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Commissioners Ask to End Red Tape on COVID Help

State Rep. Spencer Frye (D-Athens). Credit: Anna Watkins

The Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission is asking the state legislature to revise the “gratuities clause” in the Georgia Constitution, which has hampered efforts to distribute local and federal stimulus funds during the pandemic.

The clause prevents the state or local governments from giving financial assistance directly to individuals, businesses, churches or other nonprofits. ACC officials found an end-around by creating a new authority to pass CARES Act funds through, but it still delayed distribution of the money and limited what kinds of entities could receive it.

Changing the gratuities clause will require working with the state attorney general’s office, state Rep. Spencer Frye (D-Athens) told commissioners at an online Jan. 12 work session. “There seem to be a lot of different opinions on the gratuities clause, from one extreme to the other,” he said.

Other requests include a break for low-income homeowners on their property taxes, the ability to regulate septic tanks locally, authority to use radar to enforce speed limits on side streets, letting local governments exempt groceries from local sales taxes and changing state law to hold a special election when a candidate dies. 

The last item stemmed from Commissioner Jesse Houle’s taking office by default because incumbent Jerry NeSmith died shortly before the election, despite Houle’s having received fewer votes. Houle has endorsed the change.

“I pushed hard for the homestead exemption last year, but it got hung up,” Frye said. “That shouldn’t be difficult, as it is local legislation,” meaning that it only affects Athens and will pass as a courtesy if all five of the county’s legislators support it.

The commission has requested more authority to catch speeding drivers before, but it’s always been held up by rural legislators who worry about speed traps. The sales tax request falls under local control, Frye said. “I think there is a very good argument for that to be done,” he said.

Some members of the mayor and commission asked about the GOP’s false accusations of fraud  and their efforts to limit absentee voting after mail-in ballots have favored Democrats in recent elections. “We embrace the franchise very heavily here in Athens-Clarke County and would seek the continued availability of early voting and the drop boxes, and absentee ballots without rationale being continued.” Mayor Kelly Girtz said.

Frye said Democrats will fight efforts to restrict voting, but that lawmakers need to restore confidence in the system despite lawsuits, audits and recounts revealing no evidence of widespread fraud last November. “The elections are secure, and we need to talk about that, but we also need to figure out how to make people feel like they’re secure without limiting access,” he said.

Much of what the legislature is able to accomplish will depend on whether it’s able to stay in session. Already, several lawmakers have been diagnosed with COVID-19. “We still have members in the House chamber who are having difficulty wearing their masks,” Frye said. “Yesterday, when I came home, I felt extremely unclean.”

Republican state Reps. Houston Gaines and Marcus Wiedower and Republican Sens. Frank Ginn and Bill Cowsert did not participate in the online meeting.

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