Is Georgia doling out too many tax breaks?
You could certainly make that argument.
In this year’s General Assembly session, lawmakers passed 10 bills granting various forms of tax breaks and exemptions that totaled nearly half a billion dollars: $483 million over the next five years, by one estimate. Gov. Nathan Deal signed them all into law.
The people receiving the tax breaks are primarily Georgia’s wealthiest citizens. One of the bills passed this year, for example, grants a sales tax exemption for repairs or renovations of luxury yachts that cost at least $500,000.
There’s also a tax break for the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta, tax credits for financiers who invest in rural businesses, and a reduction in the corporate net worth tax.
Who’s not getting these tax breaks? People like you and me. We’re the ones who will be expected to make up the $483 million in lost revenues that result from all the tax breaks the Legislature handed out.
In the same session where they okayed a tax exemption for luxury yachts, legislators passed another bill that increased the fees you pay for boat registrations. In other words, a tax break for yacht owners, but a higher registration fee for people who take their outboards to Lake Lanier.
Legislators declined to renew another tax break that for years provided benefits to millions of middle-income Georgians: the sales tax holiday during the summer for buying personal computers and back-to-school supplies. That tax break was taken away.
That’s typically the philosophy of the General Assembly: tax breaks for the favored few, but not for the many.
There are some legislators from both sides of the partisan aisle who criticize these tax giveaways, but most are only too happy to keep granting them.
"My experience has been that most folks are opposed to all of them, except for the one they're for," observed Sen. Jack Hill (R-Reidsville).
But finally, there is at least one study committee that is taking a look at the matter.
The Special Tax Exemption Senate Study Committee held the first of several hearings last week, and some of the committee members actually suggested that it may be time to start reining in these tax breaks.
Sen. John Albers (R-Roswell), who chairs the committee, said the panel might very well look at "those (tax breaks) that are actually not providing the value they were originally intended to. We want to look at those and see if it makes sense in the future to sunset those to make sure we're spending each and every tax dollar as wisely as we can."
“I am more interested in lowering everyone’s income taxes and not having credits be so prevalent in Georgia,” said Sen. Hunter Hill (R-Atlanta), who’s running for governor next year.
Albers also wants the study committee to develop a process for evaluating the potential payback of proposed tax breaks before lawmakers take the final vote on them, so that the unproductive ones aren't passed in the first place.
That would be a first for Georgia, where tax breaks have long been enacted with no followup evaluation to determine whether they actually accomplish their purpose.
Chaaron Pearson of Pew Charitable Trusts, which studies the impact of tax breaks nationwide, told the study committee that tax incentives for economic development purposes cost state and local governments $40 billion a year in foregone revenues.
Georgia is one of 23 states "that lacks a well-designed evaluation plan" for these tax breaks, Pearson said.
In other words, legislators pass tax breaks but the revenue department doesn’t try to determine whether these exemptions are really creating jobs or generating economic development. Lawmakers are just flying blind.
It could be that some of the tax breaks passed in recent years have really been productive. An oft-cited example is the tax legislation that is credited with luring TV and movie production companies to the state.
Under the current system, however, there’s little way of knowing whether tax breaks really work or not.
I wish the study committee all the luck in the world as it undertakes this Herculean task. It would be great to see lawmakers demonstrate some common sense on the issue of tax breaks – but don’t hold your breath.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an internet news service at gareport.com that reports on state government and politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.