AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

A small step toward slowing the Legislature's fee-diversion machine

Hundreds of millions of dollars in fee and fine money has been diverted by lawmakers over the past few decades, but an Atlanta lawmaker is trying to take a small step toward changing that long-running tradition.

A bill recently pre-filed by state Rep. Keisha Waites, D-Atlanta, would make permanent a traffic ticket add-on that, since the mid-2000s, was supposed to go toward high school driver education programs but often didn't. The add-ons are part of Joshua's Law, legislation aimed at helping to better prepare teens before they get a driver's license.

Waites is also is sponsoring a proposed constitutional amendment - which Georgians would get to vote on - that would mandate that the add-on money go to where it was supposed to go, essentially stopping the General Assembly from diverting the money to other uses in the future. Without the constitutional amendment, there is no guarantee the diversions wouldn't happen again.

Since Waites is a Democrat in a Republican-run General Assembly, her chances of getting her bills passed aren’t good. However, Joshua’s Law and the diversion of money raised through fees and fines and various court add-ons could be a hot topic during the session.

For one thing, the General Assembly will have to decide whether to renew the extra Joshua's Law traffic ticket fees because, without action, they end June 30.

For another, some of Waites’ Republican colleagues have agreed that money the General Assembly promises to spend on things such as driver education and environmental cleanup should go to those programs.

We're not talking pocket change here.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported earlier this month that state lawmakers have diverted hundreds of millions of dollars - from landfill fees to court surcharges — in an effort to balance the budget, allowing them to avoid raising taxes or having to further cut spending. In doing so, they’ve collected money from Georgians telling them their fees were going for one thing while spending them on another.

The issue has been around for several years, but it came back up this fall when a state audit questioned whether the state should continue charging a $1 per tire fee when Georgians buy tires. Auditors argued that officials are raising more than enough money to clean up tire dumps - the stated purpose for the fee. The Department of Audits and Accounts report said state officials should do a more thorough review of the program before asking lawmakers to renew the fee in the future.

The state has collected about $450 million from tire fees, landfill fees and  hazardous waste fees over the past few decades. The General Assembly has only allocated about $264 million to clean up dumps.

Most of the diversions have happened in the past 12 years, when two fiscal recessions sent governors and lawmakers desperately searching for ways to fill holes in the budget.

One high-profile example of the diversions has been Joshua’s Law, which was passed in 2005 and added a surcharge to traffic fines to establish driver education programs in Georgia schools. The law raised $10 million or more annually some years. But a 2011 state audit found that of $57 million collected at that point, only $8 million had actually been used for driver training.

In 2013 lawmakers cut the surcharge from 5 percent to 1.5 percent of the original fine for traffic offenses and shortly afterward Gov. Nathan Deal began allocating more money for driver’s education programs, including $2.9 million this year.

Alan Brown,  whose son’s death inspired the teen driver safety statute, said only about 10 percent of the $80 million or so the state has raised from the add-ons has gone to driver education programs. At the current rate of  state funding, he said, it would take decades to get driver education programs into every high school.

Brown said of Waites' legislation, “I think it’s a great start to remove the sunset (from Joshua’s Law). It is something I have been working on for 10 years."

Waites wants the money to go where lawmakers promised it would go.

But lawmakers may go the other way. They may want to do away with such add-ons and fees.

Legislators passed a measure in 2013 mandating that some fees be dropped if the money wasn't spent the way it was supposed to be. Deal and legislative leaders essentially ignored it. However, driver's ed programs started getting some of the money they were supposed to get the next year.

The Joshua's Law ticket add-on is up for renewal during the 2016 session, which begins Jan. 11. One lawmaker who wants to see it go away is House Public Safety Chairman Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, who never supposed Joshua's Law in the first place.

Powell said the state already tacks so many additional fees onto traffic tickets that many Georgians can’t afford to pay them.

Besides, he said, “it’s not fair because the money is not going where it’s supposed to go.”

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About the Author

James Salzer has covered state government and politics in Georgia since 1990.