News 12 at 6 o'clock / Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- A News 12 investigation could lead to a change in Georgia law. It has to do with license plates that benefit nonprofits. For the past two years, the state has been making money off fees attached to them, but what we uncovered has a lawmaker vowing to stop it.
Joanna McAfee was a light, even when she had to face such darkness. She was only 3 years old when she was diagnosed with cancer. Her father says she never complained, even when he believed her treatment was "barbaric" at times. She passed away in 2005. She was only 6 years old.
"Joanna was a special little girl, and she was put here on this Earth for a really short time to serve a specific purpose," McAfee said.
After she passed away in 2005, Joanna's parents started the Joanna McAfee Childhood Cancer Foundation. It took two years for the Foundation to get the support it needed for the Joanna tag, a specialty license plate with the state of Georgia.
Some of that support came from University of Georgia head football coach Mark Richt. He even appeared in a public service announcement to get the word out about the tag to benefit the charity in Joanna's name.
Georgia law made it official, thanks to Rep. Willie Talton, a Republican from House District 145 in Warner Robbins. He sponsored HB 1053, and lawmakers passed the legislation that created the Joanna tag in 2006.
"I'm real proud of it," he said. "It has done well in my community and all over the state."
To date, at least 5,000 Joanna tags have been manufactured. According to the Joanna McAfee Foundation, there are Joanna tags issued in 149 of Georgia's 159 counties.
The Joanna tag was one of the first pieces of legislation Talton introduced when voters sent him to the Georgia House, but after a News 12 investigation, he's now promising to introduce another bill.
"I think it's good, the work that you all have put into it bringing these facts to me," he told News 12.
Simply put, the facts we uncovered mean the state is profiting off nonprofits.
Our investigation started when an employee in the Department of Revenue contacted News 12. He was upset about something he noticed about specialty license plates like the Joanna tag. The results of our open records request shows since a law passed in 2010 that tacked on fees to specialty plates, there has been a 40 percent drop in new issues and renewals.
The Joanna tag is down as much as 30 percent. While the state is raking in money, charities are losing it.
At the end of the month, the Joanna McAfee Foundation will have to close its doors. It will still continue its mission to help families and to fund research, but it will have to do it without an office.
"It does break our hearts a little bit to see it declining, but what that means is we'll have to readjust," McAfee said.
When we contacted him, he was packing up the space he's been renting in Warner Robbins, but he refuses to quit. He says Joanna never gave up, either.
"When you lose a child, one of the greatest fears is that they will be forgotten," McAfee said.
He will continue to help kids in Joanna's memory out of his house, and now a lawmaker will fight for change in the Georgia House.
Talton will introduce a bill to help not only Joanna's Foundation but also other nonprofits with plates.
"I will put everything I have behind it to introduce legislation to try to get these tags exempt, these nonprofit organizations exempt," he said.
He also says he's confident the Georgia won't be able to profit off nonprofits much longer.
"If I didn't feel good about it, I wouldn't be sitting here telling you I would introduce it," he said.
Hearing that makes McAfee feel good, too, especially when he's coming up on a difficult date. At the end of August, Joanna will be gone longer than the short time she was here. It's just another reason a father must continue his fight to keep her memory alive.
With September being Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, it's especially important to keep fighting.
Talton is promising to fight, too, and not because it's an election year. He ran unopposed in the primary and is unopposed in November. He says he'll push for the change in law in January, but he can't do this alone. He'll need the support of other state lawmakers, and you could help by speaking up.