Today’s Courier Herald Column:
On July 1st, 2003, high school quarterback Joshua Brown’s truck that he was driving hydroplaned and hit a tree. Joshua died several days later. His dad dealt with the grief by getting busy. He decided that teens needed better drivers education training. He fought much of Georgia’s political establishment and passed what is now known as Joshua’s Law.
The law requires stricter curriculums for driver’s education training. It also added a five percent surtax to speeding tickets collected by the state. The money is supposed to fund programs to increase teen driver safety. Supposed to.
Instead, like so many fees passed by legislators preying upon the heart strings of a well intentioned public, the money goes to Georgia’s general fund. As Rome News-Tribune reporter Diane Wagner detailed this week, the state has collected $76 Million from add on court fees over the past five years. The state has only used $8 Million to fund local grants to improve teen driver safety, according to the Georgia Driver’s Education Commission.
It has become common place for legislators who have sworn allegiance to Americans for Tax Reform and their “no new taxes” pledge to seek alternate measures to increase revenues via increases in fees. Some in the Georgia legislature even attempted legislation this past session to ensure truth in fee collection, a measure that was gutted in the Senate Rules Committee.
Senate Rules Chairman Don Balfour was unapologetic for protecting the time honored tradition of legislator created slush funds, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution “We have been doing this for 20 years, and I still keep getting re-elected.” Joshua Brown’s parents are no doubt grateful that their son could be used in so callous a manner, with so little regard for the meaning of their son’s namesake legislation or the regard for the taxpayers whose funds are freely redirected to other priorities of legislators.
It is too easy to note how cynical legislators have become to the fact that they know very well that the people such as Joshua Brown have become convenient props for legislators to pass back door tax increases without violating their pledge. Violating matters of conscience, unfortunately, is not a matter these same legislators have anyone as powerful as Grover Norquist following their every move to make sure they uphold.
Using grieving parents as little more than a backdrop to help expand the state’s coffers serves to only heighten the cynicism from the electorate. The institutionalization of using state funds to divvy up the spoils of tax collection among the friends of the elected officials and the well connected among the capitol class reinforces the growing chasm between the governed and those who govern.
As such, legislators “keep getting re-elected”, but they continue to find it hard to govern. T-SPLOST failed because of growing mistrust of those who govern us. The Charter School amendment, previously enjoying broad public support, is now facing the same headwinds. There is growing reluctance to give the same people more money, or more power to divert existing funds to new ventures, because the legislators continue to show disdain for voters and earning this heightened lack of trust.
The 2013 session of the Georgia General Assembly will feature a state that is at a crossroads. Republicans will be entering their second decade as the majority party of the state. Old excuses of governance and lack of leadership will no longer apply. Hiding behind “fee increases” to expand the power and scope of government have long been shown to be what they are. Tax increases.
The increases in taxes would be more palatable were they even closely used for the purposes they were intended. Yet like many other accounts, there is $68 Million raised over the past five years that should be protecting young drivers and those of us who share the roads with them that has been squandered elsewhere. Instead of preventing teen deaths, we have an empty fishing museum in Perry and shuttered halls of fame as monuments to misplaced priorities.
Georgians deserve better, but Georgians must demand better.
As long as we keep re-electing them, we get the government we deserve.