Georgia environmentalists score scrappy Capitol win on trust funds

By: - April 14, 2021 3:00 am

Advocates built a replica of the Gold Dome out of scrap tires a few years ago and called it the “scrapitol” as part of a years-long push to pressure lawmakers to dedicate the scrap tire fee Georgians pay when they buy new tires to its intended purpose. Joe Cook/Coosa River Basin Initiative

Environmental advocates rounded up 500 scrap tires and set to work building a rubber replica of the Gold Dome in the shadow of the real thing as the 2017 legislative session was underway.

It was christened the “scrapitol,” complete with painted gold tires sitting atop the carefully constructed mound that conjured up images of the haphazardly dumped eyesores found on roadsides, in woods and elsewhere across the state.

The next year, advocates rolled a single tire around the state Capitol for 24 hours to deliver the same message to lawmakers that they have pushed for years: Put the trust back in trust funds.

Georgians pay a $1 fee for each new tire, but lawmakers have been diverting most of the revenue to other services even though the fee was originally created decades ago to help clean up illegal scrap tire dumps, abandoned landfills and other waste sites.

The environmentalists’ cause became more popular at the Statehouse this year after Georgia voters overwhelmingly backed a constitutional amendment last fall asking whether fees and taxes should go to their intended purpose.

“It’s hard to think about what other question you can get 82% of Georgians to agree on,” said Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman, executive director of the Coosa River Basin Initiative who helped organize the “scrapitol” stunt four years ago.

One of the governor’s floor leaders took up the cause this session, despite long-running concerns about the budgetary constraints the change requires. Lawmakers in both chambers unanimously supported the plan, which dedicates the scrap tire fee and several others – like so-called super speeder fees that were pitched as a boost for trauma care – to their originally stated purpose.

The bill is still awaiting Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature.

Demonbreun-Chapman said environmentalists started calling on lawmakers to adopt an anti bait-and-switch measure after lawmakers never fully restored funding to the trust funds after the Great Recession.

The bill’s success this year was a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing session for environmentalists after lawmakers banned local limits on natural gas hookups and the spread of industrial processing waste in rural Georgia.

Environmentalists found influential partners in their trust fund campaign, like the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. The association, which has tracked the funding levels for years, found that about two-thirds of the $74 million in scrap tire fees collected in the last decade never made it into the solid waste trust fund.

Even this year, less than half of the scrap tire fees paid last year went to environmental cleanup. The rest – about $4.6 million – was siphoned off into the state’s general fund, which pays for a wide range of services and funding priorities, including schools and health care.

Counties have been paying into another trust fund – the nearly three-decade-old hazardous waste trust fund – from the tipping fees paid on the trash going into their landfills.

That money is supposed to go toward cleaning up hazardous waste sites and helping to remediate old, unlined landfills that pose a threat to drinking water and the environment. Nearly every county has at least one hazardous site on the state’s radar. Statewide, there were about 500 hazardous sites as of last year, and dozens of them have been deemed abandoned, according to the state Environmental Protection Division.

Even so, about 60% of the $157 million collected in the last decade ended up in the state’s general fund, according to the association’s tracking. That left about $62.8 million to clean up hazardous waste sites during that time.

“We’re putting into this and never seeing it back, so it was more the principle of truth in advertising,” said Kathleen Bowen, associate legislative director with the association. “Also, it’s not truthful to the citizens either. What these fees are being collected for they’re not being used for.”

Advocates say they hope more dedicated funding will empower EPD to make more headway on the list of hazardous sites polluting the environment and potentially endangering the public.

“One of the one of the biggest things is – beyond just being able to put more dollars on the ground – is being able to get better organized and chipping away at that hazardous site inventory,” Demonbreun-Chapman said.

Tying lawmakers’ hands?

This year’s proposal, which was sponsored by Marietta Republican Rep. Bert Reeves, would protect nine trust funds for a decade starting next year.

The legislation does not create any new fees, but it does dedicate a new 50-cent rideshare fee that took effect last fall. It also does not cover all fees that Georgians pay.

Still, the plan ran into familiar concerns from lawmakers who have frowned over the loss of flexibility to shift funds elsewhere the budget.

“We’re tying the hands of five future Legislatures,” said Sen. Bill Cowsert, an Athens Republican.

That concern was in large part why it took so long for lawmakers to dedicate the fees. A prominent and long-time champion of the issue, Camilla Republican Rep. Jay Powell did not live to see the votes tallied on a ballot question he proposed two years ago.

Other provisions, like what Reeves called an “eject button” in the case of a financial emergency, were also added to win over reluctant lawmakers. The amount of revenue that can be set aside under the measure is also capped at 1% of the budget – or no more than $259 million under this year’s level of state spending.

Right now, the fees covered by the bill collectively brought in about $235 million in the 2019 fiscal year and before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted economic norms, according to the governor’s Office of Planning and Budget. That total does not include the fee for rideshare trips, which is expected to bring in about $30 million.

Transportation-related fees by far represent the largest share of the dedicated fees, with about $191.5 million collected in 2019. The measure also sets aside the rideshare fee for transit just as systems across the state struggle with a drop in ridership during the pandemic.

“To me, that is a bold step,” Columbus Democrat Rep. Calvin Smyre said of the transit funding when the bill cleared the House. “Because we had, over the years, never provided funding from MARTA all the way down to my system in Columbus METRA and all your systems around the state that have transit.

“To me, this is a major step in giving them direct funds from the state, and the state is participating in the process of providing transit throughout the state of Georgia,” Smyre said.

If the cap is busted, it would be left to the governor and the state’s budget writers to figure out how best to divvy up the excess money. The trust funds could be reduced proportionally, or adjustments could be made between trust funds to stay within the cap, according to the budget office.

Additional fees could still be dedicated in the future, but lawmakers would have to factor in the impact on the cap. Two-thirds of both chambers would also have to agree to include any new fees.

There is also nothing stopping lawmakers from putting additional money toward any of the designated purposes, like trauma care and the promotion of agriculture.

Here’s a breakdown of the fee revenues from 2019:

Georgia Agricultural Trust Fund: $2.9 million from annual fees paid by farmers who participate in a sales tax exemption program

Trauma Care Network Trust Fund: $16.5 million from super speeder fees

Wildlife Endowment Trust Fund: $1.2 million from lifetime sportsman’s licenses

Solid Waste Trust Fund: $7.7 million from scrap tire fees

Hazardous Waste Trust Fund: $12.7 million from solid waste disposal fees

Fireworks Trust Fund: $1.3 million from a fireworks excise tax

Transportation Trust Fund: $191.5 million from motel/hotel excise tax and highway impact fees

Georgia Transit Trust Fund: rideshare fee not yet created

State Children’s Trust Fund: $1.3 million from marriage/divorce filing fees

(Source: The governor’s Office of Planning and Budget) 

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.