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Ga. plan would link property tax relief to revenue
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ATLANTA- Powerful Georgia House leaders are backing a proposal that would preserve a property tax break for homeowners this year but would likely eliminate it next year.

The homeowner tax relief grants, which reduce property taxes by about $200 to $300 per homeowner, would be wiped out in Gov. Sonny Perdue's proposed spending plan. He said it was "virtually fiscally impossible" to fund the $428 million program amid a $2.2 billion deficit.

House leaders, however, proposed Tuesday that the state would fund the program this year but state revenue must grow by at least 3 percent in future years for the grant to continue.

State Rep. Larry O'Neal, the plan's author, said that means there's "almost zero chance" the program would be funded next year. But the proposal helps the state keep a promise to its taxpayers while holding the door open to a possible revival, he said.

"We made a promise and the recommended budget takes that promise away from the taxpayers of Georgia," said O'Neal, a Republican from Bonaire who chairs the tax-writing House Ways & Means Committee.

"This bill puts into law the fact that we're going to keep that promise," he said. "It's going to be hard, some would say impossible. But we made the promise and the people in Georgia have to rely on that promise."

A range of House leaders have signed onto the bill, and Senate leaders initially signaled they approve of the idea as well.

"I have not seen the specifics but I support the concept," said Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers.

The governor's office, too, did not shut the door on the deal. Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley said the governor believes it's difficult to keep the grants, but said "he'll rejoice with lawmakers" if they can come up with a plan to avoid the cuts.

"There's a very cooperative attitude," said Brantley. "The question we'll come back to is how we'll do it this year. There's still some work to be done."

Last summer the governor called the grants "ineffective" and said he wanted to eliminate them.

Perdue's proposal to wipe out the tax break has faced stiff opposition from local governments, which warn that taxes will likely rise immediately without the grants.

"I don't know of any other state program proposed for elimination that would result in an immediate tax increase for Georgia homeowners," said Lamar Paris, a Union County commissioner who serves on the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, which is fighting the move.

The legislative wrangling comes as lawmakers are considering a separate plan aimed at restricting growing property assessment hikes.

A key House subcommittee approved a plan Tuesday that would limit property assessment hikes to no more than 3 percent each year or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower.

Much of the focus Tuesday was on the plan proposed by O'Neal, who talked of the measure as a moral issue as well as a fiscal one. He said legislators have promised the tax break to residents, and it was far too late to walk away from that pact.

"People these days need to be able to rely on at least something," he said.