As we enter March, our work at the Capitol continues. While we did many good things this week, I was disappointed when the largest tax cut in the history of the state failed by ten votes to receive the necessary two-thirds vote to be placed on the ballot as a constitutional amendment in November. On a positive note, we adopted legislation continuing our annual sales tax holiday weekends, to provide greater local control in education, and reforming Georgia’s indigent defense program.
This week, I voted with my colleagues in the Georgia House of Representatives to provide Georgians with the opportunity in November to vote for the largest tax cut in the history of our state. The legislation would have provided Georgians with the ability to vote to eliminate the car tax on a ballot referendum in November. The elimination of the absurd “birthday tax” would have provided more than $1 billion in tax savings to Georgians in the first two years after going into effect. The proposal also included a provision for the state to refund to the local community all revenues that the local community would have derived from the car tax, putting the tax cut on the back of the state. Further, the proposal would have provided reform to the tax assessment process by freezing the value of properties, with an annual escalator for inflation, until such time as the property is sold and revalued at the true market value. This would have ensured properties are taxed at their actual market value and brought needed reform to the property assessment process. The measure was approved by the majority of the House of Representatives, but fell ten votes shy of the necessary 120 votes (2/3rd majority) to be placed on the ballot as a constitutional amendment in November. With only 107 Republicans in the House, not enough Democrats joined us in voting to give Georgians the right to vote on meaningful tax relief in November.
The debate on tax reform began more than a year ago with Speaker Richardson’s announcement of his plan to eliminate property taxes in lieu of a consumption-based tax on services. I continually voiced my questions and concerns over how this plan would have affected our local schools. The Speaker ultimately determined the support was not sufficient to pass his property tax elimination proposal and substituted the version of the legislation that was considered this week. There is absolutely no doubt that the elimination of the car tax would have provided significant economic relief for Georgians. The legislation also included a guarantee by the State, backed by Georgia’s full faith and credit, to refund to local communities the dollars they would have received from the car tax. This would have put the onus on the state government to remain fiscally responsible to ensure sufficient revenues exist to make our local communities whole. In the remaining days of the session I will continue to work with my colleagues to provide meaningful spending reform and tax relief for Georgians.
On a positive note, we were able this week to ease your tax burden for two weekends. Every August, parents all over Georgia take their children shopping for back to school clothes and supplies. This is a big shopping weekend for our families and I was happy to again support a tax free shopping weekend to help them save a little money. The House approved House Bill 948, of which I was one of the five original sponsors, setting the weekend of July 31 through August 3 as the sales tax holiday weekend for school supplies, and October 2 through October 5 as the sales tax holiday weekend for energy efficient appliances.
In education this week, House members voted in favor of House Bill 1209 introduced by my colleague Brooks Coleman, Chairman of the House Education Committee. This legislation provides greater flexibility and local control of our schools systems. Working with the State Department of Education and through public hearings with parents and the local community, school systems would develop a five-year strategic plan. Upon approval of the plan, each school system may choose to enter into a five-year contract with the State Department of Education that will provide much needed flexibility to school districts in exchange for additional accountability. School systems would have greater flexibility by relaxing any number of state mandates that constantly put our County School Board and Superintendent in straight jackets as they attempt to chart a course for our schools. If the school system fails to meet their own agreed upon goals they would be subject to greater accountability pursuant to the contract. One-size-fits-all government never works and the leaders of our school systems need flexibility, while also being held accountable if the schools fail to meet the goals and standards they have pledged to meet. This legislation provides both and will help move our educational systems forward. Under the legislation, no school system will be required to enter into a contract with the state and adopt the strategic plan if they determine the current state law governing education works for their system.
Georgia’s indigent defense program is broken. For three years, one defendant and his attorneys have abused the system and wasted millions of taxpayer dollars defending a case that should have concluded long before now. The case of alleged courthouse killer Brian Nichols has tested the process by which we provide a defense for indigent defendants and has illuminated the flaws in the system. This week, the House adopted House Bill 1245 providing comprehensive reforms of Georgia’s indigent defense program. The bill establishes a fee sharing model where the state will share the financial burden of indigent defense with the county in capitol cases and stipulates that attorneys in conflict cases be paid a flat fee for their service. HB 1245 also states that only elected judges can preside over a death penalty case ensuring the judge is always responsive to the citizens of this state. Other reforms include audits of Georgia’s Public Defenders Standards Council and expanded membership to include locally elected officials.
I will continue to keep you up to date on our actions as the legislative session progresses. Should you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me at my Capitol office at (404) 656- 0109. I look forward to hearing from you soon.