Flurry of tax bills in legislative hopper this year

ATLANTA - For most of last year, House Speaker Glenn Richardson had the tax reform spotlight all to himself.

Richardson, R-Hiram, crisscrossed Georgia for months giving speeches on his plan to get rid of property taxes to any group that would listen.

But now, with the General Assembly about to buckle down to the serious-business portion of its annual legislative session, a host of competing tax proposals are on the table for lawmakers to consider.

On the House side, a Democratic back bencher has introduced measures offering tax credits and a freeze on property assessments.

More serious competition comes from two of the speaker's fellow Republican leaders in the Senate, including a second proposal aimed at assessments.

And perhaps the most serious rival of all is an alternative offered by Gov. Sonny Perdue in his recent State of the State address providing a more moderate form of property-tax relief.

Tax cuts are a perennial favorite for politicians in an election year.

But there's more to this year's rash of tax legislation, said Alan Essig, executive director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

Although Essig opposes Richardson's plan, he credited the attention the speaker has generated on the issue for the outpouring of measures that has followed.

"It's led to a snowball effect," he said.

While Richardson's plan has attracted the most publicity of the tax proposals, it also has drawn the most fire.

City and county elected officials and school board members across the state rose up in opposition the moment the speaker announced his proposal to abolish most property taxes and replace the lost revenue by expanding the sales tax to groceries and many consumer services, from haircuts to appliance repairs.

Plan evolving

After months of criticism, Richardson amended the plan late last year to apply only to school taxes and Georgia's car tax.

But since he continued to talk about eventually getting rid of city and county property taxes, local government officials have kept up their opposition.

During three days of hearings on the plan this month, representatives of cities, counties and school districts complained that losing the ability to raise revenue through locally imposed property taxes would deprive them of control over their own budgets.

They said the state, which is picking up a smaller percentage of school spending than before Perdue took office, would collect all of the sales tax money and allocate it to local systems as it sees fit.

But Richardson said the state would be a more equitable distributor of education funds, creating a more level playing field across Georgia.

"A kid born in one county in Georgia might get the best education, but another kid two counties over might not," he said last week during an appearance before the Atlanta Press Club. "It's the luck of the draw. ... It is time to change how we fund education and treat all students as close to equal as possible."

A major difference between Richardson's plan and the other tax proposals in the legislative hopper is that his is intended to raise the same amount of tax revenue. Essentially, it is a tax shift.

Most of the others offer tax cuts, including legislation from Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson and Rep. Kevin

Levitas aimed at property tax assessments.

Each has proposed a constitutional amendment freezing assessments from the time a homeowner buys a piece of property until he or she sells it.

Johnson, R-Savannah, said the goal is to force local governments wishing to raise more revenue to do so by increasing their millage rates rather than the "back-door" method of conducting reassessments that virtually always lead to higher home values.

"It's the unpredictability," he said. "You have no way of knowing whether your property taxes are going to go up 3 percent, 25 percent of 50 percent. That's what we're trying to get our arms around."

Local vote

While Johnson and Levitas, D-Atlanta, take aim at property assessments, Sen. Mitch Seabaugh has introduced legislation more in keeping with Richardson's plan.

However, instead of a statewide approach, Seabaugh, R-Sharpsburg, wants to let local officials ask their communities whether they wish to junk property taxes in favor of a sales tax.

It would allow cities, counties or school districts to hold a referendum putting that question before local voters.

"This offers a compromise," Seabaugh said. "It's trying to solve what the speaker is trying to accomplish but answers a lot of opposition to his plan."

While Seabaugh clearly has some sympathy for the intent of Richardson's proposal, Perdue has other ideas.

Not only is the governor's new plan to eliminate the state portion of the property tax less dramatic a change than what the speaker envisions.

The governor also wants to cut taxes, not swap one form of tax for another.

"The public clearly understands tax cuts," Perdue said. "The public is often confused by tax shifts."

The governor's proposal would provide a modest $94 million in tax relief. He argued that's all the state can afford given the shaky state of the national economy.

"I believe we ought to do incremental tax relief as we go forward," Perdue said.

Groups that have harshly criticized Richardson's plan are keeping an open mind about the other tax proposals.

Amy Henderson, spokeswoman for the Georgia Municipal Association, said her group hasn't taken a position on either Johnson's or Seabaugh's legislation.

But she said the GMA has some of the same concerns about freezing property assessments that were raised several years ago, when voters in 31 Georgia counties and a much larger number of cities rushed to approve the freezes locally.

Henderson said freezing property taxes only as long as homeowners stay in their current residence discriminates against newcomers.

"Your next-door neighbor with a house valued the same as yours could be paying a lot less because they've been there longer," she said.

Beyond such problems with specific legislation are worries that this isn't the right time for changing tax policy.

Lawmakers are facing even more urgent demands than usual this year to spend more on water, education, transportation and health care.

Essig said he sees a disconnect between those pressing priorities and the rush to tax relief.

"Whatever we do in tax reform has got to be linked to budget needs," he said. "The key part of this discussion is can we raise the revenues on the state and local levels? That conversation hasn't been happening."

SideBar: At a glance

· House Bill 896 - Homeowners would receive state income tax credits for the state and local property taxes they pay.

· House Resolution 900 - Speaker Glenn Richardson's plan to eliminate most school property taxes statewide and replace the lost revenue with an expanded sales tax.

· House Resolution 1012 - Constitutional amendment providing homeowners with a property tax exemption equal to the value of their home minus the original purchase price.

· House Resolution 1013 - Constitutional amendment freezing property assessments.

· Senate Resolution 686 - Constitutional amendment freezing assessments as long as the current homeowner owns the property.

· Senate Resolution 687 - Allows local governments and school districts to ask their voters whether they wish to abolish property taxes and replace the revenue with a sales tax.