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Candidates not alone on Nov. 2 ballot

$10 tag fee for trauma care, other questions to be decided

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POSTED: October 11, 2010 9:47 a.m.
Georgia hospitals are pushing for a cash infusion of $80 million annually to stabilize the state’s struggling network of trauma centers, but first voters would have to approve a tax hike for themselves next month.
Among several amendments to Georgia’s constitution on the ballot Nov. 2, voters must decide whether to add $10 to the fees they pay each year to renew their vehicle registration. The money would go to a special fund to bolster the state’s 16 trauma hospitals and encourage more hospitals to offer trauma care.
Beyond emergency rooms, trauma hospitals keep teams of specialists – such as orthopedic surgeons and neurologists – on call around the clock to treat patients injured in car crashes and other potentially deadly mishaps.
The problem is Georgia doesn’t have enough trauma centers. Advocates say the state needs to almost double its existing trauma hospitals, and the $10-per-tag fee could save as many as 700 lives per year.
Supporters argue the tax would get more hospitals offering trauma care, which would offset daunting costs that drag down their bottom lines, in part because of uninsured patients getting treatment.
Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah, the state’s second-largest trauma hospital, treated more than 1,500 trauma patients from 48 counties last year. Many came from 150 miles or more away, too far to reach the hospital within the “golden hour” that’s critical for saving lives, said Dr. Gage Ochsner, Memorial’s chief of trauma services.
“We see people that die at least once a week that, if they had gotten to us sooner, they would be savable,” Ochsner said. “I get frustrated because $10, that’s nothing. Even in these times, it’s the cost of a ticket to a movie.”
The trauma tax could be a tough sell amid a recession and with many voters in a sour mood over government spending.
The Georgia Tea Party Patriots is urging voters to oppose the $10 tag fee. Debbie Dooley, state coordinator for the group, says lawmakers should free up existing tax dollars for trauma care by making cutbacks in other areas.
“When you have an economy in as poor shape as ours is, it’s a bad time to raise taxes,” Dooley said. “People are just not inclined to give government more money to spend.”
Also on the ballot, state lawmakers are pushing an amendment to authorize changes in how judges settle contract disputes between businesses and ex-employees, particularly “non-compete” clauses that restrict doctors, engineers and other professionals from taking new jobs that compete with their old bosses.
Currently, if a judge finds any part of “non-compete” contract to be unfair, the whole agreement gets voided. The amendment on the ballot would allow lawmakers to give courts power similar to a line-item veto. Judges could strike unfair portions of a contract while leaving the rest intact.
Lawmakers who sponsored the amendment say it would help Georgia recruit employers by protecting their contractual agreements with workers. Supporters include the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.
Opponents say the measure would unfairly shield big business from upstart competitors.
“It favors huge corporations who can shut everybody down,” said Savannah attorney Mark Tate, who practices employment law. “It actually restricts competition. It doesn’t increase it.”
Business groups are also pushing a referendum to eliminate the state inventory tax, a $2.5 million ad valorem tax that critics said has forced businesses to move distribution centers outside the state.
It’s not a huge change because inventory taxes levied by local governments in Georgia would remain untouched, said Kelly McCutchen, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
“It’s the local tax that’s the real killer,” McCutchen said. “Businesses need to realize this is not going to be a huge windfall.”
Other ballot amendments aren’t causing much fuss. Two proposed amendments would allow the Department of Transportation, as well as state agencies doing energy-efficient improvements, to sign multiyear contracts without all the money being budgeted upfront.
Another would affect only property owners of specially designated industrial areas found only in Chatham and Jeff Davis counties. Right now those properties can be taxed by nearby cities, but not annexed by them. The amendment would let property owners opt for annexation.

 

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