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Shipp: Don’t have a lobbyist? Better grab your wallet

POSTED: August 27, 2008 5:01 a.m.

It's time to keep one eye on your bank account and another on our friends at the state Capitol.

Times are tough, and Gov. Sonny Perdue, fresh off his junket to China, is circling like a shark, looking for additional cash for state government. Perdue fired the initial shot last week when he suggested that the state end $400 million in annual property tax relief that dates from the administration of Gov. Roy Barnes.

Frankly, Republican Perdue has been hostile to the Democrat Barnes' property tax relief since taking office, having proposed ending it in his first budget in 2003. Perdue was stopped only by a bipartisan revolt among legislators. With the state sinking deeper into the red, he's taking another shot at eliminating the tax relief, and likely will succeed.

During Perdue's 2006 re-election campaign, we heard him bragging about "converting a deficit to a surplus," telling us he inherited a mess that he'd since cleaned up. Now as we head toward the seventh legislative session of Perdue's term, the state likely is facing its worst budget crisis in decades. The budget may be off the mark by the billions, which will likely require Perdue and the General Assembly to raise taxes, cut the budget or both.

We will undoubtedly hear from Perdue and tax-hiking legislators about how "we have to make tough choices" and "we've done everything else we can" before they stick their hands deeper into your pocket.

When you hear that inevitable talk, remember the list below, which is a sampling of the narrow, special-interest tax breaks that Perdue and his legislative allies have provided in recent years (with credit to the lobbyists, who ply decision makers with NASCAR tickets, fancy dinners and, of course, campaign contributions). These breaks have cost the state money while benefiting only a few well-connected people and industries, and the lost revenue will make the hit on your wallet all the deeper next year as you pay to make up for them.

According to one budget watchdog group, some of the special-interest tax breaks in the last few years included:

  • $11.5 million for a sales tax exemption for manufacturing machinery;
  • Up to $8.7 million for a sales tax exemption for energy use in manufacturing;
  • $4.9 million to extend the sunset on ad valorem tax exemption for watercraft inventory; and,
  • $292,000 to extend the sales tax exemption for petroleum gas and fuel used for swine-raising purposes.

Powerful insurance lobbyists have managed to score tens of millions of dollars in breaks as well, all in the name of economic development and keeping insurance jobs in Georgia.

In addition to these recent tax breaks, there also are many ongoing special-interest tax exemptions, including an exemption for sales of goods to the Daughters of the American Revolution, the rental or sale of videotape to people making movies and an exemption on paying sales taxes for owners of coin-operated video machines, including, presumably, video poker.

Some especially interesting tax exemptions are available for the agriculture industry, which is probably better connected than any other under the Gold Dome, considering the powerful elected officials who have farming interests and the well-connected lobbyists who do the industry's bidding. Whether any of these are touched as our political leadership scrambles for money will be interesting to watch. The betting here is that the ag folks will be left alone.

One special agriculture tax break exempts from sales taxes the sale of seed and fertilizers. Note that our governor just happens to own a company named Houston Fertilizer and Grain. The same tax exemption also applies to straw, which coincidentally is the chosen crop of Senate Majority Leader Tommie Williams, R-Lyons.

Also included in the tax exemptions is a long list of agricultural machinery, much of which now costs millions of dollars, meaning sales taxes paid by purchasers would be significant. Fuel used for farmers' irrigation systems is also exempt from taxes. That would sure be a nice break if it applied when you filled your tank at the local gas station these days, wouldn't it?

Just don't expect these types of special-interest tax breaks to be the ones that the GOP and Sonny choose to address when they are constitutionally required to reach a budget agreement sometime in 2009. Your property tax relief makes a much more inviting target.

After all, if you don't have a lobbyist at the Capitol watching your wallet, you're just ordinary folks, ripe for gouging.

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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