Diverted special fees under fire

The concept seems simple enough: The state charges special fees and fines to raise money for cleaning up old tire dumps or teaching teenagers to drive.

But much of that money, which by law is supposed to go to those special purposes, doesn’t go anywhere near those purposes.

So now the General Assembly is facing the spectacle of passing a new law that would force it to uphold old laws it already passed.

Such legislation, which overwhelmingly passed the House and is being considered by the Senate, would force the General Assembly to stop diverting about $40 million in fees and fines and start using it for the purposes for which it was intended.

“Which is more important, your child’s life, or wasting money on pork?” asked Alan Brown, whose son Joshua was killed in a single-car accident in 2003.

Joshua’s Law, passed two years later, tacks an extra fee onto fines for some traffic offenses. The money from the add-ons is supposed to fund drivers ed courses statewide.

Last year, however, the state collected $11 million in fine add-ons, but none of it went to pay for drivers ed.

Under House Bill 811, the General Assembly would have to reduce the fees and fines next year if too little of the money goes to what it was it was supposed to pay for.

“This is an attempt to actually fund some things most of our constituents thought were being funded,” said Rep. Paul Battles, R-Cartersville.

Sally Bethea, founding director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, which backs the bill, said, “It’s time to send a message that if you don’t appropriate the fees to where it’s supposed to go, the money shouldn’t be paid.”

Alan Essig, a former state budget analyst who heads the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said he doubts lawmakers will actually reduce the fees and fines if the bill passes.

What’s more likely, he said, is that the state will have to put more money into cleanup programs for hazardous waste sites, tire dumps and abandoned landfills. It would have to boost efforts for recycling and waste reduction efforts and put much more money toward drivers ed programs and more toward indigent defense and police training.

But that could mean something else the state funds — possibly education or health care — will have to be cut to make up the difference. That’s because in the past, the fee and fine money has been used to fill gaps in the state budget.

“We have used all these resources we had to keep correctional officers in prisons, State Patrol officers on the road and teachers in the classroom,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, whose committee is considering the bill.

Still, local governments, environmental and other groups have been complaining for years about the state diverting tens of millions of dollars collected from fees and fines.

In the early 1990s, lawmakers approved two pools of money, the Solid Waste and Hazardous Waste trust funds, to pay to clean up hazardous waste sites, to update unlined landfills, to clean up scrap tire dumps, to improve and expand solid waste collection and recycling and to eliminate open dumps along roads and streams.

Much of the money for the hazardous waste fund comes from landfill fees passed on to Georgians when they pay for garbage pickup. The solid waste program is funded by the $1 per tire charge Georgians pay when they buy new tires.

Combined, by the end of this year, the two programs will have collected almost $200 million since 2004. About $76 million of that has actually gone to those trust funds, according to Association County Commissioners of Georgia. The rest has gone elsewhere.

The raid on the funds has been more aggressive in the past decade because the state faced two recessions.

House Bill 811 also includes fees and fines collected for the Peace Officer and Prosecutors Training Fund, the Indigent Defense Fund and funding for Joshua’s Law, which included traffic add-on fines and bond payment money that were supposed to pay for drivers education. In each case, at least part of the fee or fine money has been annually diverted.

Alan Brown said the state has raised $58 million from traffic fine add-ons since Joshua’s Law passed. During the first few years, $8 million of that money went to drivers ed; last year the total was zero. The House on Monday is expected to vote on whether to extend the add-on fines that have funded Joshua’s Law through 2018.

House Bill 811 doesn’t cover every diversion of funds in state government, and it doesn’t stop new ones from cropping up.

For example, the Senate earlier this session approved a bill to increase the “lemon law” fee charged to new car buyers from $3 to $5. While the bill’s sponsor said it would help the Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection better enforce the law — which protects buyers who find their cars to be defective — the fee goes into the state’s general fund. Not all of it goes to administer the law.

The House also has not moved on a bill to prohibit state agencies from diverting bond money to other purposes without legislative approval. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last month that state officials diverted about $185 million in bond money from projects approved by the General Assembly to other projects during the past decade.

In addition, the Senate has not taken up a proposed constitutional amendment by Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker, to let lawmakers permanently designate where fee and fine money goes.

Under state law, legislators can approve a fee or fine and say it is going to a program or cause, but the money goes into the general fund and can be appropriated at the whim of the governor and lawmakers.

“I have been very disappointed we have told the people we were going to do one thing and then we don’t follow through and do it,” Henson said. “My only problem [with HB 811] is that they are not addressing a lot of other fees.”

Still, Houston County Commission Chairman Tommy Stalnaker said it’s a start.

Stalnaker said people in his county have probably paid $1.5 million into the hazardous waste trust fund over the years and gotten nothing back. County officials question whether the money will be there if they need it.

Stalnaker said his county received funding in the past to pay for a scrap tire amnesty program that coaxed locals to bring in used tires, which were then sent to recyclers. But he said the program was scrapped because the state didn’t have the money to fund it.

Stalnaker said state officials should have either reduced the fees or stopped diverting the money years ago.

“I know in this county, if we had done something like that, we wouldn’t have gotten re-elected,” he added.