When I first started writing about politics, my conservative friends would preach the gospel of “local control.” They believed local governments did a better job of running things because local officeholders were closer to the people who elected them.
In many instances, it made a lot of sense. The people serving on school boards, city councils and county commissions lived in the areas they governed and usually had a better feel for the problems confronting them.
We heard that “local control” philosophy during the 2002 governor’s race when Sonny Perdue upset incumbent Roy Barnes.
Barnes had signed an education reform law that required local schools and teachers to meet stricter accountability standards. Perdue criticized Barnes for enacting a law that moved so much control of local school matters to the state level.
“Schools should be run from the principal’s office, not the governor’s office,” Perdue would say.
As is often the case in politics, some of the people talking so loudly about the concept of local control didn’t really mean it. Within four years of becoming governor, Perdue championed a new law that imposed quite a bit of state control over the administration of local schools: It required school boards to spend at least 65 percent of their budgets on what the state defined as “classroom expenditures.”
Perdue’s “65 percent law” was the ultimate in micromanagement because it imposed centralized control over the money spent by local systems.
The concept of running schools from the governor’s office is still with us in Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposal to appoint a superintendent who would take over the operation of low-performing schools around the state.
Deal’s plan, if it becomes law, would result in an Atlanta-based bureaucrat making day-to-day decisions on running rural schools hundreds of miles away. Whatever happened to the idea of local control?
There are state takeovers underway of local responsibilities in other areas as well. The gun-carry bill enacted last year took away the power of city councils, school boards and county commissions to adopt regulations or ordinances that would keep firearms out of their public buildings.
If you’re a city council member and you think it’s dangerous to allow guns to be carried in a local tavern with a history of violent incidents, don’t even think about passing an ordinance to keep guns out of that establishment. The legislature has taken away that portion of your local control.
In this year’s session, lawmakers are considering bills that would prohibit local governments from enacting ordinances to ban specific breeds of dogs, such as pit bulls, that can attack livestock or small children. One of these “dangerous dog” bills was being discussed in a House committee recently, and representatives of local governments attempted to explain to committee members why this erosion of local control was a bad idea.
The bill was opposed by lobbyists from the Georgia Municipal Association and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, who said the legislation would make it impossible for their governments to deal with local public safety issues.
“What comes next?” asked Todd Edwards of ACCG. “No leash laws? No tethering laws? No laws requiring neutering and spaying? You’ve got to let the counties do their jobs.”
“It comes down to a question of who makes the decision?” said Tom Gehl of GMA. “Should it be the state legislature, or the city and county governments that actually have to deal with the problem?”
That canine bill was ultimately rejected by the House committee, but two days later the state Senate passed a similar bill and sent it over to the House, so the issue is still alive. By the end of this session, your local government may no longer have the authority to deal with the problem of vicious dogs on the loose.
Legislators are considering other bills that would prevent local governments from banning the use of plastic bags, moving monuments or statues, enforcing moratoriums on the erection of cell towers, regulating public swimming pools or passing ordinances to keep contractors from cutting utility lines.
This goes against everything I ever heard about the advantages of local control — which is obviously an idea that no longer has much appeal in today’s General Assembly.
Tom Crawford is the editor of the Georgia Report at gareport.com.