Last summer, residents of Savannah, Georgia, took decisive action and adopted a community-wide goal to move the city to 100% clean and renewable energy by 2035. Savannah is one of five major cities in Georgia that have made pledges to reduce their carbon footprint in the coming years.
But, a bill floating in the state capitol may cause Savannah’s clean energy pledge to be short-lived.
Last month, Georgia state legislators introduced HB 150, legislation that would effectively prohibit city and county governments from setting their own clean energy goals. HB 150 passed through a subcommittee and will be presented to the Georgia House Committee on Energy, Utilities & Telecommunications later this month.
This legislation has set up a battle between city, county, and state leaders over what measures local officials should be allowed to pursue to mitigate the effects of climate change.
The bill would significantly erode local control for the 535 cities and 159 counties in the state of Georgia who would lose the ability to determine their own environmental policies.
The fact is that none of the cities in Georgia that have set 100% clean energy goals have imposed an outright ban on gas or any other forms of energy.
If passed, HB 150 would block city and county governments from prohibiting utility service connections to local residences and businesses “based upon the type or source of energy or fuel to be delivered.”
Frankly, this heavy-handed measure would be an abuse of power at the state level. Savannah’s city council is better suited to address its energy policies than state legislators nearly 250 miles away.
Under Georgia’s “Home Rule” doctrine, local officials have the authority to act in their communities’ best interests as long as they abide by state laws and the state’s constitution. Cities setting clean energy preferences violates neither.
Every time a town, city, or county votes to govern itself in a certain way and is slapped down by the state, it represents a small challenge to the notion of self-governance. It is not the role of state governments to ensure that lower levels of government vote the correct way: as long as they do not violate the inalienable rights of their citizens, it is well within the authority of municipalities to govern themselves, even if they pursue bad policies.
Local ordinances setting preferences for clean energy have faced state preemption throughout the country in states like Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Arizona. Largely, these actions were the result of genuine disagreements between legislators at state capitals who wanted to allow consumers to choose their preferred energy sources and progressive local officials intent on banning fracking.
State officials opposed to progressive environmental policies passed by local governments are operating under the false presumption that conservative causes will be best (and most quickly) served by eliminating local control. There are fair arguments for opposing local prohibitions on energy sources, however, state preemption would challenge the ability of local governments to pass ordinances, policies, and regulations pursuing goals that differ from those of the majority party at a particular state capitol. For conservatives who value federalism and empowering local governments, the ends of state preemption do not justify the means.
Why does it matter to residents of Augusta or Columbus what type of energy regulations Savannah chooses to pursue. In a dissent often cited in favor of federalism, Justice Louis Brandeis described how “a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory, and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country”.
Today, local governments serve as those laboratories of innovation where communities can pursue novel policies without harming the interests of their neighbors. Local governments are closest to their constituents and are the best suited bodies to experiment with solutions to a variety of issues affecting local communities, including climate change.
A coastal city like Savannah, where rising sea levels are a real concern, has different needs than one near a mountain range. It should not lose its jurisdiction to adapt its building codes to meet its environmental goals.
The fact is. A government closest to the people governs best. Residents of a local community should be able to petition their elected representatives to make an active choice about what type of energy they want to use to turn on their lights.
We must allow communities to make decisions for themselves as to how they will respond to the problems they face. We need to take steps to empower local governments to define their own energy futures, not put their lights out.
Georgia needs to trust voters to determine what’s best for their own communities.
Nico Zviovich is a Young Voices contributor based in Atlanta, Georgia.