Bill to block locals from banning fuel sources in Georgia passes state House

A bill to limit how local governments in Georgia can impose what energy sources their businesses, houses and other buildings can use passed out of the state House of Representatives on Monday.

Sponsored by state Rep. Bruce Williamson, R-Monroe, the bill would block city and county governments from prohibiting service connections to local houses and businesses “based upon the type or source of energy or fuel to be delivered.”

Williamson cast his local-ban bill as a measure to give communities more choice in whether to burn natural gas or alternative fuels, rather than letting city and county governments limit options.

“Now’s not the time to take away consumers’ choice,” Williamson said from the House floor on Monday. “Nothing precludes local governments from incentivizing your citizens toward the energy policies you deem best for your citizenry.”

Environmentalists and local-control proponents argue the bill would trample on the governing powers of city and state officials and create hurdles for communities to build their own defenses against the predicted harms of climate change.

“We cannot stop technology today based on a hypothetical,” said state Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates. “This is a bad bill and it sets a bad precedent.”

No cities in Georgia have enacted any policies yet to restrict energy sources, Williamson noted. Atlanta, Augusta, Athens, Savannah and Clarkston have passed resolutions setting long-term goals of converting their buildings to 100% clean energy.

“What we don’t want to do is be hampered in this effort,” Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz said after Monday’s vote. “For the General Assembly to take a potential tool out of the hands of local government flies in the face of local control.”

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson said the bill didn’t even originate with the Georgia legislature but from out of state.

“This is a bill from the gas industry serving a very limited special interest … an attempt to preempt local government,” he said. “We deserve the right to make decisions we deem are in our own best interest.”

The bill’s supporters say restrictions on local decisions could stave off economic hardships for residents and businesses like restaurants that rely on natural gas, which they argue contributes less to carbon emissions than sources like oil and coal.

“I’m not even sure that the Waffle House would even exist if we didn’t pass this bill,” said state Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton. “We’re all for local control until locals get out of control.”

State Rep. Don Parsons, R-Marietta, pointed to electrical grid failures that have affected millions of people in Texas during recent winter storms as what could happen if cities and counties move to disrupt the kind of energy sources being used to fuel local power plants.

“To treat the public fairly on providing electricity is not through allowing the cities to set portfolios [but] allowing the people to do that,” Parsons said on Monday. “I fear that what these cities want to do would unbalance the grid so badly that we would have chaos without bad weather.”

Critics highlighted how local officials from Atlanta, Savannah and Athens have opposed the bill, arguing that natural gas is still a heavy contributor to greenhouse gases that scientists overwhelmingly agree is driving global climate change and rising sea levels.

“From wildfires to record temperatures to storms to flooding, we’re already seeing the impacts of climate change,” said state Rep. David Dreyer, D-Atlanta. “If a local government wants to be innovative 15 years from now when renewables are affordable, reliable and readily accessible, we are prohibiting them from doing that.”

The bill passed by a 103-62 vote largely along party lines, with some Democrats voting in favor. It now heads to the Georgia Senate.

This story has been updated to include additional quotes from Athens’ and Savannah’s mayors, as well as state Rep. Don Parsons of Marietta.

Georgia set to distribute COVID-19 rental relief

ATLANTA – The state will distribute more than $552 million in federal coronavirus relief aid to landlords and tenants affected by the pandemic, Gov. Brian Kemp announced Friday.

Gov. Brian Kemp

“The effects of COVID-19 have hit many Georgians hard financially,” Kemp said in a prepared statement. “In addition to protecting lives, we have to protect livelihoods so that Georgians can continue to have economic opportunity. I am pleased to be able to provide this rental relief to renters and landlords who have been impacted the most.”

The state Department of Community Affairs will administer the program under U.S. Treasury guidelines that are still being developed. The money will go directly to landlords and utilities.

In general, households that qualify for unemployment benefits or have suffered a reduction in household income or other financial hardship due to the pandemic will be eligible for assistance.

Those at risk of homelessness or housing instability also will qualify for the program.

Georgians with household incomes at or below 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI) will be eligible, while those below 50% of AMI will be given priority, as will people who have been unemployed for 90 days or longer.

Payments generally may not exceed 12 months, but some households may qualify for 15 months under certain circumstances.

The agency expects to launch a public application portal to the program next month. For more information on the program, click on GeorgiaRentalAssistance.ga.gov.

A federal eviction moratorium now in place has been extended until March 31. As a result, no one should be evicted solely for non-payment of rent at least until that date.

Street racing in Georgia targeted in crackdown General Assembly bill

Illegal street racing in Georgia faces toughened penalties and repeat offenders could have their cars confiscated under legislation pushed by Gov. Brian Kemp.

The measure would criminalize anyone in Georgia who organizes, promotes or participates in street racing, also called drag racing. City and state officials in Atlanta have long complained of rampant street races in the city and are seeking to crack down.

“Our streets, highways and parking lots have become a free-for-all speedway for criminals,” Kemp said at a news conference Friday to unveil the bill.

It aims to “toughen penalties for offenders, hold those who promote these activities accountable and keep our streets safe through modernizing our code to include these popular activities that put Georgians in harm’s way,” Kemp said.

Under the bill, speedsters would have their driver’s licenses suspended for at least a year depending on how many times they have been caught racing. They would also be slapped with fines ranging from $750 to $5,000, as well as face possible prison time.

Anyone convicted of street racing more than once within a 10-year period would have their vehicle confiscated or be forced to transfer the auto title to another family member if it is a transportation mode a family depends on to avoid financial ruin.

State Rep. Josh Bonner, R-Fayetteville, who is one of Kemp’s floor leaders, is sponsoring the bill. It has a good chance of passing due to the governor’s backing and since it is similar to a separate measure aimed at punishing street racing brought by Democratic state Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur.

Kemp framed the street-racing bill as another piece of his criminal justice policies that include crackdowns on gangs and human trafficking. His administration has secured legislation and funding for police to hunt gangs and traffickers since Kemp took office in 2019.

“This legislation will help us build on that commitment,” the governor said.

In-state college tuition for undocumented Georgians proposal sparks debate

Georgia lawmakers have revived debate on a measure to let undocumented students pay in-state tuition for Georgia public colleges and universities that stalled in the General Assembly last year.

A bill sponsored by state Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton, would extend the lower-cost tuition rates to thousands of undocumented Georgians protected from deportation under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

It would cover DACA recipients who have lived continuously in Georgia since 2013 and are younger than 30, or about 9,000 potential students who would be newly eligible for in-state tuition, Carpenter said Friday at a Georgia House Higher Education Committee hearing.

State law currently bars many non-citizen residents like DACA recipients from qualifying for in-state college tuition, which tends to be much lower than what students arriving from outside Georgia pay.

Carpenter estimated it costs Georgia college students from $11,000 a year to pay for classes as opposed to $5,000 a year for in-state tuition. There were more than 20,000 DACA recipients in Georgia as of September 2020, according to the nonprofit Migration Policy Institute.

The bill would not allow in-state tuition to attend Georgia’s research schools including the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia State University and Augusta University.

Extending the lower rate to DACA recipients would bolster Georgia’s workforce with better-educated and higher-skilled workers who consider the state their home, Carpenter said.

“This is about taking care of the children that have been here the whole time,” Carpenter said. “These are Georgians who by no fault of their own were brought here, and this is a solution.”

The committee did not vote on the bill at Friday’s hearing. Carpenter brought the bill again this legislative session after the same committee shelved it last March.

Extending in-state tuition would benefit Georgia DACA recipients like Christian Olvera, a 29-year-old Dalton resident whose family migrated from Mexico. He said his tuition to attend classes at Dalton State College is three times more than what in-state students pay.

“We’re not looking for any handouts or anything less-of-cost than the standard rate,” Olvera told committee members. “We have ticked all of the boxes to be American citizens, yet we are not considered as such on paper.”

Some speakers worried the bill would “open the floodgates” for a flow of illegal immigrants into Georgia, arguing its passage would attract more undocumented persons and take college spots away from U.S. citizen students from other states.

“Somebody has to stand up and say, ‘This is the line,’ ” said D.A. King, founder of the immigration-focused group Dustin Inman Society. “We are going to give our best treatment to American citizens and people who obey the law to join the American family.”

State Sen. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, who chairs the committee considering Carpenter’s bill, did not indicate whether he would call the measure for a vote but said he is “tired” of DACA recipients “being weaponized by both political parties.”

“This should not be a partisan thing,” Martin said. “We should find a way to do things that are good for individuals, that are good for the state taxpayer, that are good for the university and technical college system.”

Georgia water future on the line in U.S. Supreme Court case

Lake Lanier

ATLANTA – How much water metro Atlanta will be allowed to pull from the Chattahoochee River for decades to come and how much Southwest Georgia can pump from farm irrigation wells will be at stake Monday.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a lawsuit the state of Florida filed in 2013 demanding the justices order Georgia to use less water. It’s just the latest episode in the so-called “tri-state water wars,” a legal battle over water allocation between Florida, Georgia and Alabama that has dragged on for nearly three decades.

The suit claims Georgia is taking so much water out of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin to meet the needs of fast-growing metro Atlanta and irrigate crops in the lower Flint that Florida isn’t left with enough freshwater for its once-thriving oyster industry Apalachicola Bay.

Georgia’s lawyers counter that the cap on water consumption Florida is seeking would cripple the metro region’s economy by halting growth and devastate farmers.

Georgia appears to have the advantage going into Monday’s hearing, said Chris Manganiello, water policy director for the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. A special master the Supreme Court appointed to hear the dispute recommended in late 2019 that the court dismiss Florida’s case.

“Special Master [Paul] Kelly was pretty clear: Florida failed to make a compelling argument that Georgia was using too much water or that any harm to Florida’s fisheries could be traced to Georgia,” Manganiello said.

But Gil Rogers, director of the Georgia and Alabama offices of the Southern Environmental Law Center, is less certain. He pointed to the court’s decision in 2018 to assign the case to Special Master Kelly after an earlier special master already had sided with Georgia. That 5-4 ruling followed oral arguments held earlier in 2018.

“It’s a little hard to use [Kelly’s] recommendation as a predictor, particularly since the Supreme Court has ordered oral arguments again,” Rogers said.

Rogers said the court’s different makeup adds to the uncertainty. Two new justices – Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett – have joined the court since it last weighed in on the case.

Another key change since the last time the Supreme Court heard the lawsuit is an agreement Georgia signed with the U.S. Army Court of Engineers last month that for the first time authorizes the use of Lake Lanier as a water supply. While the federally managed reservoir has been supplying water for decades, its use for that purpose has been among the legal issues contested during the water wars.

Since the $70 million contract runs through 2050, metro Atlanta water policy planners and regional business leaders are celebrating it as safeguarding a water supply that has been under threat from the Florida lawsuit and others

“This contract will help secure our region’s long-range future by ensuring access to water from Lake Lanier to responsibly support long-term growth while protecting this vital natural resource,” Katherine Zitsch, managing director of natural resources for the Atlanta Regional Commission, said in a prepared statement.

While a Florida victory in the current lawsuit theoretically could render moot the new contract between Georgia and the Army Corps, Rogers doesn’t see it as a threat to the agreement.

“The Supreme Court, if it makes a substantive ruling on water allocation, is likely to stop short of directing how that would happen,” he said. “I don’t think the Supreme Court would throw out the contract.”

Water conservation a key legal argument

Metro Atlanta’s ability to grow its population while reining in water consumption has been one of Georgia’s major arguments in defending against Florida’s lawsuit.

Since 2000, total water use in the region has dropped by more than 10%, even as the population has increased by more than 1.3 million.

“Given our region’s excellent record on water conservation through the years, I am confident that our communities will make wise use of this essential resource going forward,” added Katie Kirkpatrick, president and CEO of the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

In fact, metro Atlanta’s water conservation efforts have been so successful that Florida’s lawyers for the last couple of years have focused more on the amount of water farmers in the lower Flint use to irrigate their crops.

But Gordon Rogers, executive director of Albany-based Flint Riverkeeper, said farmers also have made great progress reducing their water consumption.

For one thing, an initiative to install meters on all irrigation wells measuring how much water they use has been completed, he said.

Also, when Hurricane Michael tore through Southwest Georgia in 2018, it forced farmers to replace a lot of their old infrastructure with more modern equipment that uses less water, Rogers said.

Georgia’s lawyers also have cited the state’s long-running moratorium on new well permits in 23 counties drawing from either surface or groundwater in the lower Flint as evidence of a good-faith effort to save water.

“People can’t get permits for the Floridan aquifer or a creek,” Rogers said. “I’m enough of a constitutionalist to say that’s a usurpation of property rights … It’s not a solution. It’s a defense in court.”

Gil Rogers said no matter which state wins the current case, the tri-state water wars will continue. Alabama is still a party to the dispute, specifically through its appeal of the 2017 decision by the Army Corps of Engineers that led to last month’s agreement with Georgia over Lake Lanier.

Ultimately, the solution lies outside the courtroom in cooperative water management among the states, Rogers said.

“Until the states agree on some kind of commission or authority to look after the health of the system, we’ll have ongoing litigation,” he said. “[But] it will be interesting to see how this decision changes the dynamic among the three states.”