The General Assembly would be able to dedicate fees to specific things, such as tire dump cleanups, under legislation the Georgia Senate passed Monday. PHIL SKINNER

Georgia Senate takes big step toward stopping diversion of fees

The Georgia Senate agreed Monday to put a proposed constitutional amendment on next year’s ballot aimed at forcing the state to spend tire and landfill fee money on environmental cleanups, which is where lawmakers have been promising the money would go for decades.

Instead, tens of millions of dollar have been diverted to other spending by the state.

The Georgia House, which has pushed the bill for years, passed a more expansive “anti-bait-and-switch” measure last month. Now, House members will have to decide whether to get part of what they want and give final approval to putting the issue to voters in November 2020.

The Senate voted 52-0 Monday for the stripped-down version of House Resolution 164.

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.

Seemingly annually, the House has backed the measure, aimed at guaranteeing 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. Leaders there 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.

Powell’s original proposal would have 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.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, has opposed the dedication idea in the past. But he agreed to the measure this year as long as it only applied to the two funds that have gotten the most publicity: the tire fee, meant to clean up tire dumps, and the landfill fee, meant to clean up landfills and hazardous waste sites.

Under the resolution, any excess tire and landfill fee money not used for cleanups would go toward administration of the state’s Environmental Protection Division.

Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at ajc.com/news/georgia-government/.

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