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Tax changes, HOPE, jury box bill discussed at town hall meeting
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The overhaul of the income tax system in the state, changes and oversight of the HOPE and lottery funds, and a bill that would reshape the way jury pools are maintained were some of the topics covered at the Rockdale legislative delegation's town hall meeting on Saturday.

With just 12 days left in this year's session and crossover day coming up next week, about 25 residents and attendees came to the Nancy Guinn Memorial Library to hear an update on some of the issues and bills in play and ask questions to state Rep. Dar'shun Kendrick, Rep. Pam Dickerson, Rep. Pamela Stephenson and state Sen. Ronald Ramsey.

The proposed tax changes are based on recommendations from a specially convened advisory council, the Special Council on Tax Reform and Fairness, and are contained in House Bill 385, which must be voted up or down without changes, as well as three identical House Bills 386, 387 and 388, which can be changed and amended, explained Stephenson.

The bill would lower the personal income tax rate from 6 percent currently to 4 percent by 2014, and would also lower the corporate tax rate to 4 percent by 2014.

It would also get rid of any personal tax exemptions and credits, such as senior exemptions, and sales tax holidays.

It would begin taxing a long list of personal services and purchases. Some of those include trash pickup, hair cuts, oil changes, lawn service, veterinary services, golf course memberships and laundry services, among others. Personal sales of cars, boats and planes would also be taxed. The council also recommended bringing back a tax on groceries.

"It is a regressive tax," said Stephenson.  The other legislators present also expressed concern that the changes would unfairly burden the elderly and lower income population.

Stephenson said Georgia's tax code did need to be changed and updated, but with a look at other tools and approaches.

The changes would be revenue neutral in its first year, which would take place four years down the road if it were approved this legislative cycle, but would bring increasing revenues after that, said Kendrick.


HOPE, Lottery funds, Budget, Redistricting

The proposed changes to the HOPE scholarships was another hot topic.

Ramsey said the Georgia Lottery Corporation had been chronically underfunding the HOPE scholarships. The corporation was mandated by law to put in 35 percent of its funds to the scholarships but had only done so its first year, said Ramsey. He pointed out if the corporation had funded the scholarships as it was required to do, there would not be a shortage.

"We're allowing this corporation to underperform," he said.

Ramsey also said when asked where those funds were going instead, a corporation executive described how some of those funds were being used for payoffs for newer lotto products, like scratchoff cards.

"Why are we allowing individuals to market competing products that prevents us from funding higher education and pre-K?" he said.

The delegation members present said they had voted against the changes. Ramsey said the vote had come down along party lines in the Senate but was more bipartisan in the House.

Other topics discussed included the budget and redistricting.

The legislators expressed concern over education funding and the amount of cuts that have already been made.

Kendrick, who is on the Democratic reapportionment caucus, said the state had grown about 18.3 percent in population, and Rockdale was estimated to have grown about 18.1 percent. This year, the drawing of district lines would occur in delegations.

In the audience, Coach and city Councilman Cleveland Stroud said he supported having more representatives for Rockdale and not necessarily having one representative mainly for Rockdale because the county would have more votes and more voice in the General Assembly instead of just one vote.

"It looks good on paper but when you look at the reality... I'm of the opinion that if it ain't broke, don't fix it," he said.


Local Bills

HB248 - Also called the Jury Box Bill, this was requested by County Court Clerk Ruth Wilson and supported by county court officials, said Stephenson. The bill would change how the list of eligible jurors is maintained to allow population projections to be taken into account as well as the official Census count that is now used. "Historically, juries are not reflective of the population," said Stephenson. The populations change faster than the voter registration lists and driver's license lists that are now used. She added that prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges were in support of these changes.

SB150 - Ramsey said the city of Conyers had requested the bill to allow Cherokee Run Golf Course to serve distilled liquors and wines in addition to the malt beverages that municipal courses are now allowed to sell.