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Landmark legislation passes
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Two top priorities were achieved last week as a result of bipartisan cooperation. Tax reform and criminal justice reform were both passed overwhelmingly by the House.

For years, there has been discussion about the need to reform tax policy in Georgia. The Special Council on Tax Reform and Fairness released their recommendations last session and many of those proposals were included in House Bill 386, the Georgia Jobs and Family Tax Reform Bill, which passed both the House and Senate and is expected to be signed into law by Governor Deal. 

Some of the significant changes in the Tax Reform Bill include:  the renewal of the sales tax holidays for education supplies and energy efficient goods for two years; increasing the personal state income tax exemption for married couples filing jointly (from $5,400 to $7,400); removing the property taxes on cars titled after March 1, 2013, by no longer charging the ad valorem tax and replacing it with a one-time title fee based on the value of the vehicle with a maximum one-time fee of 6.5 percent for 2013 and 7 percent in 2015 (this eliminates the birthday tax); the inclusion of an energy sales tax exemption for energy used in manufacturing; revises the sales tax exemptions on agriculture to ensure fairness and consistency; revises the current sales tax exemption on commercial aviation fuel; caps the retirement income exclusion for seniors at current $65,000 ($130,000 per couple plus social security); and collects sales taxes from some Internet sales. This takes a huge step toward making Georgia the No. 1 state in the nation in which to do business by lowering taxes on manufacturers and agribusiness.

We achieved a great milestone in criminal justice reform by passing House Bill 1176. Since 1990, Georgia’s prison population has more than doubled to nearly 56,000 inmates, costing the state over $1 billion annually. Despite this growth, Georgia taxpayers have not received a sufficient public safety return on their corrections dollars. In fact, our recidivism rate — the proportion of inmates who are reconvicted within three years of release — has held steady at nearly 30 percent for the past decade.

The Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians found that 60 percent of all prison admissions were drug and property offenders, many of whom committed non-violent crimes and had never been to prison before. With each of these offenders costing the state $49 a day in prison, it became apparent that other community-based options, such as Day Reporting Centers that cost $16 a day per offender, might be a more efficient and cost-effective method for supervising non-violent offenders. This is especially true when you consider the fact that our prisons are filled with drug addicts caught in a cycle of petty crime to support their habit followed by short stints in prison where rehabilitation is not offered. Rather than perpetuate this problem, we could break the cycle through low cost community-based rehabilitation.

Unfortunately, few judges in our state currently have viable sentencing options other than prison.

The reforms implemented by HB 1176 will allow Georgians to rest assured that their tax dollars are being spent on an efficient criminal justice system without sacrificing public safety. By redirecting some of the money we spend incarcerating low-risk, non-violent offenders with substance abuse problems toward more effective community-based options that cost less and produce better outcomes, we will make all of Georgia’s communities safer.

Moreover, the measures included in this legislation will save taxpayers an estimated $264 million by averting projected growth in prison costs over the next five years.

As we approach our last legislative week of the 2012 session, I encourage you to contact me with your concerns. You can reach me at my state Capitol office at (404) 656-5099 or through email at