By Baker Owens –
As January and the beginning of the legislative session approach, attention turns again to the state budget. As the economy has continued to improve, tax collections are up but the budget is still tight. Previous years’ cuts may be restored or the budget may maintain status quo. One issue that may get some attention though is Georgia’s policy regarding designated fees. A recent report from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and reporter James Salzer shows many of the state’s fees – tire fees, dumping fees, prepaid cell phone fees, court filing fees and many others – are being diverted from their designated purpose into the general fund to make up budget shortfalls without raising taxes or cutting programs.
Salzer cites as an example that about $50 million collected via the $1 per tire fee has been funneled into the state’s general fund since 2003. Joshua’s Law, passed in 2005, added a surcharge to traffic fines in an effort to fund driver education programs in state schools. The law raises about $10 million annually and an audit in 2011 showed that $57 million had been collected up that point. Out of that $57 million, only $8 million had actually gone to the driver training programs.
Alan Brown, the father of Joshua, whose death inspired the law, said “They are breaking every law in the book.” The law was changed in 2013 to cut the surcharge from 5% to 1.5% and Governor Nathan Deal began allocating more money for the programs – the 2015 budget included $2.9 million for them. Brown says though that the state is still only allocating about 10% of the money collected to the specified use.
Salzer’s research showed that overall, hundreds of millions of dollars of fee money has been diverted into the general fund. In 2013, as the renewal for the Hazardous Waste Fund came up, lawmakers included a provision saying the fee had to be reduced if the money was diverted. Gov. Deal signed the extension but added a “signing statement” declaring the fee reduction provision “nonbinding.”
Representative Jay Powell (R-Camilla) told Salzer “It’s almost like a bait and switch. It’s a bipartisan issue about honesty in government.” Powell is now the chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, which just happens to be the committee that writes state tax law. With so many new faces at the Capitol that are open to changing the way things have been done in the past, critics of the current fee diversions are hoping that Powell may finally be able to accomplish some reform. Powell suggested that the diversion issue may come up as a constitutional amendment that forces lawmakers to spend the fees where they have been designated. Another item to watch as the session convenes in January.