Under new legislation, Georgia might double spending on tire and hazardous cleanup

By Maggie Lee

Every time you buy a new tire in Georgia, you pay a $1 fee. State law says that money should pay to clean up illegal tire dumps and similar work. State reality is that millions of those dollars don’t.

The law that binds those dollars to tire cleanup, recycling or closing landfills isn’t actually binding on the Legislature when it writes the budget every year. (Sounds strange, but it’s true.)

And similarly, a fee that comes mainly from using landfills or hazardous substances doesn’t usually go to pay for cleaning up old hazardous sites or landfills as the law dictates.

Between the two, that’s about $7.5 million that the state didn’t spend on environmental cleanup this fiscal year, but that it arguably should have.

“We’ve spent probably two-thirds of what we have collected over the last 10 years in general appropriations, and only have spent about a third for what the intended purpose was,” said state Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, discussing those two funds and his House Resolution 164 on Thursday.

A file photo from March 2017 shows tires heaped outside the Georgia state Capitol in protest of diversion of tire cleanup money. Credit: Kelly Jordan

A file photo from March 2017 shows tires heaped outside the Georgia state Capitol in protest of diversion of tire cleanup money. Credit: Kelly Jordan

He wants to change that. His legislation would pretty much have the Legislature to stick to dedicating each of the many, many such funds in law, subject to a cap within the budget overall, and subject to change if there is another financial emergency like the Great Recession.

Both funds got heavily raided during the Great Recession — when the state needed every penny to pay its regular bills.

But in about the last four years, something more like half more of the money from those funds has gone to the stated purpose. In dollar terms, the state is collecting around $6 million to $7 million on new tire fees each year, but spending around $3 million on cleanup (details here.)  The state is collecting in the neighborhood of $12 million to $16 million annually for hazardous cleanup, but is spending between about $4 million and $12 million annually (details here.) The rest just goes into the general fund — the state’s main account for paying for everything from state patrol to schools.

Powell and supporters of his legislation have a couple nicknames for it: Truth in Fees. The Anti-Bait-and-Switch legislation.

But Powell has had an uphill climb with his proposal for years.

Most of what Georgia spends comes from taxes: what you’ve got to pay on your income, on your alcoholic beverages, what corporations have to pay on their income, and so on.  For the fiscal year that begins in July, all those taxes together will come to something like $24 billion. That’s not fees, so that’s not what Powell is talking about.

Relatively little of the state’s general fund comes from other revenues all mashed together: interest, sales and fees will raise about $1.8 billion.

But still, fees mean enough that state Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, isn’t ready to endorse changing the laws on all of them.

His committee approved a substitute to Powell’s bill. This Senate version does a similar thing to the original, but  would apply only to the most high profile funds: tires and hazardous waste.

“When you pass a broad-based process that will remove unknown numbers of fees, then I think you’re taking a real chance that somehow we’re going to run into the case where fees that we are using now for the administration of certain departments legitimately will all of a sudden be in doubt as to whether they’re being used correctly,” Hill said at the hearing.

Legislators get a lot of calls about about both funds, in part from cities and counties — local officials are often the first to hear from residents angry about heaps of abandoned tires.

Environmentalists are mad enough that in 2017, they hauled hundreds of scrap tires to downtown Atlanta, painted some of them gold and heaped up a state “Scrapitol” right in front of the Capitol to protest fund diversion.

Now the bill goes to the Rules committee for a chance at a full state Senate floor vote. The House would then have to agree to the changes to send the bill to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk.  Then, voters would have to approve the idea in a statewide referendum.

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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