It’s difficult to be an honest person in today’s General Assembly.
One of the lawmakers who has learned that is Rep. Jay Powell (R-Camilla), an attorney who had the radical idea that the Legislature should actually spend the taxpayers’ money as state law says it should be spent.
Powell tried to make the General Assembly be honest about the way it spends money when he introduced HB 811. This bill would have ended the practice of taking funds that are collected to pay for a specific government program and using those dollars for an entirely different purpose.
This has been going on for years with the fees and fines that the state ostensibly collects to pay for such services as disposing of discarded tires, cleaning up hazardous waste sites, and providing driver training courses for teenagers.
For the past few years, as legislators have struggled to balance the budget during the economic downturn, that money has been diverted from the programs on which state law says it must be spent and instead has been used in other areas.
The cost of these diversionary tactics was detailed last summer in a state audit of "Joshua’s Law," a statute enacted in 2005 to collect fees — a 5 percent surcharge on traffic fines — that were intended to pay for driver education programs for teenagers.
Of the $57 million collected under Joshua’s Law, auditors found that just $8 million had actually been used for driver training purposes. The other $49 million was diverted into unrelated budget areas. Since 2009, according to the audit, the entire $32 million collected for driver education purposes had been diverted by legislators into the general budget.
This fund diversion has been criticized by several interest groups, notably the city and county governments that get stuck with the job of cleaning up tire dumps and hazardous waste sites because the state money that is supposed to pay for it has been sent elsewhere.
Powell, who understands the problems local governments face from his time as the mayor of Camilla, sponsored a bill that would have required the General Assembly either to use the fees for their legally stated purpose or reduce the fees accordingly.
"There is no reason to collect a fee for a service you are not providing," Powell said.
The House of Representatives, to its credit, voted 151-5 to pass Powell’s bill and send it along to the state Senate.
Over in the Senate, HB 811 met its expected fate. A Senate subcommittee added an amendment to Powell’s bill that said the General Assembly would only be required to reduce the fees that are being diverted when the money in the state’s reserve fund is equal to at least 7 percent of the yearly tax collections — which is more than $1.1 billion.
The reserve fund is well short of $1.1 billion at this time. In fact, state reserves have exceeded that level just once in the past two decades. What this means is that the Senate revised Powell’s bill to make it nearly impossible to stop the diversion of taxpayer funds.
"This effectively means there will never be a reduction in fees," said Todd Edwards of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG).
The senators involved said it was more important for the General Assembly to retain the ability to deal with budget shortfalls, such as the one caused by the great recession.
"In a crisis, we were not going to tie our hands," said Sen. Greg Goggans (R-Douglas), whose subcommittee revised the bill.
In the context of an $18 billion state budget, we are not talking about a lot of money here. The various fees that are being diverted collectively amount to around $40 million a year.
It is a question of doing what is morally right.
If lawmakers need help with the budget, they should be honest about it. Either increase state taxes or cut state services until you balance the budget. Don’t sneak around by the back door.
(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com that reports on government and politics in Georgia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)