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Georgia View: Amending The Constitution

 

Our U.S. Constitution has only been amended 27 times, the last time in 1992 following a ratification vote by the state of Michigan. Barring flash-in-the-pan attempts like amendments banning flag burning or defining marriage, the framing document of our federal government and foundation of our rule of law has well stood the test of time. 

Our Georgia State Constitution, by comparison, most recently re-drafted in 1945, has more amendments than your typical cable TV package has channels.

This can mean several mind-numbing proposed amendments at the bottom of our long general election ballots. My biggest challenge with these amendments is that the ballot questions often bear very little resemblance to the actual intent or effect of the proposed change. 

Take Amendment Question No. 1 from the 2010 General Election, which passed by nearly 68 percent: Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to make Georgia more economically competitive by authorizing legislation to uphold reasonable competitive agreements?

The amendment language appeared to be about job creation and economic development and did not even use the phrase “non-compete contracts.” In actuality, the amendment allows employers to draw and require non-compete contracts with all new hires and existing employees, strengthening the employers’ already flush hand, and in some cases practically barring employees from plying their trade, taking a better position elsewhere or even starting their own enterprise.

In 2008, Amendment Question No. 1 granted special tax assessments for undeveloped timberland. Presented as a measure of conservation, it passed by 68 percent. Georgia’s land is roughly 70 percent timber. This amendment allows timblerland to receive special assessment and property tax rates. Property taxes are the largest source of funding for our schools at the local level. 

In 2006, Amendment No. 3, which passed by 67.4 percent, allowed the state to create multiple “special license plate” designations and to dedicate revenue from those special plates to nonprofits and causes as varied as sea turtle rescue and Georgia’s parks and nature preserves: including dedications for the ultimate use of agencies, funds or nonprofit corporations where it is found that there will be a benefit to the state.

Ad valorem tax revenues are another major source of revenue for county government operation, so I question the wisdom of creating num-erous “special funds” with little oversight, outside of the state’s general budget and treasury and draining away dollars that might otherwise fund local police, fire or even road construction. 

Actual ballot language typically comes directly from the House or Senate Resolution that has passed by a two-thirds vote majority. Amendments must be published in each county’s official legal organ. Summaries are prepared by the attorney general, secretary of state and legislative counsel’s office.

A Georgia Constitutional Amendments Publication Board made up of the offices of Governor, House Speaker and Lieutenant Governor decides the ballot question order.

One of the major battles of the 2012 General Assembly, and potentially the first amendment ballot question this fall, regards the oversight and funding of charter schools. Here is the originally proposed ballot question, likely to be changed substantially by the time you are reading this. House Resolution 1162: Shall the Con-stitution of Georgia be amended for the purpose of raising student achievement by allowing state and local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?

If passed, the definition of “special schools,” already referenced in our Georgia Constitution, will be amended to include public charter schools, while the larger framing question and subject of greater debate is actually “Who do you trust?” to make the determination and grant or deny a proposed school charter, or to control the flow of tax dollars to a particular charter school. The state? Your local board of education and superintendent? Appointed bureaucrats or local elected officials? 

Until our state can offer amendment questions straightforwardly, or at least provide a voter information website explaining the potential impacts, costs, and/or the legislative intent in common language that voters can more easily comprehend: When in doubt, just vote No.

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