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Taxes, water to dominate session
12.06 buddy carter mug
State Rep. Buddy Carter spoke at the Effingham County Chamber of Commerce's Eggs and Issues held Wednesday. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

Expect the 40 days and 40 nights of the upcoming General Assembly session to be busy and contentious, local legislators said Wednesday morning.

Effingham County’s legislative delegation — state Sen. Jack Hill (R-Reidsville) and state Reps. Buddy Carter (R-Pooler) and Jon Burns of Effingham — told Effingham Chamber of Commerce members what to expect when the next session convenes Jan. 8.

“Nothing has been talked about more than taxes,” Carter said, noting House Speaker Glenn Richardson widely debated GREAT Plan that would eliminate property taxes.

Carter said he is in favor of doing away with property taxes and replacing them with consumption taxes, or sales taxes and taxes on services.

“Our tax system is based on an agricultural society,” Carter said. “Now, we’re a service society. Even the critics (of the GREAT Plan) say if we were to start a tax system, it would be like this.”

Burns also backs Richardson’s proposal.

“The Speaker’s proposal is an excellent proposal,” he said. “There is some work that needs to be done. It is a moving target right now.”

Where Carter differs from Richardson (R-Hiram) is he would like to see the tax system introduced in stages, perhaps starting with the current system of using 40 percent of a property’s value and reducing it to 30 percent, 20 percent, 10 percent and eventually zero in following years.

Local and municipal governments and school boards across the state have balked at the plan since it ties their funding to sales taxes and not to property taxes, which they say are more predictable and reliable.

“A more cautious approach will serve us well,” Carter said.

Whatever shakes out of the General Assembly in its discussion of Richardson’s GREAT Plan, Carter wants the push to curtail the property taxes on Effingham citizens to remain.

“I hope that does not impede our efforts to have tax relief in Effingham County,” he said.

Carter introduced legislation last year to increase the homestead exemption for seniors, erasing their portion of taxes for the schools, but it did not pass. He said he intends to support a property tax cap in this year’s session.

Burns also said that a committee put together to study Effingham taxes will have until March 1 to make its recommendations. It was originally scheduled to be finished by the end of the year.

Hill, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and one of that chamber’s senior members, said the state’s reserves are strong, compared to where they were a few years ago.

The state’s reserves are around $1.4 billion, but that only accounts for one month of operating expenses.

“When the recession hit in 2001-02, we went through the reserve (then around $1 billion) like that,” he said. “We weren’t getting any revenue.”

The state is currently meeting its budget, Hill said, and there has been quite a bit of business expansion in the state.

“There’s not a serious problem, so far,” he said, but added some caveats. “If you look at sales tax growth, it’s flat, and that’s one-third of our revenue.”

Sales tax receipts on food have increased, but none of that money goes into state coffers anymore, Hill explained.

Lawmakers also will get the state’s water plan in their hands when the session opens and they must either accept it or write one of their own before the end of the session. The session, scheduled for 40 days, may take longer, given the need to discuss taxes, water, transportation issues and the statewide trauma care network.

But water has become the hot topic, especially for north Georgia. The state’s population has risen from 7 million to 9 million since Hill took office in 1990 and many of those newcomers are in north Georgia.

“For all that population and growth, there is no new water,” he said.

Hill also said environmentalists fought the state’s quest to build more reservoirs and are now attacking the state for not having the foresight to do something about water.

Carter said Effingham residents need to keep an eye on the Savannah River, since other areas of the state may turn their attention to that waterway for their water needs. Plant Vogtle is expected to increase its capacity at the Waynesboro-area nuclear power plant, taking more water out of the river.

“What happens upstream has a tremendous impact on us,” he said. “We can’t allow interbasin transfers to happen.”

Said Burns: “Interbasin transfers will not work for us.”

What will happen under the Gold Dome as lawmakers tackle water, roads, taxes and health care matters could drag out this winter and spring.

“It’s going to be a contentious session,” Burns said.