The Newnan Times-Herald

Local

Four amendments on the ballot


  • By Sarah Fay Campbell
  • |
  • Oct. 24, 2016 - 6:29 PM

While the “opportunity school district” ballot question, Amendment 1, has gotten most of the coverage and attention, it’s only one of the four constitutional amendments that Georgians will decide on in the general election.

Today we present stories explaining the other three ballot questions.

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Amendment 2 will tax strip clubs to fund services for victims of child sex trafficking

Amendment 2 on the ballot sets up a funding mechanism for the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund.

The primary funding mechanism will be a new yearly fee on adult-entertainment businesses that sell alcohol. The fee would be equal to 1 percent of annual gross revenues, or $5,000 per establishment, whichever is greater.

The amendment would also allow for additional fines for those convicted of certain sex crimes, including pimping, keeping a place of prostitution, sex trafficking, sexual exploitation of children and solicitation of sodomy.

It’s estimated that the new fees will raise around $2 million a year. The money would be used to provide grants to organizations that provide therapeutic services for victims of child sex trafficking.

Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, was the primary sponsor of the amendment and its accompanying legislation.

Unterman said she’s been working on the issue since 2008. At that time, the legislature created a temporary committee to study the issues. Another study committee worked on the issue in 2010. The committees heard testimony from the FBI that found higher levels of prostitution within a one-mile radius of adult-entertainment establishments.

In 2005, the Atlanta Woman’s Agenda study, “Hidden in Plain Sight,” found a spatial correlation between adult-entertainment businesses and prostitution. The study also found a strong spatial correlation between areas of adult prostitution activities and juvenile prostitution.

Unterman said she has done a lot of research on the issue. Strip clubs “are like takers in the community. They’re not givers,” she said. As a mayor and county commissioner, Unterman said she saw the increased 911 calls, and increased crime associated with the clubs.

“They’re in the business of selling sex and alcohol, so why shouldn’t they have an additional fee” to contribute back to society and help with the problem they have been causing? she said.

Attorney Alan Begner, who frequently represents the adult industry, said the idea of “taxing adult clubs for a harm that they have nothing to do with is objectionable to me and to the industry.”

Begner, who represented Starship in its years-long battle to open a store in Coweta County, said that the fee will likely be $50,000 to $75,000 a year for most clubs.

Helping rehabilitate the victims of child prostitution is a good thing, but singling out legal businesses is unfair, according to Begner. In Atlanta and DeKalb County, exotic dancers have to get permits through police departments and have to be 18 years old.

“Nobody thinks prostitution comes from strip clubs anyway. The clubs don’t allow it,” Begner said.

Studies find that victims of sex trafficking are usually marketed through the internet, or are brought in from other countries, Begner said.

“This is really what the objection is about,” he said.

“I don’t criticize their motives,” he said. “It’s just like, ‘We can get more money from strip clubs than anybody else.’”

If the amendment is approved, Begner expects the adult industry to file lawsuits to challenge the new fee.

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Amendment 3 changes the commission that disciplines Ga. judges

Georgia’s Judicial Qualifications Commission is responsible for disciplining the state’s judges. The commission hears complaints and issues decisions, which can range from reprimands to forced retirement to removal from the bench. 

Georgia’s Amendment 3, if passed, would change the makeup of the commission, and give more power over it to the executive and legislative branches. 

Currently, the commission has seven members. Two are judges appointed by the Georgia Supreme Court. Three are attorneys appointed by the State Bar of Georgia. And two are non-attorneys appointed by the governor. This makeup of the commission is specified in the Georgia Constitution. 

The amendment would remove those details, and allow the makeup of the commission to be controlled by general law, which can be changed by the Georgia General Assembly. 

In the “enabling legislation” for the amendment, the new commission won’t have any members appointed by the State Bar. Instead, the bar will recommend a list of 10 attorneys to both the lieutenant governor, who serves as the president of the Senate, and the speaker of the House. The lieutenant governor and the speaker will each appoint one attorney member to the commission. If they don’t like any of the attorneys on the list provided by the bar, it will have to provide a new list. 

The speaker and the lieutenant governor will also each appoint one non-attorney to the commission. The final appointment, by the governor, will be an attorney who will serve as the commission’s chairman. 

The State Bar opposes the change, and a group called Georgians for Judicial Integrity was formed to lobby against the amendment. 

Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and primary sponsor of the resolution creating the amendment and its enabling legislation. 

Willard said in a statement that the commission has “substantially lost its effectiveness and ability to perform its duties. This is due to recent conduct by some of its members such as coercive investigatory practices like a practicing attorney and commission member using his position to attempt to intimidate a judge to acquiesce to his demands for his client’s benefit.”

There is also a lack of due process for judges under investigation, Willard said, and lack of accountability to the people of Georgia since some appointments are made by the State Bar, a private organization.  

“Therefore, the commission should be abolished and reconstituted through general legislation so there exists a set of checks and balances to avoid any reoccurrence of commission members abusing their position,” Willard said. 

The Georgians for Judicial Integrity website states that “putting JQC appointments in legislators’ hands threatens the commission’s mandate to treat judges without bias or favoritism; it introduces politics in a sphere where politics shouldn’t govern.”

State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in an interview with The Fulton County Daily Report that he “didn’t understand the tall hurry some people seem to be in to completely restructure how it works without some kind of formal input from some of the stakeholders.”

McKoon said that the House and Senate should be involved into any investigation of improper conduct by members of the commission, but that he disagreed with the House’s approach. 
“I think we are heading for a crisis,” he said. 

Coweta Magistrate Judge Jim Striping said that when people ask him how they should vote on a constitutional amendment, he tells them they probably ought to vote no, particularly if they don’t understand what the change is about. 

“My second response is do you really want the legislature to control the agency that investigates and disciplines judges?” Stripling said. “Isn't that the job of the Supreme Court of Georgia?

“I forget who said it or when I first heard it, but it is apt here: ‘Never have the people of this state been more at peril than when the legislature is in session.’”

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Amendment 4 dedicates fireworks tax to trauma care, fire departments, public safety

The final amendment on your general election ballot deals with the existing taxes on fireworks sold in Georgia. 

Passage of the amendment wouldn’t add any new taxes. Instead, it means the current taxes on fireworks can only be used for specific purposes, instead of going into the state’s general fund where lawmakers decide how it’s spent. 

Under the “enabling legislation” for the amendment, 55 percent of the revenue from the fireworks tax would go to the Georgia Trauma Care Network Commission. Forty percent would go to the Georgia Firefighter Standards and Training Council to fund a grant program for improving the equipment and training of Georgia firefighters. The remaining 5 percent would be distributed to local governments to be used for public safety purposes. 

Future legislation could change the percentages, but the money would still be required to go for trauma care, fire services and “local public safety purposes,” unless a future constitutional amendment changed that. 

Coweta Fire Chief Pat Wilson envisions using the local money for education programs related to fireworks. 

“I would like to see it go toward community education so that we can keep people safer that way – keep them from being hurt from the get-go,” Wilson said. 

So far this year, there haven’t been any calls related to burns or severe injuries from fireworks. But, on July 4, there was a house fire caused by fireworks. 

Critics of the amendment say that while fire safety is worthwhile, it is a mistake to prevent lawmakers from using the tax if more pressing needs arise, such as healthcare or public schools. During a recession, legislators could be forced to raise other taxes even though the fireworks fund may have a surplus.