ATLANTA - Georgia voters will decide whether to make it easier to sue the state and local governments as well as whether it should be harder for the state to spend fees collected for designated purposes on other things.
A pair of proposed amendments to Georgia’s constitution dealing with those issues appear at the bottom of the November ballot. There’s also a referendum on whether to grant a tax break to one of Georgia’s most prominent charities.
All three measures passed the state legislature, but also require approval by a majority of voters to take effect.
Here’s a look at the 2020 ballot questions.
TRUTH IN SPENDING
Each year, Georgia collects millions of dollars in special fees that are supposed to pay for specific needs such as disposal of scrap tires, cleaning up landfills, educating new drivers and training law enforcement officers.
But nothing in state law requires spending those fees on their intended purposes, and lawmakers have often diverted them to the state’s general fund to cover other expenses.
The first amendment on the ballot would allow lawmakers to set up dedicated trust funds that would make it more difficult to spend the earmarked money for other purposes. Lawmakers would have to vote to renew the trust funds every 10 years.
In the past, some lawmakers opposed locking in revenues for specific uses, fearing they would be unable to tap into that money in a budget crisis. The amendment on the ballot authorizes the governor or the legislature to dip into designated fees if necessary in a financial emergency.
The Association County Commissioners of Georgia supports the amendment. The group says the state over the past decade has diverted more than $147 million collected to clean up hazardous waste sites, dispose of scrap tires, promote recycling and other waste cleanup efforts.
Georgia’s two most recent governors have vetoed lawmakers’ attempts to make the state and local governments more accountable by weakening their immunity to lawsuits. Now the legislature hopes to bypass Gov. Brian Kemp’s veto pen by going straight to voters.
The second amendment on the ballot would essentially undo a 2014 ruling by the Georgia Supreme Court that decided the state and local governments could only be sued if they agreed to it. The legal concept, known as sovereign immunity, comes from English law and is commonly summarized to mean “the king can do no wrong.”
If voters approve the amendment, citizens would be able to sue governments in Georgia for illegal acts. However, judges would be barred from entering injunctions ordering a government to do something. Judges would also be prohibited from awarding monetary damages, attorney’s fees or court costs.
A new state Supreme Court ruling in September found that sovereign immunity doesn’t provide Georgia governments absolute protection from lawsuits. The justices did not address how adoption of the amendment on the ballot might further change things.
HABITAT TAX BREAK
Georgia ballots also contain a referendum on whether charities that provide affordable housing with interest-free loans should be exempt from paying property taxes on those homes.
The measure’s sponsor, Republican state Rep. Matthew Gambill of Cartersville, has said the tax break is intended to benefit Georgia-based Habitat for Humanity. The nonprofit estimates its affiliates would save roughly $200,000 a year.
The referendum doesn’t mention Habitat by name. But it specifies that properties qualifying for the tax exemption must be “owned by a purely public charity” and used to build or refurbish single-family homes. Charities would be required sell the homes to new owners using interest-free financing.