Georgia ReportNews

Capitol Impact

Once in a while, you’ll see an inspiring idea emerge from under the Golden Dome of our state Capitol. Zell Miller’s establishment of a state lottery to raise college scholarship money for high school graduates who make good grades is an example of a visionary idea.

For every good idea, of course, you will see hundreds of proposals that are misguided, ill-conceived, or just plain awful. One of those ideas surfaced the other day in a House subcommittee that was discussing a piece of legislation designated as HB 887. This bill would authorize employees of the Department of Natural Resources, from Commissioner Mark Williams down to the newest game ranger or clerk, to solicit private donations that could be “used in the furtherance of the purposes, objectives, powers, duties, or responsibilities of the department.â€

It’s unsettling to think that state employees would be out on the streets pleading with CEOs and other business people to donate money to run their government agency. As Rep. Judy Manning (R-Marietta) put it, “I don’t want to start a state employees’ kettle brigade.â€

There is a much more disturbing aspect of this bill. One of the minority party members on the subcommittee noted that employees of DNR, which includes the environmental protection division that issues air and water quality permits, could be placed in a position where they ask for money from one of the companies that their agency regulates.

“We don’t want a quid pro quo where someone says, ‘I’ll give you this now and I’ll be asking for a permit later,’†said Rep. Debbie Buckner (D-Junction City).

Rep. Chuck Williams (R-Watkinsville) pointed out that some of these requests for money could be made by DNR rangers who are armed law enforcement officials, thus raising the specter of shakedowns by state employees.

“I’m a little uneasy about DNR employees, some of whom carry firearms and have a ticket book, asking for donations,†Williams said.

The author of this particular measure, Rep. Chad Nimmer (R-Blackshear), had an understandable motivation for introducing HB 887. The Department of Natural Resources has been hit probably harder than any other state agency during the last four years of the economic downturn. DNR’s budget has been whacked by 33 percent, and its workforce has been reduced by 26 percent—while the department is still expected to maintain the 1.1 million acres that make up our state parks, golf courses and wildlife management areas. DNR was authorized by the Legislature to set up a foundation two years ago that can legally accept corporate donations to help pay for the department’s various activities.

“This simply enables them to ask for funds as well,†Nimmer said.

This is no way to finance or operate a department of state government. If our legislators believe that Georgia should be involved in operating state parks and wildlife areas, along with enforcing environmental regulations, then they should put the money in the budget for these functions. If our elected officials don’t think that state government should be doing these things, then let’s shut down DNR, put the parks up for sale, and let the federal EPA take over the issuance of environmental permits.

It is not a wise idea to have state employees begging for contributions to run a public government agency—or to have these employees put in a position where they could be shaking down private citizens or accepting bribes from corporate polluters.

As she closed out the hearing on HB 887, Manning commented, “We’re not quite ready to have this put in the book yet. We need to do a little work on it.â€

That work should consist of digging a deep hole and burying this misguided piece of legislation so deeply that it never sees the light of day again.