There is one thing members of the state Senate and House of Representatives can agree on easily — they are glad to be done.
The General Assembly concluded its annual session Friday, with the words “sine die” ringing through both chambers just before midnight struck.
Statewide property tax relief failed to make it out of the Gold Dome, but that’s not the case for Effingham County. The Carter-Burns bill awaits Gov. Sonny Perdue’s signature, and even without it, it will go before Effingham voters this November to cap property assessments.
“I was glad we went ahead and passed tax relief for Effingham County,” said Sen. Jack Hill (R-Reidsville). “I was convinced we were going to pass something statewide.”
Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Pooler) had pushed for the measure for several years.
“No question about it — Carter-Burns is what I’m happiest about,” he said.
Carter pointed out that the bill doesn’t stop taxing entities from raising millage rates but it prevents them from using higher assessments for additional revenue.
“They are not going to benefit from ‘back door’ taxes,” he said, noting they have to declare they intend to raise taxes.
Lawmakers adopted a state water management plan and agreed to provide for more reservoirs in the state early in the session.
“The reservoir bill that was passed was badly needed,” Hill said.
Said Carter: “It was a big responsibility we addressed.”
But the two chambers couldn’t iron out differences on funding for transportation or trauma care. Part of the House push to eliminate property taxes across the state —including the ad valorem taxes on vehicles — carried a provision for a $10 fee on car tags that would go to fund the state’s trauma care network.
“I was hopeful some sort of transportation bill would pass,” Hill said.
Hill said he did not favor the regional plan that came out of the House, where counties in a region could vote for an additional sales tax devoted to road projects.
“I did vote for the last plan because it had an opt-out (clause),” he said of a provision that allowed individual counties to back out of a regional tax if they chose.
The House plan was a more statewide approach to start, Hill said, and lower chamber members eventually moved toward a more regional basis, such as the Senate proposed. Hill said he voted for the final transportation bill and it was important for Atlanta, “as long as we are not paying for Atlanta’s improvements.”
Though the death of the statewide property tax relief took with it the trauma care-car tag proposal, Carter said trauma care was not ignored in the session.
“While some people will say we didn’t address it, we did fund trauma in the supplemental budget for $53 million,” he said. “We haven’t fixed it yet, but we funded it for this year.”
But that leaves next year, and subsequent years, without that one-time funding booster shot for trauma care.
“There’s enough blame to go around for everyone,” Carter said. “We didn’t identify a revenue stream for trauma. We need to find a dedicated revenue stream for it.”
Hill said he voted against the car tag measure but he backed an idea that would have taken the quarter-mill in property tax the state receives and put it toward trauma care funding.
“That would have used existing revenues and then we can budget for trauma,” he said. “If it’s a priority, and I think it is, let’s go ahead and budget for it. I would urge the governor to budget for it next year.”
Hill also opposed the car tag tax cut because it would have meant $430 million in revenues across the state would have to come from somewhere else.
“That’s $430 million on the homeowners,” he said. “I would rather have seen caps on spending, so we can set targets on controlling the growth of government.”
Hill backed Gov. Perdue’s income tax relief for senior citizens, though he worried it too could have an impact on the state’s coffers in the current economic conditions.
“The income tax is the 400-pound gorilla,” he said. “That has maintained us through other recessions. We have had three consecutive months of negative income tax returns. That is very disturbing.
“We are probably not going to make revenue estimates for this year. Everyone will be watching the first couple of months of the fiscal year starting in July.”
The budget will take effect July 1, and Carter noted that Effingham County fared well in the $21.2 billion spending plan.
“We did exceptionally well in the budget,” he said. We got money for improvements at the fairgrounds, new laptops to be put in the sheriff’s cars and got money for Guyton.”
The education equalization money also stayed in the budget after it was proposed to be cut out.
“That would have been a big loss for Effingham County,” Carter said.
Lawmakers also restored $50 million of the $143 million in education austerity cuts.
But Carter rues the failure to address property tax relief statewide in the just-completed session.
“We don’t have anybody to blame for that. It’s something we will address,” he said.
While House and Senate members worked together well to finish the budget before the clock struck midnight Friday, Hill said, such is not the case among the leadership of the two chambers. Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson did little to hide his enmity for Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, calling on Georgians to think about their car tag as the “Casey Cagle birthday tax,” since the lieutenant governor did not back doing away with the ad valorem taxes on vehicles, which are due on the birthday of a vehicle’s owner.
“Maybe it’s escalated a little bit, but there’s always been a little bit of rub between the two,” Hill said. “It may be a little more personal now than before. The relationship between the members is actually good. We had good cooperation between the subcommittees working on the budget. We saw it on the last night with legislators working on issues. Some of this is posturing at the highest level.
“When nothing gets done, everyone gets blamed.”
During the final days of the session, Gov. Perdue — with whom Cagle often sides — was in China on a trade mission.
He also has yet to visit Port Wentworth and the site of the Imperial Sugar refinery explosion, which has Carter perplexed.