Legislators Continue To Earn Cynicism

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.

25 comments

  1. eburke says:

    Here we go again! You wonder why the people of Georgia distrust their elected officials. You tell us you will impose a fee for some good purpose and then you use it for another purpose, like bailing out the General Fund. I discussed this with my State Senator and he told me quite smugly that it was legal. I replied that it was unethical.

    I eagerly supported the Republicans taking over the reigns of state government. Now after 10 years they have squandered a golden opportunity to make real meaningful changes in the state. They oppose ethics reform, having addressed the water problems or transportation problems in the state. The only things they have done is make it harder for black people to vote and run the Mexicans out of Georgia.

    After 10 years our water situation is still a problem, our roads are in worse condition and are even more crowded, our economy has gone down the tubes. We used to be a leader in the Southeast and now we have fallen behind. Government has grown more centralized. The General Assembly is dictating what we must all do and they are not willing to pay for the interruptions and intrusions into our lives.

    None the less, we will keep electing the same folks back and hope for different results.

  2. polpol says:

    This $68 million is just the tip of the iceburg…..follow all of the other court add-on “fees”, tire funds, solid waste funds, 911 fees, and other non-constitutionally established “trust fund” fees and the sum total will be staggering……………

  3. troutbum70 says:

    I would love to see a system put in place like they have in Montana. Meeting once every two years. Less time to scam the citizens of Georgia! There are good people under the Gold Dome including Buzz and Josh. I think their service to the constituents are overshadowed or bullied by people like Balfour and others. We can’t forget that our Governor, though he seems to be doing a decent job, resigned from Congress before a very serious ethics investigation was to start. Not sure why the other candidates didn’t push that point harder during the Primary. But you have to wonder with all the issues with the Lt. Gov and Senate, will things ever change.

    • benevolus says:

      That Montana system sounds nice I guess, but I doubt it’s any better. I mean, they have committee meetings all through the period when they are not in session, and they are in session for 90 days which is more than the number of days our legislature is in session over a two year period. So here we would just get this huge backlog of legislation that they would try to ram through in a short amount of time and no one would know much about many of them.
      The point being, bad legislators can screw up any system if we let them.

  4. The problem with fees collected by the State is everyone thought you would need to pass a Constitutional amendment in order to specify the fees for a particular purpose. The constitution doesn’t allow us to do that currently. That may not be the best way to explain it but it’s the way I understand it.

    Rather than try to pass a Constitutional amendment, Rep. Jay Powell’s solution (HB811) was to adjust the fee to whatever the State appropriates. For example, if we appropriate $1 million toward Joshua’s Law but the fee generates $2 million, we would adjust the fee to collect only $1 million. The money still goes into the general fund as it does now but at least we can say we’re approproating the same amount were collecting. The concern some had was that the hit to the budget would be tough to handle right now. Powell took that concern into account and applied the bill to a few fees at first with the hope of applying it to all fees over the next few years, giving us time to adjust to the lower revenue.

    I think this is a good solution to the problem and I hope Rep. Powell brings his bill back again in January.

    • Dave Bearse says:

      “The concern some had was that the hit to the budget would be tough to handle right now.”

      Apply the fundamental principle guiding modern conservatism and cut taxes to increase tax revenue.

  5. Slugworth says:

    HB 811 (the redirected fee fix) was gutted in Senate Appropriations Committee, not Rules. Balfour made an ill-advised comment there, but he is not the responsible Chairman in this case. Perhaps Jay Powell will again introduce it, and House Appropriations Chair Terry England will again co-sponsor it. Kudos to them and their House colleagues for passing it so overwhelmingly.

  6. dorian says:

    As an aside, my biggest problem with the whole charter school debate is I just don’t trust the legislature. The senate won’t even bother to police itself from rule infractions. They have all these add ons and fees that are supposed to go for this or that, they don’t. They don’t even let money for indigent defense go to indigent defense. They strangle counties revenue streams while constantly saying “do more”. Handing them another Atlanta bureaucracy just seems wrong. They have no moral justification for saying “trust us”. Over the last ten years State government has been dismantled. Everything from GTA, to prisons, to buying a darn fishing license has been outsourced, not only outsourced, but to companies outside of Georgia. You want to know what all these companies have in common? Lobbyists. What, there weren’t any companies that could set up a website to sell a fishing license in Georgia? They’ve been sued over treatment of the mentally ill, foster kids, kids in detention, etc. What part of crucial government services hasn’t been under federal oversight? Perdue even kicked a bunch of vets out of a retirement home in Milledgeville. Atlanta can’t even pave roads. Forgive me for not jumping in line for another Atlanta bureaucracy. You guys are just the best of the worst. We may not have any other alternatives, but that doesn’t mean you’re doing a good job.

  7. taylor says:

    “…a fee that significantly exceeds the cost of the service is, in reality, a tax.”
    — Georgia Dept. of Audits’ User Fees report, December 2006

    When money is redirected from its original purpose, it becomes a tax on those paying it. A fee implies an associated service.

  8. Dave Bearse says:

    You can’t trust words from the Gold Dome that have anything to do with money when words like “fee” are interchangable with tax.

    The expense to title a vehicle is on the order of $50, yet the title fee for a new $30,000 vehicle will be $2,250, 45 times the expense. But hey, it cut taxes by hundreds of millions.

    • Calypso says:

      I am not disagreeing with your premise, but is not the new vehicle title fee 7%? If so, that would make your scenario total $2,100.

      I have not purchased a car recently, so I don’t have first-hand knowledge.

      • Dave Bearse says:

        I think it is going to be 7.5%, but I may be mistaken. I write “is going to be” because I think it the tax will initially be a little less (and may not be starting until 2013), and will be phased in to the full rate over a period of time.

  9. elfiii says:

    The secret is to not let them pass any more “Joshua’s Law” type laws. That way their tax increases have to be “honest” tax increases.

    • benevolus says:

      Right! They could set up a committee to enforce it. The “User Fee Transparency” Committee. Let’s see, who would be a good chair for that? Hmm…. Balfour might be able to find the time.

  10. Jackster says:

    benevolus – we do not need another entire state bureaucracy for that. What we need is local control of user fee transparency, not state-run user fee transparency.

    It’s for the children.

    • Calypso says:

      Can we buy specialty car tags for this local-control user fee transparency agency? I’d like to know my money’s going to a good cause.

      • Jackster says:

        I think we need to make the legislators a “special cause”, and if you buy their special tag, you get a STATE SENATOR or HOUSE OF REPRESENATIVES tag for your enjoyment.

        that way, it’s clear where our $$ are going.

  11. saltycracker says:

    Most of the speciality tag fee goes into the state treasury. The causes roll over thanks to the idea that a pittance is better than nothing.

  12. seekingtounderstand says:

    A group of elected congressional reps. met this week to start a Lake Lanier caucus designed to make new laws regarding boaters and safety on Lake Lanier and address other issues. They will all be meeting once a month. The reps where from all counties that touch Lake Lanier and local officals are included also. Wow would power grab could come from this union?

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