ATLANTA -- By the end of the 1998 Legislature, state resource managers may have more power than ever.
Some lawmakers are concerned that they have gone too far, too fast, in granting the Department of Natural Resources policing authority of boating and fishing. Legislators say they didn't get a chance to review legislation and inform constituents before the General Assembly convened. Some even call the DNR the "Gestapo," privately.
"They ought to stop trying to cram rules and regulations down people's throats," said Sen. Rene Kemp, D-Hinesville, vice chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee. "They are trying to grab a whole lot of money."
If pending bills pass, the DNR will be able to charge people to fish in saltwater, cite someone for underage boat driving and crack down on shrimpers using newly illegal nets. The bills have already passed the House and are being taken up by Senate committees.
"I have to be obligated to defend the approach we've taken," said Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Lonice Barrett.
"I wanted to have as little legislation as possible this year, but these additional things we very much needed," Mr. Barrett said. "... We are not trying to slip anything through."
As Georgia's coast gets more crowded, enforcement powers become key for safety and preservation of resources, Mr. Barrett said. DNR has been appropriated funding for 20 new officers to patrol state waterways, 10 of which will be assigned to the coast.
"These are some needs and issues that have been talked about for several years," Mr. Barrett said.
Mr. Barrett said while the DNR supports the measures, the initiative to pass the laws came from elsewhere.
Mr. Kemp and other state officials working on the legislation say that is not true and that a substantial portion of the DNR-related bills had been drafted already by the department.
"If the bills aren't theirs, then why are they up here lobbying day after day?" Mr. Kemp asked.
Rep. Mickey Channell, D-Greensboro, said his boating legislation to crack down on drunk boaters resulted from close work with the DNR and numerous public hearings. He said the DNR needs enforcement authority to keep waterways safe.
"I'm not toting their water per se. I think this is long overdue," Mr. Channell said.
Rep. Ann Purcell, D-Rincon, sponsored legislation that restricts shrimpers' net sizes and fishing times. Both measures would be enforced by DNR.
"I'm not trying to build an empire. I'm trying to save an industry," she said.
While Mr. Kemp feels much of the legislation is targeted toward regulating his coastal constituents, backlash to DNR expansion has come from other areas of the state as well.
Rep. Ralph Twiggs, D-Hiawassee, wants to strip DNR and its Environmental Protection Division of any autonomous rule-making power following their proposal to require property owners to deed land to the state before applying for exceptions to stream buffer requirements. Buffers of various sizes are strips of undeveloped land between protected streams, rivers or other waters and development.
The DNR and EPD do not have to get legislative approval presently to establish exceptions to the buffer requirements.
Environmentalists like the proposal, which would give the state five times more land than would be exempted from current state development regulation. Mr. Twiggs had another description.
"That's extortion; blackmail," he said.
Sen. Peg Blitch, D-Homerville, said she hates to see the DNR power grow so much on the cusp of the end of Gov. Zell Miller's final term, since it could also mean the end of his appointee's term.
"I trust Lonice Barrett wholeheartedly. But we don't know who the next governor is going to be," Ms. Blitch said.
Though she proclaims faith in the DNR leader, Ms. Blitch does not support the proposed laws for boating, shrimping or licensing.
"I thought we solved their problems by giving them more police officers," she said.
Bills that lawmakers are considering would: