Hall County officials now believe some 3,700 county business license holders won't have to appear in person for 2012 renewals.
Local governments had been preparing for an influx of visitors at business license offices thanks to requirements put in place by a new state law seeking to discourage illegal immigrants from coming to Georgia.
A letter from Attorney General Sam Olens says the law is ambiguous when it comes to what precautions local governments should take to make sure no illegal immigrants are hired or receive a public benefit.
The decision was made clear in a letter Olens wrote to Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, who authored the law.
Olens wrote the letter in response to a question Ramsey asked about whether local governments could be sanctioned if they accepted a paper or electronic copy of an identifying document to assure someone's legal residency before administering a public benefit, such as a business license.
Previously, an employee of Olens' office, senior assistant attorney general Russell Willard, told a number of local government officials that the law required governments to inspect an original piece of identification that had been deemed secure and verifiable, "each time the public benefit is administered."
Members of Hall County's Board of Commissioners called the requirement an "unfunded mandate" in discussions earlier this week because the perceived implication was that all Hall County business owners would have to appear in person to renew their business licenses.
The implications were similar for local governments around the state, who faced the fear of penalty under a review board created under the law, which has been appointed to review complaints on local governments' enforcement of the law.
But in a letter to Ramsey this week, Olens said local governments could not be penalized for accepting copies of documents to ensure someone's legal residency.
The letter also seemed to hint at a future review of the bill to ensure its clarity.
The conflicting sections of the bill that seem to both allow someone to submit a copy of an approved document and forbid governments from accepting those documents "leads to the conclusion that the sections read together are ambiguous," Olens wrote.
Because the law is ambiguous, a local government that accepts copies of government-issued identification cannot be sanctioned for not following the law's requirement, Olens wrote.
"...Unless and until the statute is revised or a court construes the provisions as disallowing electronic transmittal, I do not believe it would be appropriate to prosecute an enforcement action against any person for accepting... electronically transmitted copies of secure and verifiable documents when such person acts in good faith and complies with (the bill) in accepting ... such documents," Olens wrote.
Hall County Attorney Bill Blalock told county commissioners Thursday that he hoped the law would be clarified in the coming legislative session.
"Right now, the options are basically with the county or municipality," said Blalock. "We do expect to hear more from this next (session of) the legislature."
The governor's office declined comment Thursday on whether Gov. Nathan Deal would set as a 2012 legislative priority a clarification of the bill's requirements.
"That'll be something for the General Assembly to handle, which presumably is why (Olens) sent (the letter) to a legislator," said Deal's chief spokesman Brian Robinson in an email.