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ATLANTA – When the dust settled from this year’s General Assembly session, environmental advocates were looking at some success but mostly disappointments.
Lawmakers finally voted to protect state trust funds for environmental cleanup activities after years of failed efforts.
But two bills that passed the General Assembly would prohibit local governments from regulating poultry plant processing wastes or adopting building codes based on the source of energy to be used.
The trust fund legislation follows a constitutional amendment Georgia voters ratified overwhelmingly last November requiring all revenues the state’s dedicated trust funds collect to remain inside those programs rather than be diverted into the general fund budget.
The late Georgia Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, who died in November 2019, championed the constitutional amendment for years to prevent Georgia governors and legislative leaders from raiding the state’s Solid Waste and Hazardous Waste trust funds during economic downturns when money is tight.
While Powell had those two environmental trust funds in mind, the final version of House Bill 511 added other trust funds to the protected list, including the
- State Children’s Trust Fund, which goes to the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services.
- Wildlife Endowment Trust Fund, a tax on hunting and fishing licenses that supports state wildlife programs.
- Georgia Trauma Care Network, which funds trauma care services through a fine on “super speeders.”
- Transportation Trust Fund, which supports road projects through the state’s motor fuels tax.
- Georgia Agricultural Trust Fund, which goes toward marketing the state’s farm products and state-run farmers’ markets.
- Fireworks Trust Fund, a sales tax on fireworks that goes toward trauma care and firefighter training.
- Georgia Transit Trust Fund, a per-ride tax on ride-sharing services that helps fund public transit improvements.
“When we in this General Assembly create and pass a dedicated fee to go to a certain purpose … it should go to the purpose it was intended for,” Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, the bill’s chief sponsor, said during a committee hearing on the measure.
The constitutional amendment ratified last fall includes a 10-year sunset date to give lawmakers a chance to make sure the services each trust fund pays for are still needed.
It allows governors and legislatures to suspend the dedication of trust fund revenues during economic emergencies to free up those funds for general spending needs.
Also, the total amount dedicated to the trust funds during a given fiscal year may not exceed 1% of the state’s budget from the previous fiscal year.
While celebrating the win on trust funds, environmental groups and minority Democrats criticized two “preemption” bills the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed during the last two days of this year’s legislative session.
One of the measures prohibits local governments from regulating poultry processing plant wastes farmers spread on their fields as fertilizer.
The legislation was spurred by complaints from residents in several Northeast Georgia counties of foul odors emanating from farm fields.
Rep. Mary Frances Williams, D-Marietta, said waste being spread on the fields that is supposed to be limited to liquid but sometimes contains byproducts, including chicken carcasses.
“The smell is awful,” she said. “It’s been a problem people have really complained about.”
But Sen. Tyler Harper, R-Ocilla, the bill’s chief sponsor, said a late change the Georgia House of Representatives added to the measure requiring farmers to submit a nutrient management plan should give the state the tools to go after violators.
“It ensures those that are bad actors get their act together and do it right,” he said.
The other preemption bill stems from actions a handful of cities in other states have taken requiring builders to use only renewable sources of energy to power new commercial and residential buildings.
Republicans pitched the legislation as giving home- and business owners freedom to choose how they want to power their properties without government interference.
“Many homes in my district are warmed by petroleum gas,” Rep. Beth Camp, R-Concord, said during a committee debate on the bill. “If a municipality makes a decision to terminate a form of energy, they’re telling people what they can and can’t do in their homes.”
But opponents said the bill essentially was a solution looking for a problem. While Georgia cities including Atlanta, Athens and Savannah, have set goals for reducing reliance on fossil fuels, none have banned gas.
“Nobody’s going to prohibit a gas hookup,” said Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club. “The bill was just a showboat.”
Environmental advocates also were disappointed with the lack of progress on addressing the 29 ash ponds Georgia Power is working to close at 11 of the utility’s coal-burning power plants.
For the second year in a row, Republican legislative leaders wouldn’t give a hearing to Democrats’ bills requiring the installation of liners for the 10 ponds being closed in place to prevent groundwater contamination.
The only legislation that did get a hearing, a proposal to tighten monitoring requirements for coal ash, passed the House but wasn’t taken up in the Senate.
“Toxic coal ash is sitting in groundwater around the state, and yet the Georgia legislature failed to pass legislation addressing this problem,” said Jennette Gayer, director of Atlanta-based Environment Georgia.
But Rep. Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain, chief sponsor of the monitoring bill, said the solution environmentalists are seeking for coal ash is problematic.
“Liners are good if they never, ever have a default or deterioration,” he said. “But one small pinhole or a crack and you lose what you’re supposed to be doing.”