2015 Legislative Session

The Sixth Week. Collapsing Bridges (Likely), Coastal Marshland Protection (Sort of), and Plastic Bag Bans (Coming Soon!)

A slightly altered version of the Transportation Funding Act of 2015 (TFA) moved closer to reaching a full vote in the House, two new cities were officially proposed, a buffer protection for coastal marshlands progressed, and the debate over plastic bag bans finally reached Georgia in the latest week at the Georgia Assembly.

This the sixth installment of a weekly segment looking at the bills being introduced in the Georgia Assembly that involve land use, environmental, and transportation issues. Please see the 2015 Legislative Session page for ongoing coverage.

Let’s start with transportation. I didn’t plan on mentioning anything about the TFA this week since it hasn’t officially left the House Transportation Committee and is still being re-written and re-worked, but John Oliver’s infrastructure piece from this past Sunday’s Last Week Tonight made me reconsider. For anyone who hasn’t seen the piece, it’s a must watch (note: the embedded video below won’t appear in email versions). We should all really be ashamed of the state of infrastructure in this country. Our highways, bridges, and dams are literally on the brink of collapse.

In one segment of the piece, it’s pointed out that a bridge in Philadelphia almost certainly would’ve collapsed in short time had it not been for some contractors who just happened to notice giant cracks in the support beams on their way to lunch. Over 70,000 bridges are classified as being “structurally deficient.” Alabama has over 2000 dams and zero dam inspectors. Examples of this neglect can be found across the country.

Georgia has 835 bridges that are considered “structurally deficient,” with most, unsurprisingly, being in metro Atlanta. The term “structurally deficient” officially means that one or more of the critical components is considered to be in poor or worse condition. The John Oliver piece shows former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, when asked if this means the bridges are dangerous, saying “…I don’t want to say they’re unsafe, but they’re dangerous.” Repairing the deficient bridges in Georgia would cost almost $15 billion.

The main culprit, at least nationally, is the unwillingness to raise the federal gas tax to replenish the Highway Trust Fund. This tax is currently 18 cents per gallon and it hasn’t been raised since 1993. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates it will take about $3.6 trillion to upgrade the nations infrastructure to an acceptable level by 2020.

Everyone is to blame for the lack of funding. Democrats have resisted raising the tax and Republicans have resisted finding any new funding sources. What’s it going to take to change this? Obviously shame isn’t a factor. The idea that we’re slowly becoming the Soviet Union in terms of infrastructure should be embarrassing, but clearly it isn’t for many. Is another major bridge going to have to collapse or is an entire dam going to have to collapse that kills tens of thousands of people? Sadly, the former didn’t have any impact and the latter probably won’t either.

Here in Georgia, the TFA is our plan to raise the state gas tax to provide the money to maintain our infrastructure and make slight progress; though it’s still debatable as to whether this slight tax increase (26 cents per gallon to 29 cents per gallon), which would put us on par with the average state gas tax, is enough to support our infrastructure. Polls show most Georgians support a tax increase to pay for these obvious needs, we still have many influential people who seem to think we can continue to pay very little and expect to magically see our problems disappear. After years and decades of resisting even the slightest of tax increases locally and nationally, it’s clear that we’re in a deep hole. Though the TFA isn’t perfect, it provides needed sensibility in its raising of the gas tax.

SB:101: Amend the Soil and Erosion Act to Provide for a 25-foot Buffer Along Coastal Marshlands

This bill officially passed the Senate by a vote of 46-4. If approved it would prohibit the developing of land within 25 feet of coastal marshlands. On it’s face it appears to be a strong environmental law, but the exceptions practically swallow the rule.  The bill allows, as an exception, the building of drainage and retaining walls within 25 feet. Many see this exception as undermining the entire point of protecting the marshlands since it basically allows development within 25 feet so long as a retention wall is built. Not only do retainer structures and drainage walls prevent marshlands from naturally filtering out pollutants, they’re also an eyesore. Instead of looking out to beautiful scenes, we’ll now look out to cement walls.

Coastal Marshlands. The King and Prince Resort on St. Simons Island is using this image to promote visiting. Ruining this environment would obviously be bad for business. blog.kingandprince.com

Coastal Marshlands. The King and Prince Resort on St. Simons Island is using this image to promote visiting. Ruining this environment would obviously be bad for business.

The impetus for this bill was a decision by the Environmental Protection Division of the Department of Natural Resources to no longer enforce a 25-foot buffer along coastal marshlands due to confusion in the law. This bill officially recognizes a “coastal marshland” in terms of Georgia’s Coastal Marshlands Protection  Act (CMPA) ending the confusion. This is an important protection since the CMPA really provides very little protection beyond allowing a committee to promulgate rules governing the issuance of permits to develop coastal marshlands. However, writing in a bunch of exceptions to a buffer rule to make sure that developers are only slightly burdened does very little to help preserve our beneficial and beautiful coastline. The beauty is, after all, the reason why people want to develop in these areas.

SB-139: Prohibit Local Governments from Banning Plastic Bags

Now this bill doesn’t literally read as a prohibition on the banning of plastic bags; it simply vests that power in the state government. It passed the Senate by a vote of 32-19 and now heads to the House. This legislation doesn’t really apply in the context of land use, but since we’re following environmental legislation and we just touched on some coastal issues this seems like a good bill to discuss.

There’s so much wrapped up in this bill. Beyond the basic issue of whether or not plastic bags should be banned is the issue of paternalism in governance. State legislators felt the need to step in and make sure local governments, through the local democratic process, don’t do anything that’s not in accordance with their ideals. Of course it’s not publicly framed that way; the bill was introduced to protect local businesses from the burden of having to use something other than plastic bags.

Would this make you want to visit Tybee? Many coastal communities have banned plastic bags because such pollution isn't just bad for the environment, it's bad for business. coastalcare.org

Would this make you want to visit Tybee? Many coastal communities have banned plastic bags because such pollution isn’t just bad for the environment, it’s bad for business.

So what then is the role of local governance? If the local political process allows for plastic bags to be banned, why should the state legislature intervene? The legislature is usurping the will of citizens at a local level. It doesn’t need to protect businesses; the local political process is capable of acting in such a manner. This is just another example of certain politicians, from both parties, being hypocritical about issues. They promote the ability for communities to decide their own rules, but then undermine that when the communities decide to do something the politicians don’t like ideologically.

This is an issue at the state level because Tybee Island is currently debating such a ban. Some business owners believe the ban on plastic bags will hurt business by driving away customers while other business owners who directly derive their business from the beauty and integrity of the island support the ban. Ultimately, every business on the island exists because of the beauty of the area. Few people would live or visit if the island succumbed to severe environmental degradation.

Plastic bag bans are becoming quite common and can be found across the country. The entire state of California has banned plastic bags, but similar bans can also be found in more conservative states such as Iowa, Alaska, and Texas. They haven’t ruined the economies of communities. Accordingly, the state legislature seems to be unreasonably afraid of such bans.

The argument that banning plastic bags may drive away customers doesn’t seem all that well founded, particularly on an island. It’s unlikely that visitors of Tybee are going to forgo shopping at the local souvenir shops because the business will only provide them with paper bags. It’s also unlikely that someone will forgo shopping at the only grocery store on the island and instead drive 10 miles to the nearest Kroger because of plastic bags. The main reason people shop at the local grocery store is because of convenience.

Tybee Island should be voting on the ordinance within the next few months, so we’ll keep you posted.

Cities Count

The last item on the agenda is the new, improved (a.k.a. expanded), and eliminated cities count. This week features the addition of two new cities! Though bills were introduced to provide charters for new cities, they still have to be approved by referendum should they pass both houses and be signed by the Governor.

New Cities: 3. City of South Fulton, City of Tucker, City of LaVista Hills 

Improved: 2. City of Atlanta, City of Kennesaw

Eliminated: 1. City of Payne

Proposed Cities of LaVista and Tucker wabe.org

Proposed Cities of LaVista and Tucker

Last week we talked about how the proliferation of new cities is only going to make cooperation in this region worse. Many others have also addressed this inevitability. Nevertheless, last week saw the introduction of two new city charters. The new cities are Tucker and LaVista Hills. Both bills were introduced on Monday and both are currently in the Governmental Affairs Committee. Those are also the only updates. The other bills have not made any additional progress. So far the only one of these bills to pass either the House or Senate is the expansion of Kennesaw.

Other Bills Being Tracked

Note: Click on the bill number for a background discussion of each bill. 

HB-57: Financing of Solar Energy. Still waiting on the Senate to take up the bill after passing the House.

HB-4: Transfer of Water into the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District. This bill is currently in its second read in the Natural Resources and Environment Committee.

HB-11: Preventing the Boundaries of New Cities from Creating Islands of Unincorporated Areas. This bill is currently in its second read in the Governmental Affairs Committee.

HB-21: Abolish a Population Requirement for the Creation of the Transit Systems. This bill is currently in its second read in the Transportation Committee.

HB-116 and SB-36: Prevent the Pumping of Groundwater into the Floridan Aquifer. Both bills are currently in the Transportation Committee of the their respective branches.

SB-63: Allow Brewpubs and Breweries to Sell Beer On-premises and To-go. This bill is currently assigned to the Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee.

SB-101: Creation of a 25-foot Buffer Along Marshlands. This bill passed the House by a vote of 46-4.

HB-174: Urban Redevelopment Law. This bill is currently in its second read in the Transportation Committee.

SB-139: Prohibit the Banning of Plastic Bags. This bill passed the Senate by a vote of 32-19.

HB-360: Support Required for City Annexation. This bill is currently in its second read in the Governmental Affairs Committee.

HB-318: Membership in Regional Commissions is Optional. This bill is currently in its second read in the Governmental Affairs Committee.

Please see the 2015 Legislative Session page for ongoing coverage of the legislative session.

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