(The Center Square) – Georgia voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of a constitutional amendment that requires transparency in government spending.
Georgians approved Constitutional Amendment 1, which calls for the Georgia Legislature to ensure money collected from taxes and fees is spent as intended. It was approved with 81.5% vote, with 2,643 of 2,656 precincts reporting Wednesday.
The Georgia Water Coalition, an environmental coalition of more than 270 state organizations, launched a campaign supporting the amendment. Activists said the state diverted money from the Hazardous Waste Trust Fund and Solid Waste Trust Fund meant to clean hazardous waste sites and landfills.
"When you purchase new tires for your car or dump a load of trash at your local landfill, you pay a fee to the state that is supposed to be used for environmental cleanups around the state," said Rena Ann Peck, executive director of the Georgia River Network. "But over the years, more than $200 million that has been collected from us has been diverted to pay for other things, meaning that toxic sites and illegal tire dumps remain to pollute our water and spoil local communities."
Georgians pay a $1 fee for every new tire purchased and a 75 cents tipping fee at local landfills to finance the Hazardous Waste Trust Fund and Solid Waste Trust Fund. When access to the two funds is limited, local governments that own or operate the sites have to bear the financial burden. Governments may need to raise taxes to fund other programs.
With passage of the amendment, lawmakers now must identify the purpose of the funds when allocating them, name the agency that would administer the funds and require the agency to maintain annual reports tracking the revenue and spending. They also have to set the fees and taxes to expire within 10 years automatically. The amendment also puts a cap on when lawmakers can allocate funds.
"Now the Legislature can restore the trust in our environmental trust funds, amounting to as much as $20 million annually to clean up hazardous sites restoring healthy rivers and coastal ecosystems," Peck said.
Georgia voters also approved a constitutional amendment that allows the public to sue the government, in certain instances, for violating the state's constitution.
Amendment 2 received 74.4% voter approval. It would allow Georgians to petition for a waiver of sovereign immunity, the concept that government legally cannot be wrong.
A Georgia Supreme Court ruling in 2017 barred the public from challenging the state's government. The court ruled Georgia's public officials were protected under sovereign immunity. The court left the approval up to the General Assembly.
Gov. Brian Kemp signed off on the General Assembly's decision to place the amendment on the ballot in August.
The change to the state's constitution allows a superior court judge to determine whether laws proposed by state and local governments are constitutional. However, it does not allow Georgians to seek damages or recover any legal fees in the lawsuit. The change would apply to any violations that take place after Jan. 1, 2021.
With 73% vote, Georgians also approved a statewide ballot measure that exempts certain nonprofits from paying state taxes when building or repairing single-family homes. The homes must be used by the organization or sold using zero-interest loans. The change, scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, 2021, applies to nonprofits that already are exempted from federal taxes.