House panel to vote on millions for teen driver education

mlee@macon.comMarch 12, 2013 

ATLANTA -- A key vote scheduled for Wednesday will signal if the state House of Representatives agrees with the state Senate on potentially millions of dollars in spending on teen driver’s education.

The state House Motor Vehicles Committee is set to vote on extending a statewide 5 percent fee on traffic tickets through June 2018. But a new provision of what’s called Joshua’s Law says that the money must mostly be spent on teen driver’s education, or the fee will drop by 20 percent, taking that cash out of the Legislature’s hands.

First passed in 2005, Joshua’s Law mandates teen driver training, and part of the original intent was to help fund that training, Sen. Barry Loudermilk R-Cassville, the sponsor of Senate Bill 231, explained during Senate debate last week.

But that’s not where the Legislature has sent the money.

Between fiscal 2006 and 2008, the state collected some $26 million in Joshua’s Law funds. Less than half of that was spent on teen driving programs, mostly via teaching or equipment grants to public schools and libraries.

And the state is still collecting the fees but has made no grants since fiscal 2010.

Jones County High School was one of the few grant recipients, getting $157,000 between 2008 and 2009.

State Rep. Bubber Epps, R-Dry Branch, who is vice chairman of the Motor Vehicles Committee, predicted the bill will be approved with the spending provision.

“It’s making the money go to what it’s supposed to,” he said.

But Loudermilk explained the Legislature’s spending decisions: “We have been in extenuating circumstances the last few years,” he said, referring to the tight state budget since the housing market collapse, and the fact that many other spending demands compete with driver’s education.

The state’s annual budget will be about $19.3 billion in the fiscal year beginning this July, but $10 million more or less annually is worth a fight, which may break out in the House committee.

Indeed, Loudermilk’s original bill did not include any mention of earmarking spending. Senate Democrats added the language during floor debate, on the grounds that fees should fund the program for which they are collected.

“I think it’s important that we be honest with our constituents,” said amendment sponsor state Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur.

Schools in neither Bibb nor Houston counties have ever received Joshua’s Law money and do not offer driver’s education.

If the Motor Vehicles panel passes the bill, it’s then up to the House Rules Committee to approve it for a full floor vote.

The law is named for Joshua Brown, a teenager from Loudermilk’s district who died in a 2003 single-vehicle wreck on a wet road.

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