Georgia House votes — again — to require fees be used for intended purpose

House Rules Chairman Jay Powell, R-Camilla, is sponsoring the proposed “truth-in-fees” amendment. (DAVID BARNES)

House Rules Chairman Jay Powell, R-Camilla, is sponsoring the proposed “truth-in-fees” amendment. (DAVID BARNES)

In an example of not-so-quiet perseverance, the Georgia House once again Wednesday voted to put a proposed constitutional amendment on next year’s ballot that could limit the ability of state officials to divert fee money meant for things such as cleanups for tire dumps, landfills and hazardous waste sites.

The 169-1 vote on House Resolution 164 comes less than a week after Georgia's Board of Natural Resources had to come up with $500,000 in emergency funding to extinguish a fire at an unlicensed landfill that has poured smoke into a South Fulton neighborhood for five months.

The House has been here before. Seemingly annually, it passes or considers the "anti-bait-and-switch" measure, which aims to guarantee that, for instance, the $1-per-tire fee Georgians pay when they buy new tires goes to clean up dumps, which is where the General Assembly said it would go when it approved the levy in the 1990s.

But every time the proposal has made it out of the House, it has died in the Senate, where leaders have always been concerned that it wouldn’t allow the state the flexibility to divert the fee money to other areas in the case of an economic downturn, when they say money might be needed to fund education or health care programs.

House Rules Chairman Jay Powell, R-Camilla, who has sponsored the resolution in the past and did so again this year, said two of the fees — the tire tax and landfill fees — have raised about $230 million over the past decade. Of that, about $150 million has gone into the state's general fund, not into trust funds for cleaning up tire dumps, landfills and hazardous waste sites, as the General Assembly said it would.

“The point is, we committed to the citizens of this state that we would spend the money on a specific purpose, and that is what we should do,” Powell said.

Powell said some of the money might be diverted to worthy purposes. But it's not what the General Assembly promised Georgians when it approved the fees.

He noted that the $1 billion a year in new levies approved to pay for transportation projects in 2015 is going to road and bridge projects, which is what lawmakers promised.

But Powell added, “There is nothing to prevent this or other legislatures from spending the money on other purposes.”

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.

Powell’s proposed constitution amendment would let lawmakers dedicate revenue from fees 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 fee revenue and the money could go into the government’s general fund to be spent where it’s needed.

The Association County Commissioners of Georgia has long pushed for the measure. While the revenue has been diverted, officials say some counties don’t always have the money they need to do what the fees were intended to do: clean up dumps.

The problem has been around for decades, but it grew worse during the Great Recession, when Gov. Sonny Perdue and lawmakers desperately needed every dime they could get to keep state government afloat without raising taxes.

Money was diverted from driver education programs and law enforcement training funds, as well as hazardous waste fees and tire fees.

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 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, Gov. Nathan Deal began allocating more money for driver education programs.

State agencies have seen much the same thing. Employers pay an administrative fee to the Georgia Department of Labor to fund re-employment services and administrative costs. Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler has complained about his agency not getting all the fee money for years. About $110 million was diverted from 2006 through 2018.

During debate Wednesday, state Rep. Andrew Welch, R-McDonough, suggested lawmakers stop renewing the fees until Powell's amendment passes, so Georgians will know where the money is going. Lawmakers take up such renewal bills on a regular basis, and some of them are up for renewal this session.