhaps the best school system for its size in the state. Test scores routinely are tops in the state and often surpass nationwide averages. Yet the delegates want to poach in that field as well. The legislators have apparently back off of this idea, but it shows their readiness to poke into every legislative body in the county.
Look at the Fulton budget restrictions they seek to impose. Fulton County has not imposed a tax increase since 1991. Rather, it has cut taxes several times over the intervening years.
Also, the unintended consequences of their meddling should be considered. They may be able to cut the budget, but it will still be up to the Fulton County Commission to allocate spending. We are building three new libraries in North Fulton, part of a countywide referendum (that word again) to revamp the Atlanta Fulton Library System. But what good are the new libraries if they are only open three days a week?
And if and when the millage rate is raised at some point in the future, it will fall more heavily in North Fulton. Why? Because the doubling of the homestead exemption means all homes valued at $150,000 or less will pay no property taxes. The average home in North Fulton is well above that.
This is a power grab that was never intended for legislators. If this interference continues – and space does not allow mention of all the bills they are considering – we are trading control by constitutionally elected officers to their respective jobs for the rule of a group that acts as if they oversight over all elected offices in the county.
Cities should be telling them how they want their charters amended. But the legislators have it the other way around.
Much of what the legislative delegation says it wants to accomplish was set in motion with the redistricting of the county. They should give that redistricting time to work its own magic. But power is a heady tonic, and I fear they have drunk too deeply from the cup.