With all of the attention that has been focused on the constitutional amendment dealing with the creation of state charter schools, many voters may not be aware that there is an “Amendment 2” on the ballot as well.
If approved by the voters, the amendment would allow state agencies to sign multi-year leases to rent property for government offices and related facilities. Currently, the state cannot sign an agreement to lease property for more than a year at a time.
This appears to be a simple proposition that might be good for the taxpayers. If you can commit to lease office space for more than one year, it stands to reason you could negotiate a better deal with the landlord.
I am still a little dubious of this one, however. As is often the case with constitutional amendments, the ballot language is misleadingly stated to try to lure voters who haven’t been paying attention to approve it.
The ballot reads: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to provide for a reduction in the state’s operating costs by allowing the General Assembly to authorize certain state agencies to enter into multiyear rental agreements?”
That says the state will absolutely save money by signing these long-term leases, but how can anyone say that with any degree of assurance? State property officials have been telling the media that the amendment would save an estimated “$66 million” over the next decade, but I don’t know if there is any reliable data to support that or if it’s just a number they picked out of thin air.
There are supposedly safeguards in place to prevent abuses. Leases would be limited to 20 years and would have to receive board approval. The total lease contract value could not exceed a limit set by the Georgia State Financing and Investment Commission.
I am not confident that any of those safeguards would be very effective. Georgia is a state whose politicians have long displayed a genius for grabbing the taxpayers’ money even when the constitution tells them they legally can’t do it.
Remember, one of the biggest scandals in this nation’s history, the Yazoo Land Fraud, took place right here within our state boundaries. The scandals have not stopped, either.
More than 10 years ago, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners wanted to build a new courthouse, but they were held back by a provision in the state constitution that said local governments could not issue bonded indebtedness without first getting voter approval in a referendum.
Jackson County voters turned down the bond proposal in a referendum, so the commissioners took another approach. They drafted a lease-purchase arrangement to have a new courthouse built, then approved it without holding another referendum.
This long-term obligation was a bonded debt in everything but name and put the county’s taxpayers on the hook for years, but because it was called a lease-purchase agreement the Georgia Supreme Court eventually ruled it was not subject to citizen approval in a bond referendum.
Jackson Herald editor Mike Buffington, who crusaded against this financial arrangement, wrote at the time: “But let’s call a spade a spade – the lease-purchase system in Georgia is nothing more than widespread, organized political corruption, a ruse to take away voters’ rights to vote on long-term debt by local governments.”
Buffington added: “If we give local governments the right to create debt without voter consent, then voting out wayward public officials becomes moot – the debt lives long beyond their terms in office.”
More recently, we have seen the mess in Gwinnett County where several local officials are headed to federal prison because they took bribes from developers on decisions involving property acquisitions and real estate developments.
This sort of cronyism and self-dealing happens at the state level as well. If you allow state agencies to sign 20-year leases on lucrative property rentals, there is no telling what sort of mischief will happen.
In an ideal world where elected officials are honest and make an effort to protect the taxpayers’ interests, then the approval of something like Amendment 2 wouldn’t even need to be debated.
In a state that has our peculiar history of suspicious behavior, you vote to approve it at your own peril.
(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com.)