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Trick or treat for Georgians
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Want a new scary story to tell this Halloween? How about this one: It takes place at the Gold Dome in Atlanta, where a state legislator is planning on repealing property taxes and replacing them with an expanded sales tax on all items purchased and services provided. Wait, that’s not so scary is it? But here’s the trick in this treat: There is no real “plan” other than a methodical effort to get voters to approve a constitutional amendment before any details of a plan are revealed.

Speaking to the State School Superintendents Association recently, Speaker Glenn Richardson, the author of this nightmare, told the group that details of how this plan will work won’t be forthcoming until after voters have approved the referendum to remove property taxes. In other words, taxpayers are going to be asked to hand over the community checkbook to the state and trust that the bills will be paid. Scary, indeed.

Add to this shadowy tale that there won’t be enough revenue from an expanded sales tax to fill the revenue void. Two studies, one by Georgia State University and one by the Senate Budget Office, both indicate the sales tax won’t generate enough revenue to replace the $9.5 billion property taxes bring in. In addition, sales tax fluctuates with the economy. So when sales taxes go down, as we’ve seen in recent months, the revenue to fund schools, counties and cities will go down as well.

Richardson’s response to that? Cut services! Eliminate recreation programs; build fewer ball fields and libraries; or cut health insurance and other employee benefits. Maybe even educate our children a little less? Pick up trash every other week instead of every week? Or cut local police departments to the same level as the State Patrol, where troopers go off duty after 2 a.m. because there isn’t enough manpower? Georgians should not accept any of these alternatives, nor should they accept the speaker’s off-the-cuff answers.

In response to the many questions put before him about this “plan,” Richardson says it’s a work in progress, that he’s still getting input, still working on the formula where the state would return lost property taxes to schools, cities and counties. But he introduced this legislation in March. Seven months later — and many promises later — it’s time for the speaker to show his math, reveal his formula and explain to taxpayers how they will continue to have a voice in local government when the revenues move to Atlanta to be divvied up in the back halls of the state Capitol.

Good Halloween stories have some element of truth, some detail that listeners can latch on to that make it more real. The one truth in this plan is that tax reform is needed. But this isn’t reform any more than it’s a plan; it’s a tax shift. For many Georgians, particularly the elderly and young parents starting out, this is going to be a tax increase.

While Richardson goes around the state making his pitch for seizing local government budgets, he’s telling listeners to wait to see the details of the plan before they make up their minds. But this brings to mind another Halloween tradition: Linus, from the “Peanuts” comic strip, waiting in the pumpkin patch every Halloween for the Great Pumpkin to arrive. And, like Linus, Georgia voters will be wasting their time. There are no details for the GREAT plan any more than there is a Great Pumpkin.

Jim Higdon is the executive director of the Georgia Municipal Association.