Georgia House panel approves trust funds dedication bill

Georgia Rep. Bert Reeves

ATLANTA – The money deposited in nine state-run trust funds could be used for no other purpose under legislation that cleared the Georgia House Appropriations Committee Friday.

House Bill 511 is the follow-up to a constitutional amendment Georgia voters ratified overwhelmingly last fall requiring all revenues the state’s dedicated trust funds collect to remain inside those programs rather than be diverted into the general fund budget.

The late Georgia Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, championed the constitutional amendment for years to prevent Georgia governors and legislative leaders from raiding the state’s Solid Waste and Hazardous Waste trust funds during economic downturns when money is tight.

The constitutional amendment finally gained passage last year following the unexpected death of Powell in November 2019 at age 67.

“When we in this General Assembly create and pass a dedicated fee to go to a certain purpose … it should go to the purpose it was intended for,” Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, who has shepherded the legislation since Powell’s death, told committee members Friday.

While Powell developed the proposal with the Solid Waste and Hazardous Waste trust funds in mind, the bill the committee adopted Friday also would apply to the following:

  • State Children’s Trust Fund, which goes to the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services.
  • Wildlife Endowment Trust Fund, a tax on hunting and fishing licenses that supports state wildlife programs.
  • Georgia Trauma Care Network, which funds trauma care services through a fine on “super speeders.”
  • Transportation Trust Fund, which supports road projects through the state’s motor fuels tax.
  • Georgia Agricultural Trust Fund, which goes toward marketing the state’s farm products and state-run farmers’ markets.
  • Fireworks Trust Fund, a sales tax on fireworks that goes toward trauma care and firefighter training.
  • Georgia Transit Trust Fund, a per-ride tax on ride-sharing services that helps fund public transit improvements.

The constitutional amendment ratified last fall includes a 10-year sunset date to give lawmakers a chance to review each trust fund and ensure the services it helps pay for are still needed.

It allows governors and legislatures to suspend the dedication of trust fund revenues during economic emergencies to free up those funds for general spending needs.

Also, the total amount dedicated to the trust funds during a given fiscal year could not exceed 1% of the state’s budget from the previous fiscal year.

Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, said the transit trust fund is particularly significant because it represents the first dedicated source of state funding for transit projects. The General Assembly earmarked $75 million in one-shot bond financing for transit in 2015.

“Transit has been neglected,” Smyre said. “This is a great step.”

The bill now moves to the House Rules Committee to schedule a floor vote.

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Coronavirus relief funds to rescue Georgia’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund

Gov. Brian Kemp

ATLANTA – The federal government is stepping up with $1.5 billion to replenish Georgia’s depleted Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, Gov. Brian Kemp announced Wednesday.

The money, which will come through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, will repay funds the state has borrowed to provide unemployment benefits to Georgians who lost their jobs during the pandemic.

“COVID-19 has brought unprecedented challenges to nearly every business – large and small – and upended the lives of millions of Georgians,” Kemp said. “Through no fault of their own, thousands of people became unemployed overnight, businesses were shut down, and countless families suffered.

“Today’s announcement will save Georgia employers millions of dollars in state and federal unemployment taxes, prevent significant layoffs, and save the state millions of dollars in interest payments.”

By allocating up to $1.5 billion in coronavirus relief funds to avoid raising state and federal unemployment taxes, the average Georgia employer will save about $350 per year for each employed worker.

But the state still won’t be out of the woods. With benefit payments projected to outpace tax revenue, Georgia will have to continue to borrow federal funds to pay benefits.

After the Great Recession of 2008-2009, it took three years until tax revenue outpaced benefit payments.

Unless the state raises employers’ tax rates for unemployment insurance or provides an injection of capital through another means, Georgia would have to borrow an additional $1 billion by 2023 to keep up with benefits payments, according to state Department of Labor estimates.

“Without the transfer of funds, the state will have to increase unemployment tax rates for employers between 300% and 400% to make headway on paying off the loan,” Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler said Wednesday. “This reallocation of federal funds will allow more employers across the state to focus on the growth and success of their businesses without having the additional pressure of a rising unemployment tax.”

Environmentalists win trust fund protection in otherwise disappointing legislative session

ATLANTA – When the dust settled from this year’s General Assembly session, environmental advocates were looking at some success but mostly disappointments.

Lawmakers finally voted to protect state trust funds for environmental cleanup activities after years of failed efforts.

But two bills that passed the General Assembly would prohibit local governments from regulating poultry plant processing wastes or adopting building codes based on the source of energy to be used.

The trust fund legislation follows a constitutional amendment Georgia voters ratified overwhelmingly last November requiring all revenues the state’s dedicated trust funds collect to remain inside those programs rather than be diverted into the general fund budget.

The late Georgia Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, who died in November 2019, championed the constitutional amendment for years to prevent Georgia governors and legislative leaders from raiding the state’s Solid Waste and Hazardous Waste trust funds during economic downturns when money is tight.

While Powell had those two environmental trust funds in mind, the final version of House Bill 511 added other trust funds to the protected list, including the

  • State Children’s Trust Fund, which goes to the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services.
  • Wildlife Endowment Trust Fund, a tax on hunting and fishing licenses that supports state wildlife programs.
  • Georgia Trauma Care Network, which funds trauma care services through a fine on “super speeders.”
  • Transportation Trust Fund, which supports road projects through the state’s motor fuels tax.
  • Georgia Agricultural Trust Fund, which goes toward marketing the state’s farm products and state-run farmers’ markets.
  • Fireworks Trust Fund, a sales tax on fireworks that goes toward trauma care and firefighter training.
  • Georgia Transit Trust Fund, a per-ride tax on ride-sharing services that helps fund public transit improvements.

“When we in this General Assembly create and pass a dedicated fee to go to a certain purpose … it should go to the purpose it was intended for,” Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, the bill’s chief sponsor, said during a committee hearing on the measure.

The constitutional amendment ratified last fall includes a 10-year sunset date to give lawmakers a chance to make sure the services each trust fund pays for are still needed.

It allows governors and legislatures to suspend the dedication of trust fund revenues during economic emergencies to free up those funds for general spending needs.

Also, the total amount dedicated to the trust funds during a given fiscal year may not exceed 1% of the state’s budget from the previous fiscal year.

While celebrating the win on trust funds, environmental groups and minority Democrats criticized two “preemption” bills the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed during the last two days of this year’s legislative session.

One of the measures prohibits local governments from regulating poultry processing plant wastes farmers spread on their fields as fertilizer.

The legislation was spurred by complaints from residents in several Northeast Georgia counties of foul odors emanating from farm fields.

Rep. Mary Frances Williams, D-Marietta, said waste being spread on the fields that is supposed to be limited to liquid but sometimes contains byproducts, including chicken carcasses.

“The smell is awful,” she said. “It’s been a problem people have really complained about.”

But Sen. Tyler Harper, R-Ocilla, the bill’s chief sponsor, said a late change the Georgia House of Representatives added to the measure requiring farmers to submit a nutrient management plan should give the state the tools to go after violators.

“It ensures those that are bad actors get their act together and do it right,” he said.

The other preemption bill stems from actions a handful of cities in other states have taken requiring builders to use only renewable sources of energy to power new commercial and residential buildings.

Republicans pitched the legislation as giving home- and business owners freedom to choose how they want to power their properties without government interference.

“Many homes in my district are warmed by petroleum gas,” Rep. Beth Camp, R-Concord, said during a committee debate on the bill. “If a municipality makes a decision to terminate a form of energy, they’re telling people what they can and can’t do in their homes.”

But opponents said the bill essentially was a solution looking for a problem. While Georgia cities including Atlanta, Athens and Savannah, have set goals for reducing reliance on fossil fuels, none have banned gas.

“Nobody’s going to prohibit a gas hookup,” said Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club. “The bill was just a showboat.”

Environmental advocates also were disappointed with the lack of progress on addressing the 29 ash ponds Georgia Power is working to close at 11 of the utility’s coal-burning power plants.

For the second year in a row, Republican legislative leaders wouldn’t give a hearing to Democrats’ bills requiring the installation of liners for the 10 ponds being closed in place to prevent groundwater contamination.

The only legislation that did get a hearing, a proposal to tighten monitoring requirements for coal ash, passed the House but wasn’t taken up in the Senate.

“Toxic coal ash is sitting in groundwater around the state, and yet the Georgia legislature failed to pass legislation addressing this problem,” said Jennette Gayer, director of Atlanta-based Environment Georgia.

But Rep. Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain, chief sponsor of the monitoring bill, said the solution environmentalists are seeking for coal ash is problematic.

“Liners are good if they never, ever have a default or deterioration,” he said. “But one small pinhole or a crack and you lose what you’re supposed to be doing.”

Police funding, trust in Georgia focus of talk by law enforcement leaders, NAACP

Panelists in a virtual talk led by U.S. Attorney BJay Pak discussed criminal justice issues in Georgia on Aug. 25, 2020. (Screenshot of event)

How to rebuild trust in Georgia communities between police officers and local residents was a focus of talks Tuesday between representatives from metro Atlanta law enforcement agencies, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the state chapter of the NAACP.

Spearheaded by U.S. Attorney BJay Pak of the Northern District of Georgia, the virtual town hall-style talk touched on how officer-involved shootings are investigated, what can be done to improve officer training and the impact of calls for reduced police funding in local communities across the country.

“We have to acknowledge that right now we’re hurting,” Pak said. “We have to show some empathy and some patience, condemn the violence and talk to each other to find a common solution that all of us can agree with and buy into.”

The talk was held amid a backdrop of continuing protests against police brutality and racial injustice sparked by the officer-caused killing of George Floyd in Minnesota in late May and the local arrests of two men involved in the February shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick.

Protesters have also decried the fatal shooting of Rayshard Brooks by an Atlanta police officer in June shortly after nationwide protests gained steam. His killing prompted the resignation of Atlanta’s police chief at the time.

And new protests broke out in Kenosha, Wis., Sunday night after 29-year-old Jacob Blake was shot in the back by police while trying to get into his SUV as his three children inside the vehicle looked on.

Several communities nationwide have pressed for reducing funds for local police departments in recent months, marking a policy that has drawn sharp denouncement from many politicians including President Donald Trump.

James Woodall, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Georgia chapter, said the conversation around police funding requires more nuance than a wholesale call for fewer law enforcement dollars.

He said funding should be driven by local decisions based on the needs of individual communities, not by political talking points on either side of the partisan divide.

“We have to be having these conversations about what’s happening on the ground and not listen to the national voices and the national movements that are trying to underwrite what’s actually happening at the grassroots level,” Woodall said.

Chief Rodney Bryant, who now heads the Atlanta Police Department in an interim capacity, said he disagrees with efforts to reduce police funding given the increased resources departments like his will need to improve training. But he agreed funding decisions should be kept strictly at the local level.

“I think it’s important to recognize that it should lie with the community itself to make that determination,” Bryant said.

Bryant added he aims to have Atlanta officers evaluated more regularly to identify potential training shortcomings and to incorporate peer intervention in training programs so that it is ingrained in officers to report misconduct from their colleagues, rather than turn a blind eye for fear of being ostracized.

“You will have to do it,” Bryant said of peer intervention. “And if you don’t, you will be held accountable.”

Bryant also backed efforts by state lawmakers to evaluate whether Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law should be changed, calling it “a very dangerous situation for both parties, especially when it goes wrong.”

Chief James Conroy, who heads up the Roswell Police Department, echoed remarks from others during Tuesday’s talk that local jurisdictions need more recourse to assist persons with mental health issues via professional services, rather than by calling police.

To that end, Conroy also highlighted the importance for citizens to involve themselves more in community engagement in order to better partner with law enforcement agencies and identify specific, local points of improvement for police to make.

“Relationships are the key to successful and effective law enforcement,” Conroy said. “If we don’t have strong relationships with our community built on trust and transparency, we’re going to fail.”

Cobb County District Attorney Joyette Holmes, whose office is prosecuting the two men arrested in the Arbery fatal shooting, noted communication between law enforcement and many different community groups is critical to build trust between officers and residents.

“It really takes all of us recognizing what our blind spots are,” Holmes said.

Legislature gives final OK to ballot measure protecting dedicated funds

ATLANTA – Georgia voters will decide this fall whether to require that dedicated state funds be spent on their intended purpose.

The state Senate voted unanimously Monday to put the proposed constitutional amendment on the statewide November ballot, giving final passage to a measure that originated in the Georgia House of Representatives.

Committing dedicated state money such as Georgia’s Solid Waste and Hazardous Waste trust funds to their intended use was a longstanding priority of the late state Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, who died unexpectedly last November. As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and later the Rules Committee, Powell opposed the legislative practice of diverting those monies into the state’s general fund budget absent a financial emergency.

“It would bring a level of accountability to these fees and truth in taxation back to the dedication of these fees,” Rep. Andrew Welch, R-McDonough, said on the House floor last week.

Although the Senate at one point in this year’s session favored limiting the legislation to the Solid Waste and Hazardous Waste trust funds, senators on Monday agreed to a House proposal applying the constitutional amendment to all dedicated revenues derived from state fees or taxes.

The legislation includes substantial limits to make sure dedicated funds don’t grow too large and can be put to general use in emergencies.

Under the constitutional amendment, dedicated funds could not exceed 1% of total state revenues from the previous year. In a financial emergency, the governor and General Assembly would have the authority to temporarily suspend the dedication of funds.

“This is true middle ground in the appropriations process,” Welch said.

As a constitutional amendment, the legislation does not go to the governor to be signed into law. Its passage Monday guarantees its placement on the general election ballot Nov. 3.