Despite opposition, HB 286 moves through state legislature

Georgia state legislature’s bill seeks to limit city government, expand state powers, and weaken cities’ ability to adjust police budgets to fund community programs

This piece was co-authored by K.A. Bond and J. Burnett.

Scene from Atlanta\’s first night of protests in the wake of George Floyd on May 29, 2020. Photo credit: Brandon Mishawn/The Mainline.

ATLANTA — On Feb. 24, the Georgia House of Representatives passed House Bill 286, which aims to restrict local governments from cutting police budgets by more than 5% over a 10-year period. The bill would apply to both county and municipal police budgets with exemptions made for local governments experiencing unexpected revenue drops and police departments making large one-time purchases.

Sponsored by Republican and state representative Houston Gaines of Athens (HD 117), HB 286 passed largely along party lines at 101-69. Meanwhile, three House Democrats — Mesha Mainor of Atlanta (HD 56), Patty Bently of Savannah (HD 139), and Mike Glanton of Jonesboro (HD 75) — voted ‘Yea’ on HB 286, alongside the majority of House Republicans. Four Democrats — “Mickey” Edward Stephens (HD 165), Kimberly Alexander (HD 66), Sheila Jones (HD 53), and Michael Smith (HD 41) — were excused or abstained.

HB 286 passed the Senate Public Safety Committee last Thurs., March 18, and is now set to go to the Rules Committee for another vote. On Mon., March 22, legislators added new stipulations that create obstacles which prevent city governments from reducing police funding. New provisions include requirements to hold a public hearing on budget decisions with opportunity for public comment; that budget reductions must be adopted in public meetings; and a notice of the budget reduction in “the local paper” and government’s website. These additions further decrease city governments’ budgetary autonomy, and fail to consider communities in news deserts and those disenfranchised from the political process.

According to Rep. Gaines, the bill aims to prevent “out of control” local governments from putting “lives at risk” by reducing the scope of policing. Gaines’ desire to control local budgets runs directly counter to conservative preference for local control. It is inherently anti-Republican to seek to expand government powers and strip local governments of their autonomy to make decisions. However, Georgia Republicans often contradict this argument when the question of local control applies to a city or county with a Democratic political majority, such as when the State of Georgia made repeated attempts to take over the Atlanta Public School system. That contradiction presents itself once again in HB 286 in that it would inhibit elected city officials from making decisions for their own constituents.

During last week’s Senate Public Safety Committee hearing, Gaines repeatedly cited legislation proposed by the cities of Atlanta and Athens, which sought to adjust city budgets to funnel more resources to community programs, including those of mental health, housing, and alternative police response systems. However, as was noted during his questioning, the Georgia constitution guarantees local municipalities the right to “home rule”, or the right to self-governance. 

Under home rule, the Georgia legislature cannot pass legislation which targets only certain municipalities. Thus, the restrictions of HB 286 would apply to all Georgia county and municipal governments, Republican and Democrat alike. It is clear, then, that the overwhelming support for HB 286 demonstrates that the Georgia GOP is willing to go as far as to wrest power from its own constituents in the name of protecting the police state and upholding white supremacy. 

While HB 286 targets police budgets specifically, the legislation sets a dangerous precedent for state control of local budgets. Debra Nesbitt of Advancing Georgia’s Counties (ACCG) spoke against the bill at the state senate hearing, noting that it violates counties’ rights to local control. Nesbitt stated the bill represents a “slippery slope” in terms of state overreach, and that its passage could clear the way for the state to dictate the funding for other county services. Similarly, Christopher Bruce of ACLU warned that the state government overreach “may not stop here” and spoke to the fact that local representatives are expressly elected to represent the interests of their constituents. 

“If people do not like the way public safety is going within their communities,” Bruce said, “they have every right to vote out their mayor, city council members, commissioners, sheriff, or anyone else.”

Importantly, while Gaines claims HB 286 is meant to “keep communities safe,” opponents of the bill in both House and Senate hearings noted that increased funding towards other public services like education (which has been defunded consistently for the past 19 years) and mental health would be more worthwhile budgetary investments than policing. Rep. Renitta Shannon of Decatur (HD 84) noted during the Feb. 17 general assembly meeting that “this bill does nothing to create a standard of public safety … It basically tells counties how much they have to spend on law enforcement.”

Likewise, during the Senate public safety hearing, Devin Barrington-Ward of Movement for Black Lives stated that if HB 286 were truly about keeping communities safe, “we would be funding mental health services [and] we would make sure affordable housing is a thing.” 

Ward also noted the hypocrisy in the rush to fund police and prisons over public services, saying, “I haven’t seen a bill from this legislative body that demands counties fully fund public schools.”

In addition to these testimonies, there is no evidence suggesting a strong correlation between police spending and public safety. Violent crime in Atlanta has decreased by 82% between 1989 and 2018, and yet the Governmental Accountability Office found that less than 2% of this reduction can be attributed to policing. Police do not prevent crimes from occurring, and even when they do respond to a crime after it’s been reported, the likelihood that investigations lead to results or accountability remains low.

Moreover, the presence of police can cause disproportionate harm to Black, brown, and other marginalized communities — even those the police claim to serve and protect. Since 2015, police have fatally shot 5,000 people; and Black people are three times more likely than their white counterparts to experience police violence, despite being 1.3 times more likely to be unarmed. 

As Rep. Bee Nguyen of Atlanta (HD 89) stated, “It is the truth that we do not like to admit, but we have the statistics and the stories to show it: if you are Black or brown, whether armed or unarmed, you are more likely to be killed by law enforcement than your white counterparts.” 

Furthermore, police actively engage in practices such as “broken windows policing” and “stop and frisk” which aid gentrification efforts, leading to the displacement of long-term, low-income residents. Finally, data shows wide disparities in police response times between white neighborhoods and Black and Latino communities, exposing one of myriad ways in which policing prioritizes affluent white communities and reinforces white supremacist systems.

Not only is HB 286 unable to deliver on its promises to “keep communities safe”, as increased police presence does not equate to public safety, but it also contradicts long-standing conservative preference towards local control. So the question is, why are state Republicans championing it? 

To put it plainly, this bill represents nothing more than a politicized and misinformed overreaction to last summer’s protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and calls to defund the police in the wake of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, and others. As Ward explains it, “This bill is telling many of us who were in the streets this summer demanding justice, demanding safety, [and] demanding accountability to shut up.”

Last summer, city officials in both Atlanta and Athens introduced legislation to reduce or withold local police budgets in response to national protests regarding police murder of Black civilians. Atlanta City Council members nearly passed the Rayshard Brooks Bill, which sought to withhold (not defund) $73 million from the Atlanta City General Fund, and tasked the Council with reimagining public safety in the city. In Athens, Commissioner and city council member Mariah Parker introduced legislation which would have reduced the police budget by 50%, and instead fund alternative, non-police response systems able to address mental health and other emergencies. Parker cited decreasing crime rates in the Athens area, and explained that “if people get their individual needs met, most people won’t commit crimes like breaking and entering and robbery.”

Ultimately, neither Atlanta nor Athens successfully approached reducing police budgets. In fact, Atlanta has only increased the scope of policing since the summer’s uprisings. City Council voted to increase APD’s budget by 6% ($14 million) and raised officer pay. Meanwhile, city officials have backtracked on their promises to close the Atlanta City Detention Center, rolled back bail bond reforms, and donated funds toward Buckhead’s newly formed, private police force. The fact that municipalities have voted only to expand policing since the summer’s protests underscores the fact that Gaines’s bill is an overactive politicization of the issue of public safety, and an unwarranted overreach of power.

While it’s possible that HB 286 can ultimately be found unconstitutional and very well face legal challenge, it is imperative this bill does not reach fruition. While many House Democrats, city and county reps, and advocacy groups have lobbied against this bill’s passage, it’s still up to the Republican-controlled state senate and ultimately the signature of Gov. Brian Kemp to finalize this bill into law. It is also possible that the bill will be amended or gutted while passing through various committees.

When it comes to keeping communities safe, the final call must be made by those most affected by local policy, not overbearing and far-removed GOP politicians. The key to public safety does not lie in policing and incarceration, but instead in community accountability and the investment in services which meet people’s basic needs such as education, nutrition, and mental health care.

To use a final quote from Ward, “[If Georgia is] already spending $8.3 billion on police, prisons and jails, and we are not already safe, something is wrong. That means we do need to reimagine public safety. What we are doing —  the same thing over and over, and expecting a different outcome — is the definition of insanity.

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