Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

Reasons for skepticism about three amendments on Georgia ballots

I have written much about Amendment 1 , which would create an Opportunity School District for chronically failing schools. While it is the most important statewide ballot question this year, it is not alone.

Voters face three other constitutional amendments this year. Amendment 1 deserves a “yes” vote. Do the others?

Amendments 2 and 4 are the same kind of question asked about different topics. Both would levy new taxes and dedicate the proceeds to specific causes: children victimized by sex trafficking for Amendment 2, and trauma care and fire services for Amendment 4.

Neither cause is objectionable. Nor are those who’d be taxed to fund them the most sympathetic characters: strip clubs and convicted sex traffickers for Amendment 2, fireworks buyers for Amendment 4. Where this becomes a constitutional question -- and where Georgians ought to think hard before voting “yes” -- is the dedication of those funds.

The General Assembly cannot mandate spending in perpetuity. Absent restrictions, legislators have repeatedly put taxes levied for one purpose into the general fund. Only a constitutional amendment can keep their hands out of the cookie jar.

But there’s a reason the ban on binding future legislatures is a staple of representative governments: One can’t know what circumstances lawmakers will face. I have no problem with state funding for victims of sex trafficking or traumatic accidents. But would it really be better during a recession to cut, say, $1 million from education or health care than to scale back this new funding for fire services? That’s the bottom-line question in Amendments 2 and 4.

Then there’s Amendment 3. It would reconstitute the independent watchdog for judicial misconduct, the Judicial Qualifications Commission. One key change: The State Bar would lose all three of its appointments to the seven-member JQC. Legislative leaders, who today have none, would get four -- a majority.

Georgia’s JQC has a mixed record. It was in the news this summer when a newspaper publisher from Blue Ridge was jailed because his attempts to get court spending records irked a local judge, who happened to be the chair of the JQC. Its members have also been accused of heavy-handed tactics in some cases .

They’ve also uncovered some pretty foul actions by judges, leading to dozens of resignations. One who resigned was Johnnie Caldwell, a Superior Court judge who had left a sexually suggestive voicemail for a female attorney.

Caldwell is now a state representative -- and a co-sponsor of Amendment 3. That’s not a good look for those claiming they want to raise the ethical bar at the JQC. Neither is the fact that House Speaker David Ralston is still fighting a high-profile battle against the State Bar.

The biggest problem isn’t that (surprise!) there’s politics at play; it’s that there’s nothing but politics at play. The Opportunity School District came about after Gov. Nathan Deal and legislators studied what other states have done . There was no such public deliberation regarding the JQC and whether legislators are best-suited to oversee it.

Our legislators have study committees for numerous subjects. Surely the state’s judicial-ethics watchdog merits no less careful examination than spaceports . Maybe they’ll give it as much if we vote down Amendment 3.

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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.