By Kyle Wingfield
Don’t you hate it when you get to the end of your ballot, and suddenly you’re faced with an unfamiliar constitutional amendment or referendum?
These ballot questions usually don’t spawn millions of dollars in TV ads about what’s at stake. And the questions themselves often seem written intentionally vaguely. So let’s walk through the three statewide questions appearing on this year’s ballots.
Amendment 1: For years, the General Assembly has passed various types of taxes or user fees. Also for years, the General Assembly has proclaimed that the proceeds from some of these taxes and fees would go toward certain public uses.
But in many cases, the “dedicated” revenues did not go toward their prescribed uses. It turns out, the General Assembly legally cannot dedicate tax or fee revenues without amending the Constitution. Now, we have an amendment to end such amendments.
Amendment 1 would allow legislators to dedicate tax or fee revenues for up to 10 years at a time with a two-thirds vote (also required for constitutional amendments) but without the added step of a public referendum.
Sound like a no-brainer? In reality, I and many other Capitol observers long believed this “truth in advertising,” as it’s been called, came with an unacceptable price. Dedicating revenues to such uses as tire waste disposal sounds great when the treasury is flush. But what about in leaner times? Would you rather clean up tire dumps than pay teachers?
Fortunately, this amendment has a fail-safe. Should state revenues fall significantly, the governor can declare a “financial emergency” and temporarily suspend taxes and fees dedicated in this way. The General Assembly can then confirm the suspension with a simple majority.
If it sounds like lawmakers are giving themselves a permanent loophole, the amendment also limits these maneuvers to three years out of every 10. So lawmakers can retain some flexibility, while also being forced to maintain some discipline.
Amendment 2: “Sovereign immunity” is a term only an attorney or a royal could love. In layman’s terms, it’s like saying you can’t fight city hall.
The idea, which dates to English common law, essentially holds that you can’t sue the government for breaking its own laws, because it makes the laws. Unless, that is, it says you can sue it.
Sovereign immunity for the state from its own residents has not always been absolute. In Georgia from 1974 to 2014, residents were able to sue state and local governments and their agencies to have a law declared unconstitutional and to block its enforcement, but they could not seek monetary damages. A 2014 ruling by the Georgia Supreme Court changed that: Now, lawmakers must waive sovereign immunity before a government can be sued.
This is the third time since 2014 the General Assembly has tried to put limits on sovereign immunity. Govs. Nathan Deal and Brian Kemp each vetoed a previous attempt, but this constitutional amendment did not require Kemp’s approval.
We’re a litigious society, and it’s possible the courts could become clogged with such cases. But with monetary damages and, importantly, attorney’s fees off the table, that seems unlikely. Instead, this amendment is more likely to enhance accountability for local and state government.
Referendum A: Housing affordability is an issue in many communities across Georgia. This ballot question seeks to make a small impact via property taxes.
If approved, this measure would exempt parcels from property taxes if they are owned by a nonprofit charity for the purpose of building or repairing single-family homes, and if the charity would then finance the sale of that home to a buyer with a zero-interest loan. Think Habitat for Humanity. The buyer would then owe taxes on the property.
Compared to the huge tax abatements some cities and counties give to apartment builders for projects with questionable effects on affordability, this measure is likely to be much smaller in both impact and cost. There’s no inherent problem with it, but nor should anyone expect it to put much of a dent in Georgia’s housing affordability problem.