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Tax measures likely GOP ally

Although the 2006 General Assembly session is still more than three months away, House and Senate Republicans already are taking aim at a list of targets.

Three weeks ago, Senate GOP leaders announced plans to clamp down on illegal immigrants by denying them taxpayer-funded services.

Last week, House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island, trotted out a bill meting out longer prison sentences to sex offenders.

Cornering the credit for going after illegal immigrants and sex criminals - neither group exactly popular with voters - will generate more support for the GOP in an election year.

But neither issue is likely to appear on the ballot in Georgia, the most direct way politicians can help their party's candidates.

That's where two tax measures now being pushed by Republicans come in.

GOP leaders have introduced and held public hearings on a proposed constitutional amendment to abolish school property taxes and make up the lost revenue by increasing the state sales tax.

Another amendment being looked at by a House study committee would limit the growth of state spending each year to population increase plus inflation.

If either, or both, make it through the Legislature this winter and land on next November's ballot for ratification by Georgia voters, expect Republicans to get a boost at the polls.

Numerous studies have shown that adding referendum questions increases voter turnout, said Ken Miller, a professor of government at Claremont-McKenna College in California, a state with a long history of ballot initiatives.

And when issues that appeal to conservatives and/or Republicans are contested, such as curbing spending or taxes, most of those additional voters are likely to be conservative Republicans.

"If you're a conservative or Republican candidate, it's all to your advantage to have these on the ballot," Miller said.

One caveat advanced by Miller is that to affect turnout, a referendum must be about a high-profile issue. Georgia Republicans have done their best to ensure that their school funding reform plan grabs voters' attention. A House study committee has held five public hearings across the state on the proposal in recent weeks.

The sessions have been well attended, no surprise to Keen.

"When you talk about eliminating property taxes, you get the interest of the public," he said.

The reform proposal has a strong appeal to property owners besieged by rising tax bills. More than 80 school districts have raised property taxes in the last two years to help offset nearly $1 billion in state budget cuts.

Opposing the measure are groups representing teachers, administrators and school boards. But they weren't alone in speaking out at the hearings against swapping a higher sales tax for school property taxes.

Even rank-and-file Georgians expressed concern about the loss of local control that could result from replacing local property taxes with formula-driven state sales tax funding.

Strong opposition from an entrenched education lobby and public uncertainty over such a dramatic change in school funding could be enough to sink the Republican proposal during the upcoming legislative session.

That leaves the spending-limits measure, based on a "Taxpayer's Bill of Rights" adopted by voters in Colorado in 1992.

It hasn't received nearly the publicity of the school funding reform proposal, having generated a single committee meeting. But, with more meetings on tap, it also has drawn opposition, in this case from an Atlanta-based nonprofit research organization worried about its potential impact on the state's ability to deliver vital services. Both proposals face an uphill battle to reach Georgia voters because, as constitutional amendments, they require a two-thirds vote of both houses.

Miller said that even if one or both make next year's ballot, they won't necessarily make the difference in a major race. Instances when a ballot question could be credited with that dramatic an impact are few and far between, he said.

"These things won't necessarily totally determine the outcome, but they do have an effect on the margins," Miller said. "Sometimes, these ballot measures will get people out to vote who otherwise wouldn't."

Dave Williams is a staff writer for the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.