Senators gut anti-diversion bill

Georgia has long assessed special fees dedicated to paying for environmental cleanups, high school drivers ed and other purposes, only to take a large portion of the “dedicated” money and spend it on something else.

A Senate subcommittee on Monday took up a House bill that seeks to stop the state from diverting those funds — and added language that virtually shreds the measure, supporters said.

The senators tacked on a provision that the bill would be in force only when the state’s reserves contain about $1 billion or more. The reserves have run that high only a few times in recent decades. They now stand at about $328 million, after dipping below $100 million during the real estate and stock market crashes a few years ago.

Lawmakers have a history of getting around the the law and diverting the money, and some senators didn’t think the new bill would stop the end runs.

“We have been doing this for 20 years, and I still keep getting re-elected,” said Rules Committee Chairman Don Balfour, R-Snellville.

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House Bill 811 easily passed the House. And sponsor Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, said it’s time to stop gaming the system.

“The voters don’t trust us to put the money where we say we’re going to put it,” Powell said. “There is no reason to collect a fee for a service you are not providing.”

Large sums are at stake. The diversions last year amounted to about $40 million.

By the end of this year, programs for tire and hazardous waste cleanup will have collected almost $200 million in fees since 2004. But only about $76 million of that has actually gone to dump and waste cleanups. Of $58 million in traffic fine add-ons raised for drivers ed, only $8 million has gone for that purpose. There are also add-on fines that go to pay for police training.

House Bill 811 would force legislators to make sure that money from the fees and fines — for example, the $1 fee on new tires — goes where it’s supposed to go, or they would have to lower the fees and fines the following year.

So, for example, if the tire fee generated $1,000, and the Legislature spent only $500 on cleaning up old tires — using the rest to cover gaps elsewhere in the budget — the tire fee could drop by as much as 20 percent the next year.

Legislative leaders say they used the diverted money during the recession to help prop up budgets for schools, public safety and health care. And Senate leaders said they want to give lawmakers flexibility to continue diverting the money unless the state is flush with cash.

The subcommittee changed the bill so the fees and fines could be lowered only if state reserves equaled at least 7 percent of what lawmakers appropriate for the year, minus a few areas of spending. That would be about $1.1 billion this year, Senate officials said.

In addition to drivers ed and hazardous waste and tire cleanups, the money also is supposed to go toward police training. Local governments, police and environmental groups, who support the legislation, have complained for years about money being diverted.

Todd Edwards, a lobbyist for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, said supporters hope the bill can be improved and passed by the end of the session. If the Senate subcommittee version passes, he said, “We may as well not have the bill. It defeats the whole purpose.”

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