Why we shouldn't trust lawmakers with $104 million windfall 

Using mortgage-lender settlement for good

Every year, Georgia receives more than $350 million from the 1998 settlement between the states and the big tobacco companies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that, in order to effectively reduce the toll of smoking-related diseases, about $116 million of that windfall should be devoted to anti-tobacco education and programs to help smokers quit.

How much does the state actually allocate to those efforts? A measly $2 million.

Just last week, state attorneys general announced they had reached a new big settlement — this time with the nation's five largest mortgage lenders — and that Georgia will again expect a healthy payout. More than $700 million of our state's share is already earmarked for various forms of debt relief for distressed homeowners, but there's another $104 million that will fall straight into the laps of state lawmakers.

You must forgive us for having doubts that our Legislature is likely to do the right thing when it comes to using that money.

Atlanta, as you know, has suffered some of the hardest knocks from the continuing foreclosure crisis. Even before the real estate bubble burst, the city was already one of the nation's mortgage-fraud capitals. Since 2007, Atlanta has consistently ranked within the top 10 major cities — and usually in the top five — in the rate of home foreclosure, which at one time was as high as one out of every 80 homes. And, as the New York Times reported last month, Atlanta still ranks dead last in terms of rebounding home values.

Much of that financial distress has occurred in Atlanta's poorest neighborhoods — Pittsburgh, Vine City, Northwest Atlanta — where, along many streets, it looks as if every other house is vacant or abandoned.

But most of Georgia's lawmakers don't hail from those parts of Atlanta or, indeed, from urban areas at all. So, it's a stretch to imagine rural legislators using the money toward mortgage relief for the hardest-hit city dwellers (who tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic, to boot).

State Attorney General Sam Olens has asked state leaders to set aside some of the settlement money to help him prosecute mortgage abuse and fraudulent real estate deals, since Georgia has seen more bank failures than any other state in recent years. He hopes to be aided by a proposed bill to give his office more authority to go after crooked lenders.

That sounds like a good start. The state could also devote funds to debt counseling and legal aid agencies; as well as to programs designed to mitigate blight caused by streets lined with boarded-up houses. The people struggling to stay in their homes or living next to vacant eyesores need any help they can get.

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