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State fees bring in less than expected
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ATLANTA - Extra fees Georgia lawmakers imposed last year on lead-footed drivers and others to bolster low state revenues without politically risky tax increases are bringing in far less cash than projected, according to an Associated Press review.

The AP's review of state data showed the fees on hospitals, court filings and even lobbyists have brought in tens of millions of dollars less than budget writers had counted on. The disappointing collections contributed to new Gov. Nathan Deal's decision to lower the revenue estimate for the current fiscal year, effectively giving the already cash-strapped state less money to spend.

Alan Essig, of the nonpartisan Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said that fees generally are reliable sources of income but that some early estimates may have been too rosy.

"They'll probably never live up to those very optimistic, early projections," Essig said.

Among the biggest underachievers are fees on so-called super speeders, an initiative pushed by Deal's predecessor, Sonny Perdue. Perdue's idea was to slap reckless drivers with steep fines and funnel the cash to the state's struggling network of trauma hospitals. Perdue had estimated the fees - which tack an additional $200 fine on drivers traveling well above the legal speed limits - would scoop up some $23 million. Instead it's looking like they will bring in less than half that amount - or about $10.5 million. By the end of last year, just $4.7 million had been collected, according to state data provided to the AP.

State fiscal economist Kenneth Heaghney said the program took longer than expected to get off the ground. Some drivers simply aren't paying the steep fines, which results in the suspension of their driver's license. In other cases, sympathetic judges are reducing the fines.

"That's something we really didn't predict," Heaghney said.

Complicating things further is that law enforcement in Georgia have been subject to deep budget cuts and are scrambling to perform all their duties, including traffic enforcement, officials told state legislators at recent budget hearings.

It's bad news for the state's trauma hospitals, which were already struggling last year when voters rejected a proposal that would have added a $10 fee to car tags. That money was supposed to go to trauma hospitals.

"It is the greatest disappointment of my political career," said state Rep. Larry O'Neal, the House majority leader who led a 2007 legislative study committee that found the trauma hospitals needed more money.

"We are desperately looking for a sustainable funding source."

Already Georgia has a shortage of trauma care centers and some hospitals have said they may need to drop the voluntary trauma designation as funds continue to dwindle.

Unlike ordinary acute-care hospitals, trauma centers have teams of specialty surgeons - like orthopedists and neurosurgeons - on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They also have high-tech equipment ready to treat the most severe injuries on site. O'Neal's 2007 panel found that the death rate from traumatic injury in Georgia is far higher than the national average.

Clever lawyers have found their way around another $125 fee to file civil actions in Superior Court: they're turning instead to magistrate court, where there is no such fee, state officials said. The court fee - part of a large package of fee hikes that passed the state Legislature last year - is running well behind revenue projections of $50.6 million. Instead, state officials are now estimating it will bring in about $35 million, and just $20 million has been collected so far.

The controversial new fee legislators placed on hospitals last year also is bringing in less than anticipated. The 1.45 percent charge on hospital revenue is funneled to Medicaid, which new Gov. Nathan Deal has targeted for deep cuts.

The hospital fee had been projected to bring in $229 million. That estimate was lowered to $215.8 million, and just $53.5 million of that had been collected by the end of last year, according to state data.

Lobbyists were hit hard in the fee package lawmakers adopted, with their annual registration fee hiked from $200 to $300. So far, there have been fewer lobbyists who have registered - 1,852 in 2010 compared with 1,254 for 2011. And the fee collections are well behind estimates. Just $59,360 has come in of the $850,000 that had been budgeted.

Stacey Kalberman, executive secretary of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, said some lobbyists who've registered have yet to pay their fees. She also said a new ethics law that passed last year could result in a large number of new people needing to register with the state as lobbyists, such as those interacting with local governments, so she expected that number will likely rise.

"We could end up with more people than we have the budget to handle," Kalberman said.