In each election, Georgia voters are asked to approve a handful of additions to the state constitution. Most of them pass, largely because voters aren't familiar with what they mean and just check "yes." In fact, many are worded in such a way to keep voters in the dark over what they're voting for.
To date, 67 amendments have been added to the state Constitution since the current version was ratified in 1982. In contrast, the U.S. Constitution has but 27 amendments added over 221 years. But to amend the U.S. Constitution, a proposal must pass both houses of Congress by a two-thirds majority, then three quarters of state legislatures.
Amending the state Constitution, on the other hand, is relatively easy. Once the General Assembly approves an amendment for the fall ballot, it's up to voters to decide its fate. In many cases, legislators use the amendment process as an end run around the courts if they propose a law they feel may be struck down as unconstitutional.
That's where this year's Amendment No. 2 seems to have started. The state Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that counties and cities cannot use school taxes to pay for development projects. So the legislature chose to put it on the ballot as an amendment.
Amendment No. 2 reads as so: "Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to authorize community redevelopment and authorize counties, municipalities, and local boards of education to use tax funds for redevelopment purposes and programs?"
In short, the amendment would allow local jurisdictions to use tax money, including funds collected for schools, to pay for redevelopment projects.
If that sounds like a bad idea, your instincts are right. The amendment would give communities more leeway to designate tax allocation districts, which are areas targeted for development. TADs are funded by borrowing on the tax revenue the revitalized areas are expected to collect once they are completed.
To create a TAD now, counties and cities secure bonds to generate the funds needed for the development based on additional taxes they hope to earn in the future. It's a gamble, but one that often pays off for communities looking to restore blighted areas. When they succeed, they can generate new tax revenue and boost property values in the area.
However, the idea of taking such a gamble with school money should be a nonstarter. There is too much risk and not enough reward to justify such an amendment during these uncertain economic times.
Even in the best of times, TADs can be a crapshoot. No one can be sure that every development will bring in enough new tax money to pay off the debt used to build it. Projects fail for any number of reasons. As with any investment, there is an assumption of risk.
Yet with TADs, the stake money isn't put up by private developers but by a community's taxpayers. If the project fails to bring in the anticipated revenue, we're still on the hook for the tax money and bonds expended, often for years to come.
This proposed amendment would take that gamble to the next level by allowing communities to use school tax money for such projects. This, in a state that ranks near the bottom nationally in nearly every measurable educational standard and needs to spend every dime it can on making its schools better.
And these are hardly the best of times. Our economy is in such a state that any real estate venture carries more risk than usual. Some residential projects in Hall County remain unfinished because the slumping housing market has hit developers hard. Do we want more public money tossed into that pot right now? Any development worth pursuing should be able to secure financing through other means.
Supporters say the upside of the TAD amendment is that schools could benefit from the additional tax money once a development is completed. But that anticipated rise in revenue may be years, even decades, into the future for schools that need more resources now.
With Georgia facing a budget deficit of $1.6 billion, many school districts are looking for items to cut. This is no time to gamble with money they don't have. Our school budgets shouldn't be used as ATMs for real estate speculators.
True, the amendment would deal school boards into the decision-making process for such expenditures. Yet, as we've seen in Clayton County, not all school boards make wise decisions. Board members could be pressured by government officials or local business leaders to approve a TAD with school money. That's why, if this amendment passes, residents need to stay vigilant to make sure their school boards never decide to put it into action without careful consideration and public input.
Let's not take the chance that any school district would be tempted to roll the dice with our tax money. As we've seen recently in our financial markets, the practice of borrowing money from the future to pay for goodies now is the main reason our economy is in the tank. It's time to put a stop to it wherever and whenever we can.
A good start is a "no" vote on Amendment No. 2.