When Republicans in the General Assembly redrew district lines in 2011 to give themselves majority control over local legislation in Fulton County, they made no secret of their intent to rein in a county government they believed was bloated, profligate, and unresponsive to the residents of its northern end—while brushing aside the racially fraught image of white politicians disciplining black elected officials.
Just how they planned to carry out this mission was unclear even a few weeks ago. When I talked to North Fulton House members last month, they were still tossing around proposals that ranged from the incremental—giving the Fulton Commission chairman more power over his board—to the all-encompassing—mandating what services the county could and could not provide to taxpayers.
But in the past few weeks, House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones of Milton and her GOP colleagues in the General Assembly have laid their cards on the table with 10 bills (so far) that, if enacted, would serve to put Georgia’s largest county under what I’m calling “legislative receivership” because they’d strip away important chunks of the county’s ability to self-govern.
I’ve had to resort to crafting terminology, because there really is no precedent for this kind of power grab from an elected local government by state lawmakers.
Here’s a brief run-down of what the various measures would do:
- Double Fulton’s homestead exemption over two years, a move that would…
- cost the county an estimated $48 million annually in tax revenue…
- …while prohibiting the county for two years from raising its millage rate to make up for the loss in property taxes
- Require any tax hike (after those two years) to be approved by a supermajority of five commissioners
- Restrict all new county employees from joining Fulton’s merit pay system
- Take away the Fulton Commission’s power to appoint the chairman of the county elections board and give it to state lawmakers
- Take away the Commission’s power to appoint MARTA board members,turning appointments over to local mayors and state lawmakers
- Increase Fulton Superior Court judge paychecks by nearly $50,000,costing the county an estimated $1.3 million a year
All of this is in addition to redrawing Commission districts to place South Fulton Commissioners Emma Darnell and Bill Edwards in the same district. The new map also would significantly increase North Fulton voting strength by enlarging the footprint of the southern districts, a move that, while arguably justifiable due to population growth on the county’s top end, has added to the perception that a cabal of white lawmakers is trying to usurp the authority of elected black officials. It has become difficult to overlook the racial overtones of the lawmakers’ efforts.
State Rep. Margaret Kaiser, D-Atlanta, who sponsored Fulton’s previous homestead exemption increase in 2008, says she opposes Jones’ bill to raise the county exemption (No. 1 on the list above) because it’s clearly intended to force the county to slash spending by starving it of revenue. “I’m supportive of a healthy homestead exemption, but the issue has become very racially polarized because it’s being pushed by a group of all-white, all-Republican lawmakers,” Kaiser says.
There’s no doubt that Jones, Ed Lindsey, Lynne Riley and other GOP members of the Fulton state House delegation believe that Fulton’s majority-black Commission has been irresponsible in not further downsizing the budget after much of the county was incorporated into new cities such as Milton and Johns Creek, which picked up the tab for some municipal services
Both Fulton and Gwinnett counties have faced recessionary budget shortfalls; Fulton responded by borrowing from its reserve, while Gwinnett’s all-white commission took the un-Republican approach of raising taxes. And, when it comes to questionable Commission behavior, Gwinnett wins: the county has in recent years seen one commissioner sent to prison for taking bribes, another indicted on unrelated bribery charges, and a third, the commission chairman at the time, resign in order to avoid indictment for perjury. Yet no one at the Capitol has proposed stripping Gwinnett County of its governmental autonomy. It’s difficult to imagine white Republicans doing that to fellow white Republicans, not matter how corrupt or incompetent.
For years, residents of Sandy Springs and other areas north of the Chattahoochee complained, with some evidence, that the Fulton County Commission didn’t represent their interests in such matters as zoning and road maintenance. But in their willingness to take away the county’s authority to appoint members to its own election board and the governing board of the transit organization it predominantly funds, North Fulton lawmakers have shown they have little problem with taxation without representation, per se. Heck, they had to give slivers of the county to six out-of-Fulton GOP lawmakers from as far away as Canton simply to eke out a 13-12 Republican majority on the county’s House delegation.
While many Georgia Republicans remain seemingly tone-deaf on matters involving race, the notion of a handful of state lawmakers telling an otherwise solvent and sovereign county government that it can’t decide for itself whether to raise taxes or how to classify its own employees has apparently had a chilling effect on some of the GOP rank-and-file.
Most of the bills affecting Fulton can be approved simply by a majority of the local delegation, but homestead bills require at least 120 votes in the entire chamber. Jones, the second-most powerful House official, has placed her House Bill 170 on the calendar twice already but declined to call it up for a vote, presumably because some of her fellow caucus members have peeled off, wary of a bill that flies in the face of the beloved conservative principle of home rule.
In the end, if Fulton’s legislative receivership is rejected, it may not be out of concern for racial sensitivity and certainly not partisan fair play, but perhaps out of the realization that even Gold Dome micromanagement should have its limits.