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Local, state leaders reflect on legislative session
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Transportation and education dominated much of the debate and media coverage coming out of this year’s state legislative session, which ended April 2, but what about those rabid raccoons populating Hall County?

“Somebody told me the other day they saw a lady walking ... with a raccoon on a leash here in the city of Gainesville,” Mayor Danny Dunagan said during a meeting of the Joint Municipal Association on Monday night at the Civic Center.

He wasn’t joking.

Thanks to Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville, it is no longer illegal to trap, accidentally or otherwise, a raccoon in North Georgia.

Dunahoo sponsored a bill this year stripping such a prohibition from the law.

Now, “You can make it a hat, make it a pet or ... put it on the grill and barbecue it,” Dunahoo said to laughs.

But there didn’t seem to be any takers.

“I think I’ll pass on the barbecue raccoon,” Dunagan said. 

Tom Gehl, director of governmental relations for the Georgia Municipal Association, a lobbying arm for cities across the state, cautioned about eating raccoon.

“Clean feed it for at least 30 days before you finally put it on that grill,” he said, more laughs erupting throughout the room. “That’s official advice from the Georgia Municipal Association.”

But all jokes aside, there was some serious business discussed Monday, as local and state lawmakers reflected on the 2015 session of the Georgia General Assembly.

A $900 million transportation funding bill was, of course, the most heated of all pieces of legislation this year, a fact acknowledged by state representatives in attendance.

The bill imposes an excise tax of 26 cents per gallon on regular gasoline, with proceeds dedicated to funding road and bridge improvements across the state.

“The transportation bill and some other pieces of legislation got pretty contentious,” said Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville. “But we’re all in this thing together.”

Gehl said the GMA was concerned about the initial proposal, which sought to raise gasoline taxes at the expense of city and county governments, as well as local schools.

Gehl said about $500 million would have been taken from local government annually if the transportation bill had passed as first proposed.

“The good news is they found other ways to (get) the money,” he added.

Though the impact on local government is less severe, it is still “not a popular tax,” said Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, adding that the average price of gas will go up six cents a gallon beginning July 1.

“The transportation bill was probably one of the tougher things we’ve done,” Rogers said.

The news is better for local government in other regards, Gehl said, with the GMA working to secure changes that allow communities additional opportunities for urban redevelopment, for example. 

Formerly, state law required neighborhoods be declared “slums” before igniting a process for change, but that wording is now less extreme and encompasses “areas having pockets of blight,” Gehl said.

“We think that change alone will have folks use ... that process to jumpstart revitalization efforts,” he added.

Another benefit to cities is the passage of a bill that will allow municipal code enforcement officers to more easily determine the owner of a property that is in violation of maintenance standards.

Gehl said the law requires banks who foreclose on properties to file a deed making known their ownership, something that had become problematic in recent years as out-of-state banks and investors swooped in to purchase distressed homes and buildings.

Finally, Gehl said the passage of a bill allowing cities to waive distance requirements between new groceries selling alcohol and nearby schools gives municipalities more local control and is less prohibitive to businesses, as long as certain requirements are still met.