French philosopher Voltaire famously stated, “Common sense is not so common.” This adage can be applied to the art of lawmaking. Having served in the Wisconsin State Legislature for 16 years, I witnessed many common and not-so-common ways in which a bill becomes a law or a constitution gets amended. On November 3rd, Georgia voters challenged Voltaire’s adage by overwhelmingly voting for a common-sense constitutional amendment that would require the Georgia General Assembly to dedicate taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars toward specific state projects for which the revenue was intended. What a novel and refreshing idea!
Amendment 1, the Georgia Dedicating Tax and Fee Revenue Amendment, asked a very straightforward question of voters: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to authorize the General Assembly to dedicate revenues derived from fees or taxes to the public purpose for which such fees or taxes were intended?”
Doesn’t that already happen, you may ask? Sadly, no: it is a common occurrence in state capitals around the country for lawmakers and governors to transfer funds from one dedicated program or agency to another with little oversight and little accountability to taxpayers.
This type of misappropriation of funds has been on display in Georgia for years. To take just one recent example, there has been a history of diversion of taxpayer money from the Solid Waste Trust Funds (SWTF) to the state’s general fund. SWTF was established in 1990 by the Georgia Comprehensive Solid Waste Management Act which charges consumers a fee for each new tire purchased in the state. The revenue generated from the tire sales is intended to be used for waste management programs such as recycling, hazardous waste reduction, scrap tire and landfill clean-up, to name a few. However, according to a Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts report, only a portion of the statutory uses were funded and, instead, most fee revenue was directed to the state’s general fund. The audit also revealed that, “Appropriations to the SWTF remain only a portion of fee collections each year. Fee collections increased from $6.4 million in fiscal year 2015 to $7.2 million in fiscal year 2017. Appropriations to the SWTF were $2.8 million in fiscal year 2018 and had exceeded $3.0 million only once in the last four years—$3.2 million in fiscal year 2017.”
As passed, Amendment 1 authorizes the Georgia State Legislature to pass legislation establishing dedicated funds and revenue sources for statute-specific projects. Simply put, the amendment will require transparency in spending. When a taxpayer pays a tire fee, they should be confident that their money is going to fund waste management programs. Likewise, they should expect the same for other fees and taxes.
In my home state of Wisconsin, legislators and voters worked to change the state constitution for a similar misuse of taxpayer money. From 2003 to 2010, then-Governor Jim Doyle raided $1.2 billion from the state’s transportation fund to pay for schools and provide aid to local governments. Taxpayers paid gas taxes and vehicle registrations fees expecting that their dollars were going to fix roads and expand the state’s transportation infrastructure. That did not happen. The state ended up borrowing $800 million to make up for the loss. This infuriated taxpayers across the state accustomed to diligently managing their own pocketbooks with far more fiscal restraint and less credit card spending. Ultimately, the Wisconsin legislature passed a resolution – over the course of two consecutive legislative sessions as required – to amend the constitution, and the question was finally put before the voters in 2014 where it overwhelmingly passed with 79.94 percent voting in favor of the change.
It goes without saying that the legislative process is often slow and deliberative. Amendment 1 was no exception to the rule. The dedicated tax and fee amendment had long been championed by Georgia State Representative Jay Powell. He died last November and never got to see his bill cross the finish line. It is a testament to his legacy that his colleagues followed through in his absence, eventually giving the people the opportunity to decide. And decide they did - a resounding 81.63% of voters heard Representative Powell’s call to end what he often called the “bait and switch” policy that disregarded Georgia taxpayers.
Common sense can prevail, and the Georgia General Assembly is to be commended for leading the charge to amend the state’s constitution to provide true taxpayer accountability and transparency. Ultimately, it was the voice of Georgia voters that made this happen. Representative Powell is, no doubt, smiling with pride.