Tuesday, April 07, 2015

TOP STORY >> Mayor glad lawmakers home

Leader staff writer

“Nobody is more happy to see the state legislators go home than I am,” Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher quipped. “It has been a stressful few months.”

The mayor spent a lot of time at the state Capitol supporting bills that would help cities and fighting against those that would hurt them. In the end, he had mixed feelings.

“It is hard to run a city with all the rules and regulations that we already have placed on us and then the legislation wants to go and change things.”

He said a number of times the issue was more of a court problem, but it ended up in the legislature with a bill affecting the whole state when it didn’t have to.

“We need a mechanism for a third-party arbitrator to settle some of these county- versus-city issues that don’t need a statewide law to fix (them),” the mayor explained.

To help keep the city issues in the minds of the legislators, the mayor said Pulaski County officials, city officials, educators and others met with local representatives every Monday morning. “We had an hour or so to discuss bills coming up and let the legislature know how it would affect us. I think that communication helped quite a bit.

“One thing that really disappointed me, however, was that I saw more of the Washington- style politics this session then I did the last one,” he said.

On the upside, the mayor was happy with the law that changed the percentage of signatures needed to be collected on the wet-dry issue. “It went from that ridiculous 38 percent to a more reasonable 15 percent. That’s a difference from 5,000 signatures to about 1,900. Now it’s very doable,” the mayor noted.

He added that the bill also tightens what kind of alcohol sales would be allowed. The mayor said the new law only allows for on-premise sales, like at restaurants.

No new retail sales outlets can open up under the new bill, according to Fletcher.

He said the chamber has to start from scratch collecting signatures for the alcohol vote.

“I think they will gear up this summer for a big petition push,” the mayor said.

Fletcher said there were also some bills approved in the legislature dealing with the new school district.

“Nothing major. Since this is the first district separation of its kind, things come up and the legislature dealt with them with no problem,” he said, adding that for specifics one could talk to interim Jacksonville Superintendent Bobby Lester.

Fletcher was also pleased that a retiree benefit bill for veterans passed.

But he’s not happy about a water bill that forces cities to sell water to outside customers without those customers becoming part of the city.

“That was one of the benefits we were able to offer when annexing. If cities can’t grow, they die. The city has invested all that money in lines, facilities and infrastructure and then not to be able to ask for something in return,” he said.

The mayor believes it will cause some problems in the future.

“Sometimes I think the legislature creates a problem trying to solve one and that’s not good for anyone,” Fletcher said. “I didn’t see a lot of lawmakers looking to see what the ‘ripple effect’ would be of some of the bills.”

He was happy though that the governor was working on trying to ease the burden of the county jail off cities.

“Anything helps, but the longtime solution is not more prisons but to get to the root of the problem, the dysfunctional families,” Fletcher insisted.

The mayor said he just felt an overall attitude at this session that painted the cities as the bad guys.

“Part of the problem is that the Democrats ran the state so long one way and now the Republicans have taken it to the other side. I’m a conservative, but I think there needs to be more of a middle. The state needs to see the value of cities,” Fletcher said.