House Ways and Means Chairman Jay Powell, R-Camilla, is sponsoring a proposed truth-in-fees constitutional amendment. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Georgia House pushing truth-in-fees constitutional amendment

House leaders are renewing what has become a Capitol rite of winter: the annual push to pass a truth-in-fees constitutional amendment forcing the state to spend the money it raises from fees exactly where lawmakers promise Georgians it will be spent.

In other words, if lawmakers tell Georgians they are going to charge $1 for each old tire you trade in to pay to clean up abandoned tire dumps, that’s where the money will go.

Sounds simple. Still, year after year the proposals get stalled as governors and budget writers worry that they won’t have the flexibility to divert tens of millions of dollars in fees when they think the state needs to spend the money elsewhere.

But this year’s effort has the backing of some key House leaders in both parties, and supporters are making a hard push to get the amendment moving, promising, among other things, to build a replica of the Capitol using scrap tires at Liberty Plaza across from the statehouse to rally support for a truth-in-fees amendment on Wednesday.

The governor’s office is saying nice things about the measure’s purpose, as are many lawmakers.

“This is intended to make it clear to the general public that when we dedicate funds, they can hold government accountable,” state Rep. Sam Teasley, R-Marietta, said last week when House Resolution 158 was approved in the House Ways and Means Committee.

The state has long diverted millions of dollars in fees meant to clean up tire dumps and landfills, train police and educate drivers, and that has angered legislators, environmentalists and other Georgians.

Legislators make promises about how fee and fine money will be spent. But under current law, the only way to ensure fee and fine money goes where it’s supposed to go is for voters to dedicate the revenue in constitutional amendments.

That has allowed governors and lawmakers to divert almost $200 million collected from new-tire fees and landfill assessments away from their intended purposes: cleaning up tire dumps and hazardous waste sites. Tens of millions of dollars more have been diverted from traffic fine add-ons that were supposed to go to high school driver education programs.

In all, state lawmakers have diverted hundreds of millions of dollars of fee money — such as landfill fees and court surcharges — in an effort to balance the budget, allowing them to avoid raising taxes or having to further cut spending.

This year’s proposed amendment, sponsored by House Ways and Means Chairman Jay Powell, R-Camilla, would let lawmakers dedicate fees to go to specific funds and causes for up to 10 years, when they would come up for renewal.

If the state faced a financial emergency, lawmakers could suspend the dedication of the fees and the money could go into the government’s general fund to be spent where it’s needed.

The measure has been a kind of pet project for the powerful Association County Commissioners of Georgia, which has been critical of not being able to get the fee money sent back to local governments to fix problems such as leaking landfills.

The resolution is co-sponsored by House Rules Chairman John Meadows, R-Calhoun, and House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta.

“This is something we’ve been discussing at least since I have been in the Legislature,” said Powell, who joined the state House in 2009.

Governors and top lawmakers typically don’t like the idea of dedicating fee or fine money because they want the flexibility to use the revenue where they think it’s most needed.

When lawmakers extended the landfill fees for the Hazardous Waste Trust Fund in 2013, they included language saying the fees had to be reduced if the money was diverted. Gov. Nathan Deal signed the fee extension bill, but he added a so-called “signing statement” declaring that the fee reduction language was nonbinding.

Chris Riley, the governor’s chief of staff, said: “Chairman Powell is a good chairman, and his intent is spot on. However, from a budgeting perspective, the bill may need to be polished a little more.”

State auditors added fuel to Powell’s push in late 2015 when they questioned whether the state should continue charging the $1 fee drivers pay when they get rid of tires and buy new ones . The analysis said while the so-called “scrap tire fee” has been unchanged, the number of cleanups and other activities funded by the Solid Waste Trust Fund has dropped over the past 10 years.

Another high-profile example of the diversions has been “Joshua’s Law,” which was passed in 2005 and added a surcharge to traffic fines to establish driver education programs in Georgia schools. Some years the law raised $10 million or more. But a 2011 state audit found that of $57 million collected at that point, only $8 million had been used for driver training.

In 2013, lawmakers cut the surcharge from 5 percent to 1.5 percent of the original fine for traffic offenses, and shortly afterward, Deal began allocating more money for driver education programs. Still, Alan Brown, whose son’s death inspired “Joshua’s Law,” said it will take decades to fund driver education programs in every high school at the rate the state has allocated the money.

The Solid Waste and Hazardous Waste funds were created in the early 1990s, and they were designed to help the state’s Environmental Protection Division clean up tire dumps, create a hazardous site inventory, force cleanups of polluted sites by those responsible, or clean up “orphaned” sites.

For the Hazardous Waste Fund, money comes from a per-ton fee charged to dump waste into landfills, as well as hazardous waste fees.

Some county officials have complained that money for environmental cleanups wasn’t always available when they needed it. Others say Georgians shouldn’t be charged the fee if the state isn’t going to spend the money on cleanups.

If the resolution is approved by lawmakers, Georgians will vote on the proposed constitutional amendment in 2018.

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