ATLANTA (AP) — More than $30 million in traffic fees collected for driver's education courses across Georgia in the last few years hasn't been spent on helping teens learn how to drive, according to a state audit released Wednesday.
Since 2009, state lawmakers haven't appropriated any money to the Georgia Driver's Education Commission even though a special fee for the programs tacked on to traffic tickets has brought in about $10 million per year, the audit found. Of the $57 million collected since Joshua's Law took effect in 2005, just $8 million has gone to driver's education, which led to at least three high schools shutting down their programs, the audit found.
The money, instead, is being spent to plug state budget deficits.
"It tells me the governor and the appropriations committee are putting other items ahead of saving these young and tender lives," said Alan Brown, a Cartersville resident who worked to get the law named after his16-year-old son, Joshua, passed after the teen died in a wreck in 2003. "It's really disheartening."
Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers said he wants to make the issue a priority in the legislative session in January. He said lawmakers tend to view specially collected fees like the one in Joshua's Law as another revenue source for the state's cash-strapped programs rather than money that should be set aside for its intended purpose.
"It's frustrating," he said. "We've got to find a way that every dollar is spent helping kids learn how to drive."
The audit found that overall, the number of driver's education programs are up slightly across the state since 2008 — from 280 to about 300. But the programs are still only in 147 out of more than 400 high schools across the state.
And 52 counties out of 159 don't even have a program, which means students either have to travel to another county or take an online class.
Joshua's Law requires 16-year-olds to pass a driver's education course to get a license and adds a 5 percent surcharge on traffic tickets and other violations to pay for the classes.
Driver's Education Commission spokeswoman Susan Sports said the agency has spent all of the money it has gotten on teen driver safety but has no control over how much lawmakers dole out. She declined further comment.
Gov. Nathan Deal's spokesman Brian Robinson said the governor's office will review the audit and take its findings into consideration but, ultimately, lawmakers decide how the state's money is spent. He said the state has had to "perform triage" and cut billions from spending because of lagging tax revenues.
"I think all Georgians would agree that it's not ideal to divert money intended for one purpose, but we do think they would agree that in difficult times, with difficult decisions facing us, we have to fund our top priorities first," Robinson said. "This is a situation we inherited."
House Speaker John Ralston, who sponsored the bill that created Joshua's Law six years ago, said that driver's education in Georgia has benefited from the law.
"Without its passage, it is unlikely that driver's education would have received the level of financial support from the state that it has in recent years, especially as state revenues weakened through the economic downturn," he said in a prepared statement.
Brown said he's asking state lawmakers to consider a constitutional amendment that would address the problem and require that the money go to driver's education. He said he believes the law is working — teen fatalities from wrecks in Georgia have been cut in half since the it was enacted — but more money would mean better curriculum and equipment to help teach teens safe driving skills.
Had all the money that was raised been spent on driver's education, every high school would have a program by now, Brown said.
"It's very frustrating, especially when I see the results," he said. "I know it's working."