Today’s Courier Herald Column
Shell games, in their purest form, are known to be a hustle. Anyone playing is a rube or an easy mark. Those operating the shell game know that they will win via trickery, sleight of hand, or diversion. The process can be interesting to watch as a bystander, if only to wonder what makes the participant think that he will be the one that somehow defeats a time honored game where the operator, some other participants, and even spectators are “in” on the fix.
When one is forced to participate, however, the entertainment value is lost. It becomes no longer a game but an exercise in abuse of power. The game is merely a charade to make you feel better about money that is about to be taken under false pretenses. You are at least expected to appreciate the effort contributed into providing you a good show in the process.
The State Senate on Monday told Georgians that they will continue to lie to them, and that taxpayers will continue to like it. The time honored shell game of Georgia’s budgeting process will continue, as it serves incumbents well. Most, after all, have signed pledges not to raise taxes. Fees, on the other hand, are fair game.
Republicans learned early on in their majority in the legislature that it would be impossible to pass any tax increases. Yet the wants and needs of a growing population and more importantly, the projects of the well connected require revenue, usually quantified as “more”. While standing resolute against tax increases, legislators have been quite open to the idea of increasing “user fees”, arguing that they represent the cost of a government service being provided. Fees – and fee increases – are quite popular under the Gold Dome these days.
The legislature finds it equally popular to divert the fees collected from their intended uses to spend on pet projects. In Georgia, money not specifically allocated in the constitution is put into the General Fund. Regardless of any stated reason why monies are collected, it is the General Assembly and the Governor who decide how the money is spent.
Problems caused by fee diversion are not new. In 2009, the AJC documented that $15 Million of fees collected to support local 911 centers were retained by the state and spent elsewhere. Local governments lost out on at least $1 Million of federal matching funds because of the missing money, and were stuck with antiquated 911 facilities.
It was but one of many fees being diverted to plug holes in the state budget. Ben Harbin, then chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said of local governments concerns “I know people are upset about it, but it’s not worth raising taxes over” and “We have to balance our budget”. Local governments who were due funds, also having the responsibility to balance budgets, were unimpressed yet remained a loser in the budgetary shell game.
Representative Jay Powell of Camilla introduced HB 811 in an attempt to restore some level of integrity to the fee process. The bill would automatically reduce fees if audits find that the funds generated exceed monies appropriated for their stated purposes. While the measure was able to pass the House, the Senate effectively gutted the bill on Monday, adding language that effectively makes the bill meaningless.
Unapologetic, Rules Committee Chairman Don Balfour boasted to the AJC that “We’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I still keep getting re-elected.” That’s political speak for “we will continue to lie to you, the voters and the taxpayers, and you will continue to like it.”
Balfour’s unique position has been detailed here before. As Rules Chair, it is virtually impossible to get any legislation through the Senate without his specific approval. Thus, he can command sizable donations from lobbyists toward his re-election efforts. He can pay for a luxury mid-town Atlanta condo out of campaign funds while claiming mileage and per diem from taxpayers for traveling another 30 miles home to Gwinnett County every day the legislature is in session – plus an additional 100 more – without being challenged or questioned by his peers. And he sits on a campaign warchest that makes any challenger ready to take him on face the prospect of needed a half million dollars or more to try and win a $17,000 per year job.
Don Balfour’s “screw you” attitude to his own constituents and the rest of Georgia is a new high water mark in Georgia political arrogance. Then again, he would probably argue that it ain’t arrogance if he can back it up. His continued support from the Senate Republican Caucus and his constituents is evidence of that.
Further disappointing is that leadership of Georgia’s Tea Party Patriots live in Balfour’s Gwinnett County. He is a walking poster child for what the TEA Party claims to want to reform, yet he is also an elected Republican. As the TEA Party has morphed into a wing of the Republican Party, the desire to challenge powerful incumbents seems to have diminished.
Barring fellow Senators growing a spine or the TEA Party organizing and focusing their sizable resources, Balfour’s statement is likely to remain true. He will keep being re-elected, and Georgia’s leaders will continue to charge us fees and then spend the money as they like.
And we will be told we like it. Because we will continue to re-elect them.