News 12 Special Assignment: Charity Short Change Update

News 12 at 6 o'clock / Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW) -- A News 12 investigation into license plates you see on the road every day could lead to a change in state law.

This summer, we exposed how the Georgia Department of Revenue is lining its pockets by short-changing charities. Because of what we uncovered, House Bill 180 is making its way through the General Assembly, and the lawmakers behind it promise it will wind up on the governor's desk.

How did we get here?

Joanna McAfee was only 6 years old when she passed away.

"Joanna was a special little girl, and she was put here on this Earth for a really short time to serve a specific purpose," said her father, Jeff McAfee.

We first introduced you to McAfee and his family in August at a very difficult time. At the end of that month, Joanna would be gone longer than the short time she was here.

He was also closing the office for the foundation he started in Joanna's name to help kids like her. He's now running the nonprofit from his house.

A News 12 investigation then uncovered another heart-breaking reality: A state law was taking money away from Joanna's foundation and other nonprofits like it.

Here's how. The law passed in May 2010 says that of the $35 fee for specialty plates, $25 is to be deposited into the state's general fund and $10 is to be dedicated to the sponsoring agency, fund, or nonprofit corporation. And it's the same for renewals: $35 a year with only $10 going to the nonprofit.

For specialty plates, the $25 fee, or manufacturing fee, used to be a one-time fee. With the new law, even though the plate has already been issued, the driver has to continue to pay it.

Simply put, the state is profiting from nonprofits.

"Just one obstacle after another, and Joanna never once complained about what she was going through," McAfee said.

So Joanna's father never complained about the law, but he really doesn't have to.

What's happening now?

News 12 asked the Department of Revenue to send us information on specialty plate renewals and new issues since the 2010 law went into effect. We crunched the numbers and noticed a 40 percent decline across the board.

Our research became a voice for McAfee and other nonprofits.

"I think it's good, the work that you all have put into it bringing these facts to me," said Rep. Willie Talton, R-Warner Robins.

Rep. Talton looked at our numbers and went on the record, promising to right what he believes is a wrong.

"I will put everything I have behind it to introduce legislation to try to get these tags exempt, these nonprofit organizations exempt," he said.

And now, Talton is keeping his promise to News 12 and to the state's nonprofits that benefit from specialty plates. He joined forces with four other lawmakers to make House Bill 180 a reality.

Right now, it's ready and waiting for lawmakers to act on it.

Instead of the state getting $25 from each plate and the charity only getting $10, the new law will give the state $10 and the charity $25.

Lawmakers aren't the only ones paying attention to what we exposed. Other Georgia television stations, like WMAZ in Macon, are following House Bill 180's progress, too.

But the man who still isn't complaining is now speaking up.

McAfee says he learned a lot from his angel before she went to heaven.

"When you lose a child, one of the greatest fears is that they will be forgotten," he said.

So he will keep working to make sure she's remembered by helping to find a cure for the devastating disease that took her. He's also helping other nonprofits cure a problem with a state law.

McAfee is also proud to report some new grants. Just in the last couple of months, the Joanna McAfee Foundation has given an additional $60,000 to fund cancer research, $25,000 going to Yale University and $35,000 to the National Cancer Institute.

He says he hopes to be able to give even more -- if and when the law changes.

As for when that will happen -- well, maybe soon.

What will happen next?

House Bill 180 was introduced this month and has been through first and second readings. Right now, members of the Motor Vehicles Committee are looking it over.

Late Thursday afternoon, we learned it could make it out of committee as soon as this coming Monday.

And something else to note about House Bill 180: If it passes, it won't just benefit nonprofits -- it will benefit all specialty plates.

News 12's investigation also showed that all funds generated by specialty plates for colleges and universities go to the state treasury. The schools don't get a dime.

This bill changes that. All Georgia schools with a tag would be able to use that extra money for need-based academic scholarships.

News 12 will keep following this for you and pass on any updates.

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