40 days of Georgia legislature begin and Atlanta's got a wish list

By Maggie Lee

The Georgia Legislature starts its annual session this week with a new governor and a lot of new members. The city of Atlanta wants a couple of adjustments to state law, but that’s not all of interest to the city and its residents.

First the scene: Georgia’s legislature is still majority-Republican, and so are all the statewide elected officers. But little of that GOP support came from the city of Atlanta or the inner suburbs.  Atlanta and parts of the inner suburbs are dealing with growing pains, but a major theme of state elections last year were the troubles of rural Georgia. If Atlanta and Georgia come to points of agreement, it’ll probably on modest issues or on economic development, not much of anything with strong partisan baggage.

So, start with the city of Atlanta’s official wish list, aka its legislative agenda. It was drawn up in Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ office and Atlanta City Council unanimously approved it late last year.

A map of Georgia on a Downtown building, with Atlanta City Hall in background. File/Credit: Maggie Lee

A map of Georgia on a Downtown building, with Atlanta City Hall in background. File/Credit: Maggie Lee

Under “affordable housing,” the city wants to be able to waive some impact fees for projects that provide affordable housing without having to find city money outside of the city’s impact fee fund to make up for that waiver. It also wants homeowners who are on land owned by community land trusts to be able to receive homestead exemptions.

Both moves are meant to make affordable housing cheaper to develop or own.

And both may be seen as modest steps by some, given that Atlanta’s a city where some people are talking about rent control. (That’s something that’s now forbidden to cities by the state.)

But rent control is probably a dead end in the state Legislature now, Democrat state Rep. Pat Gardner, the chair of Atlanta’s legislative delegation, said in a pre-session interview last week.

Besides the points on the city’s official affordable housing agenda, Gardner said she’s hopeful that Atlanta can also work on a permanent higher homestead exemption.  If folks across the city can discount the tax value of their house by a higher amount, it could help longtime residents afford to stay in gentrifying neighborhoods.

Two more Atlanta items: the city wants Georgia State Patrol tickets written in the city to be sent to Atlanta municipal court for fines, not Fulton or DeKalb state courts.

And also, the city wants to be able to regulate lobbying itself — more strictly than the state regulates lobbying under the Gold Dome, that is.

Those three things aren’t the only things on the minds of Atlanta leaders. Even as Council approved this list, some members said there are other important things too. Councilmember Jennifer Ide called for defensive measures against any discriminatory “religious freedom” legislation.

So let’s go on to the next thing, religious freedom legislation, generally called “RFRAs,” for the name of the federal version, the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. These are bills that fans see as protecting their practice of religion from the impositions of the government. And critics generally see them as giving one set of people the right to discriminate against others on the grounds of religion.

The State Capitol. Credit: Kelly Jordan

The State Capitol. Credit: Kelly Jordan

And they’ve become a very highly charged issue. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a RFRA in 2016, saying he was not disparaging the motives of the bill’s supporters, but he found there was a chance it could lead to state-sanctioned discrimination.

State House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, he’s not sure there’s state House support for a RFRA.

He said his concern is that it’s an issue that has the potential to divide the state. 

“I would would just ask us to pause before we get into an issue that has the potential to tear the fabric of the state,” Ralston said at a pre-session press conference last week.

But new Gov. Brian Kemp and new Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan are interested. Both have said they want to pass a RFRA that mirrors the language of the federal law.

Also of great interest to official Atlanta — and Delta Airlines, by the way — is an idea out of the state Senate for some kind of state takeover or oversight of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

In a series of hearings this summer and fall, a panel of state Senators heard from invited guests who talked about corruption at the airport in the 1990s and more recently.

And state Senators also heard from the new airport director, who said it can be more difficult to run an airport overseen by an authority than by one boss, a city.  And they heard from the city’s new procurement director, who spoke up for the city’s process.

But it’s not all about corruption: fact that some folks want a second major commercial airport in Georgia. Atlanta hasn’t been on board with that idea. (Heck, once upon a time, there was an idea involving a second airport and a maglev train.)

In the end, the report from the Senate study committee recommended an “authority management structure” for the airport. That is, run it like Georgia’s ports and the World Congress Center: set up a state agency to run it, with a board appointed probably by the governor and legislative leaders.

State House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said that he's not sold on the idea of a state takeover of Atlanta's airport. He was speaking at a state Capitol press conference on Thursday. Credit: Maggie Lee

State House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said that he’s not sold on the idea of a state takeover of Atlanta’s airport. He was speaking at a state Capitol press conference on Thursday. Credit: Maggie Lee

Bottoms, Council President Felicia Moore and other Atlanta leaders want the airport to stay with the city.

Gardner said that HJIA is efficient, busy, and that Bottoms has “started back at square one to do the procurement process differently.”

Gardner said the mayor is reaching out to Clayton County to address concerns there about the airport. (Background: While Atlanta owns the airport, it’s in Clayton. Yes, it’s a big employer, which is good; but it’s also big and noisy and not always seen as the best neighbor.)

Ralston said he’s not ready to embrace the idea of a state takeover of the airport.

If corruption is the concern, Ralston said, “We have law enforcement, we have prosecutors, and I say let’s turn them loose to do what they need to do. I don’t know that you change the entire system because of some bad actors.”

Duncan, in a pre-session interview last week, said applauds the work of that oversight Senate study committee and looks forward to seeing the discussion about the report.

Now last year, the state Legislature passed a big-deal bill for transit in metro Atlanta, the one creating The ATL, a metro-wide transit authority.

It’s just started work, which, for now, will kind of focus on how to coordinate service among metro Atlanta’s many transit agencies.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, pictured here in his office a few days before swearing-in, said technology and innovation have to be part of metro Atlanta's traffic fix. Credit: Maggie Lee

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, pictured here in his office a few days before swearing-in, said technology and innovation have to be part of metro Atlanta’s traffic fix. Credit: Maggie Lee

Right now, metro Atlanta’s transit agencies are mostly funded by the federal government, fares and various local taxes. The state has started kicking in some money via bonds.

To the extent that the state keeps up metro Atlanta transit funding, The ATL would work on how and where to spend that money.

But it’s not clear what the state’s appetite will be for transit spending.

Ralston said that to the extent the state can make investments in transit, he’s open to it.

Duncan said there’s not enough concrete and rebar to build metro Atlanta’s congestion away via roads. But he also pointed out that building mass transit is expensive; he said it can’t be the only solution. (Background: heavy rail costs something on the order of $250 million per mile.)

“Technology has got to be our friend and innovation has got to be our friend,” Duncan said.

He talked about several things on the horizon that are, or he thinks should be, part of the conversation: autonomous vehicles (including trucks); rideshares and various kinds of demand management, like trying to keep trucks off freeways at commuter rush hours, or staggered work hours.

Atlanta Democrat David Dreyer, who’s expected to take over as chair of the Fulton delegation this week, said that for the county, getting transit funding is a priority.

“It was nice to get that first state investment up in north Fulton [for bus lanes along Georgia 400], but we obviously need more state funding to deal with all the people that are moving in,” said Dreyer. He also he wants to see transit attention south of Interstate 20 as well.

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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