This time a year ago, Georgia’s political leadership was on fire to push through a sweeping revision of the state’s creaky tax code.
The cries were heard in the capitol hallways: Broaden the tax base! Flatten the tax rates! Cut income taxes for everybody!
The tax reform campaign appeared to be an unstoppable juggernaut that would roll through the General Assembly and drop a bright, shiny bill on the desk of Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature.
The only problem was, reality intervened.
A major part of the tax revision proposal involved the elimination of most of the tax breaks and exemptions that had been granted over the years to various businesses and special-interest groups. Corporate lobbyists quickly made it clear that they weren’t going to sit still and allow that to happen.
“We got out-lobbied,” said A.D. Frazier, the retired banker who chaired a study council that drafted the tax revision plan. “It was as simple as that.”
It also turned out that facts are stubborn things. The academic consultants and economists who analyzed the tax proposal pointed out that lowering income tax rates for businesses, which was the primary goal of the leadership, would make it necessary to raise taxes on everyone else to comply with the constitutional requirement that the Legislature adopt a balanced budget.
Legislative leaders kept demanding that the analysts run the numbers again until they came up with a more favorable outcome, but no matter how many times you add it up, you cannot make two plus two equal five. In the end, the tax revision bill was yanked from the table by House leaders before it ever went to the rank-and-file members for a vote.
House Speaker David Ralston has maintained ever since that fiasco that lawmakers would make another attempt to revamp the tax system. The first indications of that new campaign surfaced recently when a legislative committee held a brief meeting to lay out their plan.
Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen, proposed eliminating the sales tax on energy used in manufacturing and agriculture, increasing the state sales tax to 5 percent, restoring the state sales tax on groceries that was removed in the 1990s, and increasing the tobacco tax from 37 cents per pack of cigarettes to $1.37 per pack.
The revenues raised from the sales and excise tax increases would make it possible to lower the income tax rate from 6 percent to 3.7 percent, Heath estimated.
Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, was especially supportive of the idea of restoring the sales tax on groceries, calling the elimination of that tax “one of the biggest mistakes” of former governor Zell Miller’s administration.
“We really ought to put the sales tax back on food, which everybody pays, and put it (an income tax reduction) back for people who actually pay the taxes,” Williams contended.
With the leadership of one legislative chamber ready to move forward, you’d think that tax revision was a certainty.
That turned out not to be the case, however. One of Deal’s spokesmen said the governor would not support tax increases on groceries or cigarettes.
The House Republican leadership also seemed a little reluctant to start mixing it up on the tax issue along the lines proposed by their Senate colleagues.
“I’m very leery of this economy we’re in now, particularly the world situation,” said House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal, R-Bonaire, an attorney with a lot of expertise in business tax law. “If you couple a big change in tax policy with what could happen in Europe... on a short-term basis, that might put too much pressure on small businesses.”
There is also this to consider: Because of the recent reapportionment process, many legislators will be running for reelection in redrawn districts that include new voters. I don’t think they relish the idea of explaining to these new constituents why they voted to put a 4 percent state sales tax on the food they buy when they go to the grocery store.
For all those reasons, you can assume that revising the state’s tax laws will remain a project that is set aside for others to take up some point in the future.
(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an internet news service at gareport.com.)