ATLANTA — State representatives may vote this week on legislation that could cost Clayton County at least $12.6 million in tax funds collected at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
House Bill 399 and it would prohibit local governments from collecting ad valorem taxes from businesses leasing space at airports run by another government. However, the Clayton County Legislative Delegation argues the bill largely targets their county despite its stated statewide impact.
The bill cleared a pair of hurdles Monday when it was approved by House Ways and Means committee and its Public Finance and Policy subcommittee. It was moving towards consideration by the full chamber Tuesday but no vote had been taken by mid-afternoon.
State Rep. Mike Glanton, D-Jonesboro, said he expects the controversial legislation to be quickly pushed through to the full House with the Crossover Day deadline looming.
“It is obvious that they have an intent to pass this bill out of the house no later than Thursday,” Glanton said.
Glanton said the House is moving quickly this week to pass its favored bills because Crossover Day falls on Thursday. Bills must be passed in at least one chamber of the General Assembly by the end of Crossover Day to still have a legitimate shot at reaching Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk and being signed into law this year.
The key issue is whether governments such as Clayton County can tax someone who leases space in government-owned property. By law, such properties cannot be taxed and the airport is owned by the city of Atlanta.
But the vendors who operate within the airport are not city employees and they only lease space to operate their restaurants and shops. Therefore, they are assessed property taxes for leased space by Clayton County.
So the legislation wades into the gray area of whether that practice is legal since the county can’t collect anything from Atlanta. If the legislation is passed, the General Assembly would be siding with the businesses against the county and make the practice illegal.
“This would make the law dealing with ad valorem taxation crystal clear,” said Rep. David Knight, R-Griffin, the bill’s author.
Knight argued Clayton County wasn’t being targeted at all. He said his bill was intended to make sure the state code section dealing with ad valorem taxes is “crystal clear” about where taxes can be levied.
“This is not about y’all, this is about code and it was never meant to be punitive in nature,” Knight told Glanton during the subcommittee’s hearing.
The desire of representatives to move quickly was on display Monday. Less than three hours after its approval by the subcommittee, the full Ways and Means Committee was already meeting to decide the bill’s fate.
Knight serves as the committee’s secretary and got to speak about the bill before the committee.
Glanton is not a member of the committee and was not recognized when he tried to address the body. He said afterward he was not surprised by that turn of events.
“It’s not unusual that when you have a bill that has been vetted in subcommittee as much as this one has, that they decide they don’t want to hear any more testimony when it gets to the big committee,” Glanton said.
Even though Clayton County legislators lost their battle in the Ways and Means Committee, they are not giving up the fight. Even though Glanton said House approval will likely come before the end of the week, he said there are still opportunities to push back against it. Even if it passes in the House, it still has to go through Senate committees and a full Senate vote.
Glanton was able to pull off one small victory Monday. He convinced Knight and the Public Finance and Policy subcommittee to strip the bill of a clause that would have let vendors recoup previously paid property taxes.
He said Clayton County could have been forced to repay the vendors as much as $70 million for years of previously collected taxes had the pay back clause stayed in the legislation.
Nearly the entire Clayton County Legislative Delegation, representatives of county government and schools, taxpayers and officials from College Park and Riverdale packed the subcommittee’s hearing. Some of them expressed disappointment after the subcommittee approved the bill.
College Park Mayor Jack Longino said a vendor leasing space at the airport was in many ways similar to a store owner leasing space in a shopping center. He said store owner in the shopping center would have to pay property taxes.
“We just want to be treated equally out there (at the airport),” Longino said.
Morrow resident Synamon Baldwin expressed fears about what impact the bill’s passage would have on the county. She is a member of the Clayton County Board of Tax Assessors and president of the county’s NAACP chapter. However, she said she attended the subcommittee hearing more as a concerned citizen than a community leader.
“I believe passage of this bill will destroy and decimate Clayton County because that is too much money to lose,” Baldwin said.