Sales taxes becoming the norm
As property taxes are capped, sales taxes more prevalent

ATLANTA - Whether in Gwinnett or statewide, tax issues have a trend in 2009: sales taxes could become the norm for funding government as property taxes are capped.

The House of Representatives is expected to take up a proposal soon to cap property tax assessments, giving stability to homeowners facing higher bills when property values rise. A vote was delayed Friday.

On Monday, the state Senate is expected to take up a proposal to implement regional sales taxes throughout the state to fund transportation, and another sales tax for transportation is proposed in the House.

And local lawmakers have drafted a bill to add an extra penny sales tax in Gwinnett, with a promise of rolling back property tax rates based on the revenues. The proposal would fulfill a campaign pledge of Chairman Charles Bannister.

A shift in funding government from property to sales taxes generally places a higher burden on the lower class, said Sally Wallace, a professor of economics at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University.

But 1 percent sales taxes are often easier for consumers to swallow than a property tax bill, which comes once or twice a year in a large amount.

"Property tax is just more hated than ever. People are looking at more ways to eliminate it," she said, explaining that homeowners have balked even more this year, when tax bills aren't quick to reflect declining home values caused by foreclosure and housing market issues.

The local option sales tax proposal from Bannister, which would reduce property taxes based on the revenues of a 1 percent sales tax, would put the county in line with 154 jurisdictions in Georgia.

Wallace said that option could help Gwinnettians because the sales tax would also be paid by people who live elsewhere but shop in the county.

In the end, though, a shift from property tax to sales tax does little to reduce the size of government, she said.

"It looks like we are taking money out of one pocket and putting it in another," she said.

Rep. Clay Cox, R-Lilburn, has drafted legislation to start the process for Gwinnett, although the change would require a voter's referendum.

"It's revenue neutral for the county and (government leaders) have some flexibility on how to spend it," Cox said.

There is one wrinkle to the trend of lowering property taxes. A gap in the state budget has caused Gov. Sonny Perdue to recommend a halt to homeowner tax relief grants that have kept property taxes lower in cities and counties.

Leaders in the General Assembly are scrambling to find the money, but if they do not, cities and counties may send out another tax bill to property owners this spring, which could cost homeowners an average of $200 to $300.

"We're looking at all options to try to make good on a commitment that has been made," Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said.

Cagle said he wants to find ways to cut the budget instead of raising taxes this year, but he is pushing the transportation sales tax as a new way to raise money, as lawmakers attempt to fill a multibillion dollar funding gap in road building. The idea would require either a regional, county or statewide referendum, giving voters a say, he said.

"It's only a tax increase if the voters want it to be a tax increase," he said.