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Posted: March 31, 2010 12:00 a.m.

Tax pledges not what they used to be

Americans for Tax Reform, an organization that opposes tax increases, for years has asked legislators from across the country to make this promise: "I will oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes."

That anti-tax pledge has been signed by 19 members of the Georgia Senate and 50 members of the House of Representatives, a group that is mostly Republican but does include a few Democratic lawmakers.

It's easy to make such a promise when the economy is growing and tax collections are strong. Under those conditions, the state can continue to provide the same level of services without having to demand higher taxes from its citizens.

The pledge can come back and bite you, however, when the state is in the middle of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and revenue collections are plummeting by 15 to 20 percent. If you don't do something to raise revenues, serious cutbacks in services have to be made.

That's been the case in Georgia for the past two years, where the General Assembly finds itself facing a projected budget deficit of $2.4 billion or more in the next fiscal year. This has forced legislators to cut funding to the point where school systems are running out of money and hospitals may have to be closed.

When you get hit hard in the face by that kind of reality, you start to realize that maybe you shouldn't have been so quick to make an absolute promise that you would vote against "any and all efforts to increase taxes."

That realization has hit home with Georgia lawmakers this year. Some of them, such as Rep. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody), have renounced the pledge and asked that their names be removed from the "no new taxes" list. Others have simply gone ahead and voted for legislation to raise taxes and fees, regardless of the political damage it may do to them later.

We saw that happen a few weeks ago when the House of Representatives voted to impose a 30-year tax to raise money for a new Georgia Dome stadium in Atlanta. That stadium tax bill was introduced by Rep. Mark Burkhalter (R-Johns Creek), who signed the anti-tax pledge.

There were 34 House members who signed the anti-tax pledge but voted for the stadium tax, including Ben Harbin of Evans, Larry O'Neal of Bonaire, Amos Amerson of Dahlonega, Mike Coan of Lawrenceville, Katie Dempsey of Rome, Mark Hamilton of Cumming, Calvin Hill of Canton, Gene Maddox of Cairo, Alan Powell of Hartwell, Bobby Reese of Sugar Hill, Carl Rogers of Gainesville, Ed Rynders of Albany, Donna Sheldon of Dacula, Bob Smith of Watkinsville, Len Walker of Loganville, and Mark Williams of Jesup.

We saw it happen again last week when the House passed bills that will increase about 80 state licensing and inspection fees (which should generate more than $90 million in revenues) and imposed a bed tax on hospitals to raise $169 million for Medicaid.

There were dozens of conservative Republicans who voted for the bills, with many of those "yes" votes coming from people who once signed a solemn pledge to vote against "any and all efforts to increase taxes."

It was an amazing sight to see House Majority Leader Jerry Keen (R-St. Simons) urging his colleagues to pass both pieces of legislation. Keen is one of the most conservative Republicans in the Legislature and a signer of the anti-tax pledge. When someone like Jerry Keen is supporting tax increases, you know the world has changed.

There are some lawmakers who will insist that they weren't voting to raise taxes, they were just voting to "enhance fees" or some such thing. That is a weak argument. A tax is a tax, no matter what you try to call it, and those votes last week were votes for tax increases.

There are times when a situation is so dire that a politician has to reconsider a promise he or she once made and vote differently to reflect a change in circumstances. I think this is one of those times.

You can criticize these legislators for going back on a promise, if you want to - but you can also commend them for having the wisdom to adjust to the demands of the real world.

Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact's Georgia Report at www.gareport.com that covers government and politics in Georgia. He can be reached at tcrawford@capitolimpact.net.


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