Government officials can get away with things that would land private-sector officials in jail. For instance, bait-and-switch is against the law when done by a private business, but government does it all the time.
The most classic example is Uncle Sam collecting for Social Security, which is sold to the public as a savings program, but in reality is a money-transfer program - from workers to retirees and other designated beneficiaries. The "savings" is an illusion. In the private sector, it would be called a deception - and would trigger fraud charges.
State government is not above such deception, either. In 1992, Georgia's General Assembly created three environmental trust funds: one for hazardous waste cleanup; the second, solid waste for scrap tire abatement; and the third, erosion and sedimentation created in 2004 to help counties fight erosion brought on by development.
These are good, sensible environmental programs. The problem is that they're not being fully funded. Last year, the hazardous-waste trust fund collected more than $14 million, but spent only $5.1 million; similar shortchanging took place for the two years prior. The solid-waste trust fund collected $13 million the past two years, but spent nothing on its program.
The erosion trust fund, paid for by developers to the state Environmental Protection Division, collected $4.5 million last year, but appropriated only $2.2 million.
Environmentalists are understandably upset. The three trust funds raised a total of $25.1 million in 2005, but 71 percent of that - $17.8 million - was not spent on the designated programs. It was instead diverted to the state's general fund.
Not only is this bait-and-switch legal, it's written into Georgia law. It actually prohibits specific dedication of collected fees. This means state revenues can be spent on their intended purpose only if lawmakers OK it, says Frank Carl, director of Savannah Riverkeeper Inc., which is working with the Georgia Water Coalition to get the environmental programs properly funded.
Carl and other environmentalists are urging county and city governments to pass resolutions asking the General Assembly to spend the environmental trust fund revenues on what they were intended for.
Those requests have already been made to governing boards in our region, including Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties - and we hope they'll be heeded.
It's time the grass-roots blew the whistle on bait-and-switch. Local governing bodies also should make sure the state is sending back to them half of the erosion trust funds collected in their counties.