Officials talk tax increases, jury selection reform

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

CONYERS -- Most of the sighs and silent head shaking during Saturday's legislative meeting came from discussion about looming tax hikes on the horizon.

A group of about 20 local residents gathered from mid-morning to late afternoon Saturday at Nancy Guinn Memorial Library to hear the Rockdale County delegation talk about how pending legislation will likely affect residents and what they could do about it.

Sen. Ronald Ramsey and state reps. Pam Stephenson, Dar'shun Kendrick, and Pam Dickerson were present to report on the bills and answer questions.

Stephenson, who serves as chairperson for the local legislation, said the Georgia Legislature just completed its 28th day and Crossover Day is Wednesday. Crossover Day is the point during the General Assembly that bills need to cross over to either the state House or Senate to have a chance for passage this session.

Kendrick discussed tax reform, explaining a special tax council aiming to revise Georgia's tax code and increase tax revenue.

Residents learned that meant likely more tax on goods and services, like gym membership fees and even haircuts. Kendrick said the tax council is also proposing elimination of the sales tax holiday, personal exemptions and standard itemize deductions, and lifting the ban on the 4 percent grocery tax by June 30.

"They're pretty much lifting the exemption off everything," Kendrick said. "This is a huge issue ... and it's going to affect people immediately or at least four years down the road."

Planners said lowering the corporate tax rate and shifting more tax on residents is done to attract more businesses, Kendrick said. Then the hope is that those businesses will stay and create jobs.

Ramsey pointed to successful national industries in the state, like Aflac, that continue to receive tax breaks while the residents and small businesses make up the difference.

"It's just wrong, and I'll continue to fight it," Ramsey said. Stephenson said good education, adequate transportation and health care system attract businesses more than tax breaks.

Kendrick suggested residents visit the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute's website, www.gbpi.org, to read about alternatives to more tax.

Local bills were first discussed, which included what was called the Jury Box Bill. Stephenson said the bill was offered and supported by the judges and Rockdale County Clerk of Courts.

Stephenson described the current jury selection as a "forced method," where the jury is not reflective of the community in terms of race, gender, and other factors. Jury selection is drawn from a driver's license database and population numbers from the Census, which happens once every 10 years. Demographics have changed faster than that and should be continuously updated, according to Stephenson.

The bill would form a jury commission. Stephenson said the bill, which also has support from defense attorneys, would not completely solve the issue of how potential jurors are excused or not excused to serve on cases. "But it would help level the playing field," Stephenson said.

She said the bill likely will not come out of rules committee without appropriated funding to avoid unfunded mandates.

Dickerson said the local legislation also includes pay raises for probate and magistrate court judges to make it uniform throughout the state.

Legislators also talked about and took questions from the public about immigration, district reapportionment, the state's budget deficit, and changes in the HOPE scholarship program.