Dave Williams - Scaling back tax plan unlikely to defuse opposition

City and county governments have a lot less reason to oppose House Speaker Glenn Richardson's tax reform plan than they did two weeks ago.

After crisscrossing Georgia for months pushing a proposal to abolish virtually all property taxes, Richardson, R-Hiram, unveiled a dramatically scaled-down version during a speech late last month.

Now, the speaker wants to phase in his initiative by applying it at first only to property taxes levied by school districts and to the car tax.

That makes it more palatable mathematically because there would be less lost property tax revenue to replace with other forms of taxation.

Rather than vastly expanding the state sales tax, Richardson now says the legislation could be made revenue neutral by taxing groceries, lottery tickets and consumer services like haircuts and landscaping.

But the changes aren't likely to make the speaker's plan more palatable politically.

While cities and counties would be off the hook for now and still able to collect property taxes, local governments and their lobbying associations at the Capitol are still vowing to fight the measure as it makes its way through the legislature this winter.

"I don't know how much (support) he buys from this," said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. "He's tipped his hand."

Indeed, city and county officials see the writing on the wall. If Richardson's proposal passes the General Assembly and is approved by Georgia voters next fall, they believe local governments would be the speaker's next target in short order.

"Starting with schools is just getting a foot in the door to do it to cities and counties later," said Amy Henderson, spokeswoman for the Georgia Municipal Association. "It doesn't lessen our opposition."

School officials have even more reason to work for the plan's defeat since they would still be directly affected by the tax overhaul.

Herb Garrett, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association, said he understands why the speaker chose to leave school property taxes in the new version of his proposal.

"In almost every (community), the organization that has the higher level of property tax assessment is the school system," he said. "He's going after the places where most taxes are levied."

Garrett said Richardson's scaled-down measure is essentially a repackaging of two proposals House Republican leaders have been pushing for a couple of years.

He said it combines House Majority Leader Jerry Keen's plan to abolish school property taxes with Speaker Pro Tempore Mark Burkhalter's bill doing away with the car tax.

Neither was popular with school officials. But after two more years of austerity cuts imposed from above by Gov. Sonny Perdue, Garrett said educators have even less reason to support any legislation that would force school systems to rely on the state for the vast majority of their financial support.

"School systems are the poster child for why that could be problematic," he said. "You don't have to go any further than the state's mistreatment of the basic funding formula."

Bullock said another reason why school systems and local governments are likely to stick together on Richardson's plan is that city and county officials believe they have a better chance of fending off what he's trying to do now rather than later, when they come into its cross hairs.

"If you kill it at this stage, he won't have any momentum to come after them in a couple of years," Bullock said. "It's better to strangle it in the cradle."

For his part, Richardson is under no illusion that he's going to be able to employ the time-tested political strategy of divide and conquer to win the day.

The speaker said he expects the groups opposed to his reforms to react in much the same way wagon makers responded to the advent of the automobile.

"Anytime you propose something, I think they see the beginning of the end," he said. "That's the mentality that's present right now: 'What in the world will we do when we can't charge property taxes?'"