Senate panel passes trauma care funding bill

ATLANTA - The Senate has found a way to salvage permanent funding for trauma care in Georgia, a top priority for this year's General Assembly session.

The Senate Finance Committee passed legislation Thursday asking voters to approve a $10 car registration fee that would raise an estimated $74 million a year to expand the state's spotty trauma care network.

While the program enjoys widespread support among lawmakers, the money had become caught up in a dispute between the House and Senate over tax cuts.

The bill, which originated in the House, would set up a trust fund to be run by a state commission on trauma care that the legislature created last year without providing any money.

The commission would look for opportunities to expand the trauma care network, which currently leaves large swaths of the state uncovered.

For example, there isn't a trauma care center operating along Interstate 75 between Macon and Thomasville, and officials at the Macon center have said they would have to close unless the state comes up with more money.

"We've got severe pockets where there's no trauma care," said Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Garden City, the House bill's chief sponsor. "This will help us stabilize that and then expand it."

Earlier this month, House Republican leaders folded Stephens' bill into a broader tax reform measure anchored by a proposal to eliminate Georgia's car tax.

Although the trauma care funding remained in separate legislation, it was made subject to voter approval of the car tax repeal.

But when the Senate GOP leadership decided to scrap the car tax provision in favor of a plan to cut state income taxes, the trauma care component fell by the wayside.

That prompted Senate Republican leaders to revive Stephens' bill.

As passed by the Senate Finance Committee, the $10 car tag fee still would be subject to voter approval.

However, because the legislation is not a constitutional amendment, the revenue raised by the fee could not be dedicated strictly to trauma care.

Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson compared the proposed trauma care trust fund to the state's hazardous waste trust fund.

He said although that money isn't dedicated by law to cleaning up hazardous waste sites, taxpayers can make it politically uncomfortable for lawmakers who fail to use the funds for their intended purpose.

"There's a transparency there," said Johnson, R-Savannah. "People know how much it raises and whether we're spending it or not."

The mid-year budget passed by the General Assembly last week includes $58.5 million to help launch the expanded trauma care network.

But Johnson said Thursday that Gov. Sonny Perdue isn't anxious to commit more funding for trauma care in future budgets without a permanent revenue stream for the program.