House Ways & Means Committee Jay Powell, R-Camilla, is again pushing legislation aimed at stopping the state from diverting fee money collected for things landfill and tire dump cleanups. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Measure will try again to ensure Georgia fees go to intended purposes

If it’s winter in Georgia, it’s time for lawmakers to take another crack at keeping themselves from diverting fee money meant for things such as cleaning up tire dumps and landfills.

House Ways and Means Chairman Jay Powell, R-Camilla, is again pushing what he calls an “anti-bait-and-switch” constitutional amendment, and a key House committee gave its blessing — for yet another year — on Monday.

The January 20th, 2018 edition of Georgia Legislative Week in Review with Mark Neisse, Maya Prabhu and the Phrase of the Week by James Salzer. Video by Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

The concept is simple: 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 — which they did more than two decades ago — that’s where the money will go.

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

The leading outside-the-Legislature force behind the truth-in-fee legislation is the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, which says about $200 million or so has been diverted from tipping or landfill fees and the tire fee. Meanwhile counties don’t always have the money they need to do what the fees were intended to do, clean up dumps.

Todd Edwards, a lobbyist for the ACCG, said the state has a rather “shoddy” history of keeping its promises on the fees.

Powell said 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.

However, Powell added, “we’ve come out of the recession and the problem persists.”

Money was diverted from driver’s education programs and law enforcement training funds, and Powell said it could be taken from some of the fee and tax increases passed a few years ago to dramatically increase transportation spending. That hasn’t happened yet, he said, but it could under current Georgia law.

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.

Powell’s House Resolution 158 is a proposed constitution amendment that 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.

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. 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.

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