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In their effort to trim the state budget down to size in anticipation of a $2.2 billion revenue shortfall, Georgia legislators are being careful not to wander into that danger zone where politicians fear to tread: The Neverland of Higher Taxes. Heaven forbid it come to that.
There was a day when politicians weren't so squeamish about jacking up levies to pay for whatever sparkly baubles of government goodies caught their eye. Then along came Ronald Reagan, who made tax increases as undesirable as a bad rash, as socially acceptable as spitting on someone's shoes.
Just ask George H.W. Bush, who raised taxes after claiming "read my lips" and was shuffled out of the White House after one term.
Here in Georgia, the state's robust economy has kept taxpayers from enduring too many bumps in their bills. Some Republican leaders even proposed massive tax cuts the last two years to send the state's growing budget surplus back where it came from.
But the economy has tanked, tax cuts are back on the back burner and slumping revenues are leading some to wonder how to pay for the state's needs.
Budget cuts can account for some of the mounting deficit, with Gov. Sonny Perdue seeking 8 to 10 percent from each state department. And Georgia has a "rainy day" surplus of some $1.2 billion, money squirreled away when revenues were flush; at least half of that, maybe more, will be used to plug the gap.
But after spending is slashed and the surplus tapped, the state still is likely to fall short of a balanced budget, as required by the constitution. Which means legislators will have to collect more revenue from somewhere. That means either the mother of all bake sales or higher taxes on someone, if not everyone.
Or, perhaps the sneakier way that governments bump up their cash inflow: Higher fees and sin taxes. Both are more popular and palatable than across-the-board tax hikes because they generally involve voluntary behavior. That's why a number of such proposals are floating around the Capitol.
An interesting list of ideas that have been floated to boost revenue, among them:
A new fee on patrons of adult clubs, a so-called "pole tax," has been proposed by Sen. Renee Unterman, a Buford Republican. This would force visitors to shell out an extra $3 to $5 for the, ahem, privilege of watching young ladies dance around in their birthday suits.
The money would then be used to help fund programs for sex abuse victims, helping offset cuts to those agencies' budgets. But club owners, like any other business people, already are drawing fewer customers in tough times, and worry that higher fees would drive even more away. A similar law in Texas was struck down as unconstitutional last year by a federal district court, so there's that to consider.
Another "sin tax" would charge smokers an extra $1 per pack for cigarettes, smokeless or loose tobacco. The thinking is that this is a win-win; if people continue to smoke, they'll help fill the state's coffers. If they decide the cost is too great and give up the habit, it improves their health and saves us all money in health insurance fees in the long run.
Driving too fast could get much costlier, as the governor has proposed a "super speeder" penalty of an extra $200 for leadfoots caught going more than 85 mph, or 75 mph on a two-lane road. That could raise an extra $23 million, to be targeted toward a statewide trauma care network.
Another plan to fund trauma needs would hit drivers at any speed by increasing the annual vehicle tag fee by $10 to raise $85 million.
But the governor and his pals in the Dome aren't content merely to tap the wallets of certain folks based on their behavior. As long as they aren't tagged with their names on the bills, they're willing to let others raise taxes and fees on their behalf, as long as they collect in the end.
For instance, there is Perdue's proposed fee of 1.6 percent on hospital revenues and health insurance to help fund the state's Medicaid entitlement. Hospitals say it could hit them hard, with the Northeast Georgia Health System looking at extra costs of $8 million to $9 million. And ultimately, we'll all pay that out of our pockets, either in the form of higher health care and insurance costs or cutbacks in the quality of care, none a pleasant option.
A third of the state's hospitals already are losing money and some may have to shut their doors, putting an extra burden on those still operating. With more Georgians out of work and lacking insurance, health systems are left liable for a growing number of indigent cases and shortfalls in Medicaid payments. Asking them to pay more is just piling on.
Legislators also are being sly about actual tax cuts. On the one hand, they propose a bill to cap the growth of property tax assessments by local governments, effectively tying their hands. With the other, they raised the hatchet on the Homeowners Tax Relief Grant, which helps reimburse cities and counties for revenue they lose from homestead exemptions.
The grant will be funded this year, if a bill passed Friday by the House makes it through, but it likely will disappear in 2010.
Local governments will have to make up the difference in lost tax revenue, all while trying to balance their own leaky budgets. When they have to ask homeowners to pay more so they can make ends meet, they'll be labeled as the bad guys at election time, not those angelic state legislators under the halos. Don't blame us, they'll say so innocently; we didn't raise your taxes a dime.
Taking the backdoor approach to raising revenue isn't new. And some methods are preferable to raising taxes on working folks who can't afford to pay more. High fines for speeders or taxes for smokers would penalize undesirable, unsafe behavior and possibly save a few lives while raising money.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and we're surely seeing them. Lawmakers are chasing every dollar they can find, through fees, optional taxes and passing the buck down to hospitals and local governments. But in some of these cases, we all will wind up paying more anyway, even if we don't drive fast, light up or indulge ourselves at the strip joints.
Sin taxes are one thing. But some of these other ideas are just plain sinful on their own.