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Shipp: Amendment gives tax power to developers

POSTED: October 29, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Look out. Our friends in the General Assembly have quietly plugged a few words into the Nov. 4 ballot to test voters. They want to know if we are still chumps.

The lawmakers' words, if approved by voters, would allow private developers to take over the duties of the tax collector. Known as Amendment 3, the language allows private corporations to construct developments and then levy taxes to pay for services or whatever. The middleman, namely the elected government, would be left out of the equation.

Your friendly landlord would decide when and how much local taxes you pay and for what purpose. If an unscrupulous landlord gets into a financial jam, he could simply dream up a reason to jack up his tenants' taxes to cover the debt. What a deal!

If voters adopt this amendment, it would mark the first time in history that Georgians allowed private interests to usurp the duties of elected officials and levy taxes.

The private cities measure has about as much business being on this year's ballot as a skunk does in church.

I have sympathy for some lawmakers who worked so hard on the amendment. Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, who is likely to run for lieutenant governor in a couple of years, is said to have toted so much water for the developers that he may have hurt his back.

On the face of it, the private cities measure looks like a standard piece of Republican legislation. It would get the government out of the way and let private enterprise do its thing. You know, just like W and friends called off the regulators to let Wall Street play football without referees with trillions of dollars of our money.

With the federal referees sidelined, the football game turned into a costly, anything-goes brawl. So far, taxpayers have had to cough up a $750 billion welfare check to keep afloat some of the nation's biggest banks. Hundreds of thousands of homes have been seized for foreclosure. Unemployment, partly due to the slump in construction, is rising. And, well, you know the rest.

The next president is liable to inherit a sick national economy, the likes of which we haven't seen since 1929 when another anti-regulator, Herbert Hoover, told us not to worry.

So here we are in 2008, our faces furrowed with worry, our savings in jeopardy, our children's future cloudy, and what does the Peach State legislature do?

Answer: What it usually does -- make the wrong move at the wrong time.

With our financial institutions tottering around us and thousands of new homes standing empty, Georgia's lawmakers want to let developers get to work on private districts with a Keep Out, Government! sign on the gates.

They've got to be kidding.

The private cities idea has been making the rounds in Georgia at least since 2005. Big-time Georgia lobbyist Ted Graham flew Johnson and several other legislators to Florida to view a private city for the elderly. Known as the Villages, the private city near Leesburg, Fla., serves as home to about 57,000 geezers.

The Villages is actually a series of community development tax districts that act as a single private city with the private power to issue bonds and collect taxes. The private developer serves as sort of a village king with powers that are a real monarch's dream. Of course, the Florida guy wears a hard hat instead of a bejeweled crown and is beholden only to his bankers. Our lawmakers were shown the Villages to introduce them to private cities so that enabling legislation for such enterprises could be introduced in Georgia.

That is how Amendment 3 came to be on the ballot this year, just as the bottom began falling out of Wall Street and the giant ATM in the sky jammed.

Oh, I forgot to tell you: Rep. Larry O'Neal, R-Perry, a close pal and legal counsel to Gov. Sonny Perdue, sponsored private cities legislation tailored for a development in Houston County.

You remember Larry, don't you? He's the guy who introduced special legislation that gave Gov. Perdue a hefty break on his taxes. This Georgia private cities concept may finally involve Oaky Woods, a huge development adjacent to some of Sonny's property in Houston County.

We'll tell you about that later. We don't want you suffering information overload. We'll keep the good stuff about Oaky Woods and Amendment 3 until we know the results of the legislators' chump test for voters on Nov. 4.

Bill Shipp's column on Georgia politics appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com. You can contact him at P.O. Box 2520, Kennesaw, GA 30160; Web site.



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