Charlie Harper: To Amend Or Not To Amend

Charlie Harper

Tuesday, October 18th, 2016

When Georgia voters go to the polls between now and November 8th, they will be given a series of proposed constitutional amendments to consider.  Four measures will be decided that could give the Governor more power to fix chronically failing schools, establish new taxes on strip clubs, provide political oversight to the group that oversees Georgia’s judges, and dedicate taxes raised from the sale of fireworks to trauma care, fire services, and public safety.

There’s often a reluctance from the electorate to change the Constitution, and there should be.  The Constitution is more sacrosanct than the litany of laws that compose the Georgia code. A change to the Georgia Constitution cannot be proposed without first having received two thirds of members of both the House and Senate agree to put the question before the voters.

That said, the Georgia Constitution has not proven as rigid as the the U.S. Constitution.  Georgia’s current Constitution was ratified in 1982, replacing a Constitution that had just been adopted in 1976.  This is the tenth Constitution since Georgia became a state.

The U.S. Constitution is broad by design, and leaves out many details.  Something about leaving laws not specified “to the states, respectively, or to the people”.  Georgia’s Constitution fills in many of the gaps left open by the U.S. Constitution, as it dictates more routine day to day governance items that occur much closer to those of us as we’re governed.

Many of my friends have adopted a stance toward proposed amendments in Georgia that they should be voted down as a matter of principle.  The thinking seems to be that we have too much government with too much power, and voting against amendments will somehow result in less government.  There’s a huge logic fallacy here.

The folks adopting this strategy often seem to be the ones most dissatisfied with the status quo.  Rejecting any additional amendments out of hand only ensures that the status quo prevails.  It doesn’t make government any smaller or less powerful.  It only continues the status quo as-is.

Take Amendment One, as an example.  Opponents (funded almost exclusively by out of state teachers’ unions) are positioning the amendment as a “takeover of Georgia’s schools”.  Left unsaid is that without the amendment, state tax dollars will continue to flow to unaccountable and unresponsive bureaucracies, with the state having few powers to correct longstanding failure.  The opposition favors the continued strategy of sending even more money to solve the problem, growing government even bigger without any accountability for the state tax dollars demanded.

On Amendment Three, voters are asked to decide if the members of the Judicial Qualifications Commission should be appointed by a process directed by the state legislature.  Current members of the JQC are appointed by the Georgia Supreme Court, The State Bar of Georgia, and by the Governor.  The question of whether a change is desired is a philosophical one. 

The oversight from the public over the judicial system is limited.  While many judges are elected, the legal community is largely insulated to police its own.  The State Bar of Georgia is not an elected entity, yet chooses more of the appointees on the current JQC than either the elected Governor, or the members of the Supreme Court.

State Legislators are the closest elected voices of the people.  The question for Georgia’s voters is whether they want their voices to have a say in the makeup of this powerful body, or if they prefer to continue to place the power over those who would judge them to a politically insulated, non-elected body.

Amendments Two and Four are an exercise that would constitutionally dedicate funds raised to purposes used.  Amendment Two taxes strip clubs to fund programs designed to reduce sex trafficking.  Amendment Four dedicates taxes from fireworks to trauma care and public safety.

When the state legislature levies taxes and fees, there is often an outcry that there is no constitutional requirement (outside of gas taxes) that these funds go to the programs the bills say the money will go to.  The monies go into the general fund until appropriated.  They may or may not end up where they were originally intended.

These two amendments are about ensuring the government will do what it says it will do with the monies raised.  Opponents of Amendment Two object as they question the source of the funds have a dubious connection to the problem to be fixed.  That said, both of these amendments do serve the purpose of handcuffing appropriators to dedicating money into the uses stated in the legislation.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government;