Above the Waterline: Restoring the trust in state government

In early December, DeKalb County discovered more than 20,000 illegally dumped tires at Fork Creek Mountain Park.

“No man’s life, liberty or property are safe when the legislature is in session,” goes the (very) old saying.

Starting on Jan. 8, when the Georgia General Assembly convenes, it will be time again to pay attention to the shenanigans of our elected officials, as they focus on matters of major and minor consequence to the citizens of our state. Your legislators need to hear from you regarding your concerns and interests during the 40-day session, which typically ends in late March.

If you don’t know who your state legislators are, it’s easy to find out at openstates.org/find_your_legislator/. Go to this link, type in your address and you’ll see the names of your representatives. These are the people who will make decisions on your behalf (ostensibly) in the next few months, so keep their contact information handy and email, call or visit them at the State Capitol in Downtown. It’s their job to meet with you and hear your views.

One of the bills that I will be following this year has to do with a law passed in the early 1990s whose implementation has been problematic, affecting the environment, public health and safety, and property values. The bill imposed a fee of $1 on every new tire sold to support the Georgia Solid Waste Trust Fund, charged with funding the cleanup of abandoned scrap tire dumps and the remediation of contaminated landfills. Undoubtedly, you have paid the tire fee on numerous occasions, whether you realized it or not.

The problem is that 40 percent of the funds collected since 1993 – nearly $200 million – has been redirected by the state legislature to fund unrelated portions of the state budget. While the state has removed 15 million tires from illegal dump sites over the past 25 years, many abandoned tire sites remain untouched in the city and statewide; the number of improperly discarded tires is unknown.

The Georgia Constitution, as currently written, does not allow state legislators to “dedicate” fees to their intended use – whether to clean up environmental waste sites, fund teen driver programs or support training for peace officers. The fees collected are placed in the state general fund for allocation by state legislators as they deem fit, even though the bill creating the fee may say differently.

If a private company charges a fee to perform a certain service, but fails to do so, it is considered fraud. Unfortunately, if the Georgia legislature does the same thing, as it has done repeatedly with the redirection of fee monies collected to clean up waste sites, it’s considered business as usual. When the state collects fees for a specific purpose, those funds should be used for that purpose; otherwise, they can become de facto taxes.

Introduced last year, House Resolution 158 proposes an amendment to the Georgia Constitution that would ensure fees dedicated to a specific purpose are annually appropriated for that purpose. If the resolution passes, the amendment will be placed on the election ballot in November 2018 for consideration by state voters.

Let’s help restore trust in our government and ensure that important state programs are properly funded by passing House Resolution 158 during the 2018 session of the General Assembly. To read this bill, see legis.ga.gov/Legislation/20172018/166121.pdf.  Then, make your voice heard by contacting your state representatives and participating in our democratic process!

You can also make a personal New Year’s resolution to take your tires, holiday lights, electronics, household hazardous waste, bulky trash and other items to The Center for Hard to Recycle Materials (CHaRM) in southeast Atlanta. A permanent drop-off facility that recycles and diverts thousands of pounds of waste from metro Atlanta landfills, CHaRM is holding its annual Holiday Cleanup from Jan. 2-13. For more information, visit livethrive.org/charm/.

Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and current board president of Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy whose mission is to build a community of support for the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.