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Tax proposals being debated
Local government officials interested to hear about property taxes
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The focus is on taxes as lawmakers plan to make up the $1.5 billion hole in the state's budget in January.

The Special Council on Tax Reform and Fairness for Georgians released preliminary ideas about the state's tax structure Tuesday, recommending a slow move away from personal income taxes toward a larger tax base that can pay stable sales taxes.

Though local officials and businesses are questioning the reality of the concepts, restructuring the state's taxes is a must, said Frank Norton Jr. of The Norton Agency.

"I applaud the effort of the tax council in examining and continuing to re-examine the overall tax structure when it comes to usage fees, the income tax, corporate fees and property taxes," he said. "It needs to be overhauled. It's like turning the Queen Mary, and it's going to be a mammoth task."

The general ideas are heading in the right direction, especially when it comes to helping businesses create new jobs, Norton said.

"We won't see any results for three to five years down in the trenches," he said. "This is the first step to a comprehensive overhaul of the tax structure, which is certainly needed in Georgia."

Local government officials, who have been arguing against sales tax-only ideas, are interested to hear the specifics when it comes to property taxes, which form the bulk of their revenue. Tax council chairman A.D. Frazier said Tuesday that local governments should be able to use sales tax money if they agree to roll back on inventory and property taxes, but the shift will take many years.

"I'm not sure what the state could do to help local governments move away from property taxes," said Assistant Hall County Administrator Phil Sutton. "At some point, the public is going to get resistant to sales taxes as they are to income taxes and property taxes. I'm not sure it doesn't shift that level of concern from one area to another."

In addition, sales taxes can be volatile and heavily affected by the economy.

"One idea that does make sense is broadening the tax base for sales taxes," Sutton said. "With fewer exemptions, governments could rely more on sales taxes and reduce others to make it revenue-neutral."

Stepping away from property taxes could also hurt school systems and public safety departments because operations don't change with the economy, he added.

"I hear people say regularly that their business is down 30 percent, so we should reduce the local government revenue and expenditures by that much, but our business didn't go down," he said. "Fires don't stop, and people don't stop having accidents."

As lawmakers move forward, they must consider the most stable option, which could include taxing some services, Sutton said.

Representatives should also think about the way taxes affect small businesses, including Internet sales, said Steve Quehl, a Dawsonville resident and owner of Woodcraft supply store in Roswell.

"In addition to paying income, license, inventory and property taxes, I collect and pay a substantial sum in sales tax monthly as required by law," he said. "The out-of-state Internet suppliers against whom I compete from my single retail storefront in East Roswell do no such thing. Because of their unspoken promise to customers of avoiding sales tax, they siphon substantial taxable revenue away from businesses like mine here in our state."

Quehl has talked to Gov.-elect Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and state Rep. Amos Amerson, R-Dahlonega, about passing the Main Street Fairness Act, which would enforce sales tax collection on Internet transactions.

"While this sounds daunting, I know that the technology and systems are available to do this effectively and economically," he said. "E-commerce is growing at a compounded 13.5 percent per annum. The scale and growth of this commerce is such that Georgia would see a rapid payback on the cost of implementing any system necessary to enforce tax collection on e-commerce."

When 16 local groups met with Hall County representatives and senators last week, they all named concerns about taxes affecting their areas - "sin" taxes on cigarettes, ad valorem property taxes, motor fuel taxes, transportation taxes and special purpose local option sales taxes.

Overall, the Hall County legislators support the Fair Tax but know many "programmatic" issues must be handled at the federal level, not the state level, said Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville.

"With the gas tax, cigarette tax, anything you cross the state line to buy, it'll create a black market," said state Sen. Butch Miller, R-Chestnut Mountain. "And with the sin tax, what about the 14-year-old who drinks three Mellow Yellows and eats four Twinkies and is 60 pounds overweight? What is a sin, and what do we tax?"


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