2015-03-12 / Front Page

Local leaders watching state assembly as two high-impact bills are legislated

By KIP BURKE
news editor

Wilkes County is one of many rural counties watching the state house in Atlanta this week as legislation that could dramatically affect the residents of those counties is going through the convoluted legislative process.

Last Thursday, the state House of Representatives passed HB 170, a proposed excise tax on fuel which could potentially cost Wilkes County a substantial percentage of its local sales tax revenue. Since it still has to be passed by the state senate, the final version – and the impact it will have on rural counties – is not yet known. The representatives debated for hours on the bill last week, and voted on several amendments that would have changed the amount raised for transportation projects across the state.

As written, the house bill would exempt fuel from retail sales tax thereby eliminating those revenues from various Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) provisions in all counties that have them.

In Wilkes County, the fuel portion would be lost on half of the county’s collections – LOST, SPLOST, and T-SPLOST – including those portions designated for the hospital and the middle/high school complex. The only way for the county and the school system to recoup those losses is to raise property taxes.

“I have not talked to a rural county yet that is for this bill,” Wilkes County Commission Chairman Sam Moore said at a February 19 meeting. “We would actually lose 14 percent, the way it’s written now. Every representative and every senator you talk to says there will be some changes made but the rural counties always seem to get the brunt of all these changes.”

The bill still is expected to undergo a number of changes in the weeks to come as it goes through the state senate to arrive at a final law.

A second bill that could have a dramatic effect in rural counties is Senate Bill 186, which would allow any local government entity to publish required notices or advertisements on an electronic website as opposed to local county organ print media. It would also give any local constitutional officer the authority to have its notices and advertisements included on the local government’s electronic website.

Wilkes County’s senator predicts defeat for the measure. “I’m absolutely against that bill,” Senator Bill Jackson said. “Our rural newspapers are too important, and I don’t see enough support to worry about it. If it makes it as far as the Rules Committee, we’ll see, but I’m not expecting it to pass.”

The law now requires that those legal notices, to be official, be published in the county’s publication of record, which in Wilkes County is The News-Reporter. The proposed senate bill would allow counties and cities to meet the legal requirement by publishing legal notices on a website somewhere on the internet.

But that won’t fly in Wilkes and many other rural counties. “Not everybody has a computer,” said County Administrator David Tyler, “and not everybody has access to the internet. But everybody in Wilkes County can pick up a News-Reporter and read the legal ads, and it’s been that way for a hundred years.”

In addition, publishing legal ads online would require the city and county governments to set up and maintain complicated searchable databases for those advertisements, in addition to the official websites. “It’s a lot easier for us to send it to the newspaper,” Tyler said. “Then our legal requirement is satisfied.”

The other impact that ending the publishing of legal ads in local newspapers is economic. Too many rural newspapers barely make money as it is, and the cut in that advertising revenue could end the publication of some small-town newspapers in Georgia, said Sparky Newsome, editor and publisher of The News-Reporter.

The bill would have drastic legal ramifications, too, said David Hudson, counsel for the Georgia Press Association. “Under current law, when a government agency or government official advertises in the legal organ newspaper, the newspaper is itself a permanent record of what was published and when. The newspaper also provides copies to the Clerk of Superior Court to be preserved for not less than 50 years. That record cannot be manipulated electronically, and the record exists permanently and not just for one year. All that a local government or official is required to do is place the advertisement, and the local government or official’s responsibilities are concluded.”

But under SB 186, local governments would have to spend an enormous amount of money and time to do what is already being done by the newspaper. Governments, Hudson said, “would be required to create an appropriate website, create an index, create a repository for paper copies and index that repository, and provide ongoing service of advertisements and notices by mail or email to anyone who requests to be copied.”

Opponents of SB 186 agree that a searchable database of legal advertisements could be useful, but it already exists, at no expense to rural governments. Every legal notice published in the state is electronically already accessible at no charge on GeorgiaPublicNotice.com as administered by the Georgia Press Association.

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