"Super Speeders" who drive extra fast on Georgia’s highways would pay an additional $200 fine under a bill that lawmakers hope will raise money for the state’s ailing network of trauma hospitals amid the souring economy.
However, two members of the Hall County legislative delegation said the bill, backed strongly by Gov. Sonny Perdue, would not guarantee money for trauma care and voted against the proposal.
A separate measure backed by key House leaders, meanwhile, would replace the annual car tag tax with a new, one-time fee on car sales that could help fund the system.
Georgia legislators have tried unsuccessfully for three years to bolster Georgia’s trauma centers, which have long complained of chronic underfunding. The efforts have consistently failed amid concerns that they amounted to costly new taxes.
This year, though, legislative leaders say they have found common ground to support the proposals.
The House voted 113-53 on Monday for a plan that would tack an additional $200 fine on drivers busted for topping 85 mph on four-lane roads and interstate highways, or 75 mph on two-lane roads. It also imposes new fees of up to $400 for some drivers seeking to reinstate their licenses.
The so-called "Super Speeders" proposal is expected to raise more than $30 million each year. The measure now goes to the Senate.
"For three years we’ve talked about trauma and every time with no results," said state Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville. "This is just an add-on to the add-ons. Now, you’re looking at $500 to $600 for a speeding ticket. The issue I have is there are not enough people out there patrolling the roads. The funding goes directly to the general treasury and I felt like it wasn’t the right thing to do."
State Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, felt the measure needed a constitutional amendment to direct the funds specifically for trauma care.
"I have no problem with the concept," Collins said. "It was presented to us as a safety measure. But there is no guarantee that the extra $200 will go for trauma care because you can’t dedicate funds without a constitutional amendment."
Collins offered an amendment that would allow the Georgia State Patrol to operate unmarked cars, similar to neighboring states. House Speaker Glenn Richardson ruled that Collins’ amendment was not germane to the bill and declared it out of order.
"We’re trying to create a future that slows people down," said state Rep. Jim Cole, a Forsyth Republican who sponsored the measure.
Meanwhile, powerful House Republicans are lining up behind a new scheme that would eliminate the annual car tag tax and replace it with a one-time fee of up to $1,500.
Supporters hope the fee, which would only apply to newly purchased vehicles, would eventually funnel millions of dollars toward trauma care.
"It is probably one of the most progressive and innovative ideas I’ve seen since I’ve been at the General Assembly," said House Majority Leader Jerry Keen of St. Simons.
Lawmakers have struggled to bolster Georgia’s trauma care hospitals since the 1970s, when hospital groups began lobbying for a state-funded trauma care system.
But in recent years the debate seems to have shifted to how — not whether — the legislature can fund such a system. The movement gained momentum in 2007 when a legislative study panel concluded that the state’s trauma network is in crisis.
The committee found that the death rate in Georgia from traumatic injury is far greater than the national rate, and suggested targeting drivers because motor vehicle accidents account for almost three-quarters of trauma injuries in Georgia.
And Georgia hospitals, which say they provide more than $170 million in uncompensated care each year, say the staggering costs have led some to drop the voluntary "trauma" designation and left large swaths of rural Georgia without a trauma care center.
Supporters say expanding the system from 15 to 30 hospitals — mostly in areas outside of metro Atlanta — could save some 700 lives each year and millions in health care costs.
In Georgia, the highest level of trauma care is offered only in Atlanta, Augusta, Macon and Savannah. Promoters of a wider system have begun posting billboards along Interstate 75 in South Georgia warning motorists to drive safely because the next trauma center is many miles away.
Unlike ordinary acute-care hospitals, trauma centers have teams of specialty surgeons — like orthopedists and neurosurgeons — on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They also have high-tech equipment on hand to treat the most severe injuries on site.
Some smaller hospitals, including those in Rome, Columbus and Dalton, offer less intensive levels of trauma care.
Despite support from Perdue and key legislative leaders, efforts to bolster the system have hit a roadblock.
Perdue’s proposals for stiffer speeding fines have been held up in the legislature the last three years. And legislative leaders couldn’t come to terms last year over whether to put a $10 fee on annual car tag registrations to fund the system.
Perdue, instead, was forced to include a one-time $58.9 million appropriation last year for trauma care centers, leaving health care groups to press for a long-term solution.
But the governor has said he hopes his proposal would go one step toward finding a lasting fix.
It would allow officers to tack a $200 state fee on top of local fines for excessive speeders. And it would impose a new fee ranging from $90 to $400 for drivers to reinstate licenses after being convicted of driving under the influence, driving without insurance and other offenses.
To critics, the stiff new fines are little more than a new state tax.
"This is a fee increase that is in fact a tax increase," said Alan Powell, D-Hartwell. "The message we’re sending with this bill is that it’s all about money. It’s all about money."
But supporters, many of whom took the well of the House to confess to their own driving violations, said stiffer fines were needed to tap the brakes on Georgia’s "culture of speeding."
"What do we do to slow ‘em down?" asked House Speaker Glenn Richardson in a rare trip to the well. "We can’t put blue lights everywhere. We have to tell them we’re going to hit them in their pocketbook."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.