Despite an advisory opinion from the state's attorney general on how Georgia's new immigration law will affect the way local governments renew business licenses, there's a difference between what the law says and how Sam Olens interprets it, said a legal expert.
Olens earlier this month issued an opinion that local government leaders in Georgia should not be penalized for accepting copies of documents meant to prove the legal residency of a person applying for a local business license instead of requiring them to apply in person.
But Olens won't always be Georgia's attorney general, said Kevin Tallant.
"What I'm concerned about is the next attorney general," said Tallant, whose firm represents local governments in Dawson and Forsyth counties.
Speaking to members of the county's Joint Municipal Association in Clermont Monday night, Tallant said he is concerned what the language of the bill "will allow the next guy to do."
The law, penned by the state's General Assembly and signed by Gov. Nathan Deal earlier this year, requires local governments to follow parameters to ensure it does not hire or administer benefits — including issuing taxicab and business licenses — to illegal immigrants.
There is already a push for members of the General Assembly to make adjustments to the law in the next legislative session.
Until then, however, local governments have to figure out how to follow the letter of Georgia's anti-illegal immigration law without incurring hefty penalties.
Olens, as Georgia's attorney general, has taken a moderate approach to interpreting the law, speaking mostly to what he believes legislators intended by it, Tallant said.
But the actual language of the law could require much more from local governments than Olens' current interpretation, Tallant said.
Tallant admitted up-front Monday night that his interpretation of House Bill 87 would be biased toward local governments.
He told the leaders of Hall County's municipalities that the requirements of the new state law place the burden of compliance and enforcement on local governments.
"It's another huge state unfunded mandate ... they gave you plenty of stuff to do and not a penny to do it with ... " Tallant said.
"The burden falls on you guys, and if immigration reform is going to be successful in Georgia, it's going to be on you guys."
Under the law, half of Georgia's local governments will be audited each year for their compliance with a section of the law that requires them to obtain affidavits that each contractor performing work for the government — including subcontractors and their subcontractors — use the federal E-Verify system to determine the legal status of their employees.
One section of the law set to be phased in starting in January will require many businesses to check the immigration status of new hires. Tallant said it will be up to local governments to enforce that measure.
Some 20 percent of local governments will be audited each year to determine whether they are administering business licenses according to the letter of the law.
Local governments still don't know what the state's Department of Community of Affairs will require in the annual compliance reports local governments are supposed to compile under the law, Tallant said.
While House Bill 87 requires local governments to report to the state agency which benefits were administered to a person whose immigration status was not checked, the Department of Community Affairs has indicated it wants local governments to reveal the name of the person who received the benefits in question, Tallant said.
"We're still trying to figure out what it is DCA wants," Tallant said.
And those who listened to Tallant speak at Captain Billy's Steak and Seafood in Clermont Monday weren't happy at the perceived implications of the bill.
Gainesville Councilman George Wangemann wondered aloud how the members of Georgia's General Assembly expected anyone to want to run for local office with the threat of the bill's fines for noncompliance.
Some of the penalties associated with the bill can be doled out whether a local official knowingly disobeyed the rules or not, though many come with willing or conscious disregard of the rules.
"I don't get paid enough to pay these fines you're talking about," Wangemann said.
Others commented that perhaps state legislators did not or could not read the bill when they voted for it.
But Gainesville Councilwoman Myrtle Figueras disagreed.
"Many of them can read and they knew what they were doing," she said. "They chose to adopt this, because they don't care about (the impact it has on) our budgets."