Georgia Telecom ‘Slush Fund’ Escapes Reform

Published June 1, 2009

Georgia lawmakers recently had the chance to stand up for taxpayers and stop an outdated telecommunications subsidy program that’s fraught with waste and abuse. Instead, state senators failed to move a House-passed bill to a floor vote before the General Assembly session ended April 3.

Georgia’s Universal Access Fund was created more than a decade ago to provide subsidies to rural telecom providers for extending service to under-served areas, but it has evolved into what taxpayer watchdogs see as a wasteful slush fund that lavishes taxpayer money on questionable and unnecessary spending projects, including tens of thousands of dollars for activities not even remotely related to telephone service.

State Rep. Clay Cox (R-Lilburn) sponsored House Bill 168, which would have eliminated the UAF. The bill passed the state House of Representatives March 10 by a vote of 123 to 42, but it stalled in the Senate Committee on Regulated Industries and Utilities. Cox said he’ll “absolutely” introduce similar legislation in the next General Assembly session.

‘Just Bad Policy’

“The underlying principle is that government should not be taking money from one private company and giving it to other private companies. It’s just bad policy,” Cox said. “Any time government gets in the business of picking winners and losers, everyone loses.”

Originally meant as temporary compensation to small phone companies for losses in access revenue, the UAF has recently swelled by some 500 percent—from about $3 million in 2007 to more than $15 million today—due in no small part to waste and abuse. A single state audit found more than $20,000 of UAF money was spent on a holiday party and $15,000 on a dinner, and some funds went toward repairs on a cabin in North Carolina.

“A fund so opaque and unaccountable is clearly not in the best interests of the consumers and taxpayers who are struggling to make ends meet,” said Joshua Culling, state government affairs manager for the National Taxpayers Union. “H.B. 168 would have provided some much-needed relief to citizens who see roughly half of their monthly phone payment siphoned away by direct taxes, pass-through taxes, and fees.”

Natasha Altamirano ([email protected]) is communications manager for the nonprofit, nonpartisan National Taxpayers Union, a citizen group with more than 362,000 members nationwide, including 8,300 in Georgia.