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Our Views: Self-service fee hike
Amendment to fund expanded trauma care is vital, but why did lawmakers pass the buck?
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The most talked-about amendment among the five on the Nov. 2 state ballot is No. 2, which would add a $10 fee to license plates to fund an expansion of the state's trauma care network.

The need for such a system is acute. Georgia has only four level 1 trauma care centers and 16 total, meaning many accident victims must travel hundreds of miles for emergency treatment. That's why our death rate from accident trauma is 20 percent above the national average.

Since many can't survive beyond the first hour or so with serious injuries, an expanded network is vital. Experts say Georgia needs at least 10 more trauma centers to ensure that all accident victims are no more than 50 miles from one anywhere in the state.

To fund such a network, Georgia needs additional money in a time when state budgets already are cut to the bone. The state can barely meet the basic spending needs already in place, and there are no new sources of revenue on the horizon.

The need for such funding has been discussed the last two years. In 2009, Gov. Sonny Perdue promoted, and was able to pass, the "super speeder" law that added an extra $200 fine to those who use our highways as their personal NASCAR track, with the extra money going to the trauma budget.

Yet the law hasn't generated much revenue, less than a quarter of the $23 million hoped for by summer's end (though if slower speeds reduced the number of accidents that require trauma care, that's a bonus).

Something else had to be done.

Amendment No. 2 would raise an additional $80 million to $90 million. While none of us savor paying more, we also want to know that we and our loved ones will receive the care needed after an accident, especially as we travel through rural areas en route to Florida or other locales.

The tag fee is the best option to raise funds that can save lives. Therefore, we support passage of this amendment.

And yet we can't help but ask our state leaders: Why are we forced to vote ourselves a fee hike for an important need such as this? Isn't that what we elected you to do?

Alas, it seems our legislators apparently aren't willing or able to make the crucial decisions we hired them for.

Governments tax citizens to pay for public needs. That includes roads, schools, public safety and emergency care systems. These priorities should be funded without having to amend the state constitution every time.

Georgia's constitution already includes 70 amendments since its most recent version, the 10th, was adopted in 1983; the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1789, has but 27. Each election year, voters are asked to approve a handful or so amendments on any number of subjects, some arcane, others worth our time. Our constitution is growing at a rate that may someday make it unwieldy as a guide to state governance.

Advocates say passing trauma care as an amendment instead of through legislation ensures that the extra $10 we pay isn't diverted to other needs in the general fund. That's a legitimate concern, one first heard when the state lottery was approved to aid education funding. But it's the same risk we face for all budgeting needs, from schools to prisons, parks to highways.

What legislators seem to be saying is: "Save us from ourselves. We can't be trusted to spend your money wisely. By passing it as an amendment, you'll keep the money out of our greedy hands so we don't steal it to buy votes with nonsensical spending needs for our cronies and benefactors in our districts. Because we will. You know it and we know it."

This is the ultimate cop-out, though not surprising in an election year. Legislators want to be able to claim they haven't raised your taxes when they seek your votes, because anyone who raises taxes these days is dead in the water politically. If the amendment passes, that will be true, more or less. We'll just be making the decision ourselves.

At what point are lawmakers going to give up the budgeting process altogether and hand it over to voters? Must we face a ballot that stretches to the floor and vote up or down on every spending need?

Do we even need a state legislature? Why send these folks to Atlanta for 40 days each year at taxpayer expense if they're going to waste time on microchips in brains and guns in churches but ignore more serious issues?

Gas stations and grocery stores offer self-service options to cut staff. We could easily save money by cutting the number of elected officials if they're going to pass their work on to us.

Our Founding Fathers did not model this nation as a true democracy but as a republic in which we elect officials to make key public sector decisions on our behalf. If they don't do so to our satisfaction, we have the option of sending someone else in their place at election time.

It's that last part that today's politicians have a problem with. So when it's time to make the tough calls for the common good, they pass the buck to us. That's not leadership; it's self-serving cowardice. But we keep sending them back for more, so maybe we get what we deserve.

Regardless, let's pass the trauma care amendment so lives will be saved, even if our legislature wasn't able to get the job done for us.

And let's also hope that if any of us are ever in an accident, the attending surgeon won't follow our lawmakers' lead and hand us the scalpel.