State Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, is the Senate Pro Tem and the author of Amendment A, a ballot initiative that asks voters to cap the state income tax at 6 percent. There has been no attempt to raise the rate since 1955. JASON GETZ / AJC FILE
Photo: AJC file photo
Photo: AJC file photo

Ballot proposals to stir the faithful

Amendment A latest in long history of ballot initiatives intended to turn out voters and help party in power.

When early voters start casting ballots in a little more than a week they’ll be asked to consider a proposal guaranteed to stir the blood of all good fiscal conservatives: a cap on the state’s income tax rate.

No matter that the 6 percent top rate has been around for generations, or that nobody remotely close to power has proposed raising it for just as long. In fact, the General Assembly has approved cutting more than 20 taxes in the past five years and lawmakers regularly file bills to phase out the income levy altogether.

Nonetheless, it makes perfect political sense. The proposed amendment, likely a sure winner, is torn from Georgia’s playbook of pumping up turnout from the majority party’s base by convincing them that they can right a perceived wrong at the ballot box.

It hasn’t mattered if the fight was against career criminals or gay marriage, whether it was the HOPE scholarship or hunting and fishing rights that needed to be protected, or keeping politicians from raising a tax no one is proposing to raise. Amending the constitution or passing a referendum, particularly in a gubernatorial election year, has typically been the answer to many a political “problem” in Georgia.

“If it works the way it’s supposed to work, it drives turnout of people who will vote for you,” said Lewis Massey, a former Georgia Secretary of State who pushed a proposed constitutional amendment to protect the HOPE scholarship in 1998 when he was running for governor. “Obviously both parties have used it to their advantage.”

Senate President Pro Tem David Shafer, R-Duluth, argues that his proposed tax cap amendment would “spur job growth in Georgia.”

“The certainty of low taxes would encourage existing businesses to expand and new businesses to come here,” Shafer said. “Other, neighboring states have lower taxes than ours, but those taxes can change tomorrow.”

Georgia’s can too, but all the talk in recent years, particularly in Shafer’s Senate, has been about lowering income tax rates and eventually phasing them out.

Senate Finance Chairman Judson Hill, R-Marietta, for example, is on at least year two of public hearings extolling the virtue of moving the state away from collecting taxes on income and having it rely more on sales taxes, a shift critics say would most benefit the rich. The Senate’s president, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, has long backed cutting income taxes, too.

Georgia is already a low-tax state. Gov. Nathan Deal is running for re-election touting a report from the Washington-based Tax Foundation saying Georgia ranks 50th in the country in state taxes collected per capita.

David Sjoquist, a Georgia State University economic professor and public finance expert, said a graduated income tax rate that added 6 and 7 percent to the top tier went into effect in 1937. Eighteen years later, in 1955, the 7 percent rate was dropped, and 6 percent became the top rate, where it has stayed ever since.

Any proposal to raise the rate now would likely first be ridiculed and then ignored, as has been true for decades.

“There is simply no appetite at all in the Georgia General Assembly to raise the state income tax,” Cagle said.

Cagle said the amendment “gives the people of Georgia an opportunity to voice their opinion on this critical issue and to enshrine in our constitution their opposition to any talk of raising the income tax.”

Democrats note that there is no such talk, but they say that’s not the point.

During debate on Shafer’s proposed amendment last session, Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker, said, “We are doing this, as we often do during an election year, to make a claim or make a boast that we’ve done something. The only reason we’re doing it is so we have a campaign tool during an election year. It’s not a pressing problem.”

Nonetheless, some of Henson’s fellow Democrats supported the measure. Sen. Jason Carter, D-Atlanta, the party’s nominee for governor, voted to put the issue on the ballot when Shafer’s resolution came before the chamber Feb. 24. When it was up for final approval on the last day of the session, Carter was the only senator who didn’t vote, although it passed easily without him. Carter’s campaign said last week that he supports the amendment.

When asked about the politics behind his amendment, Shafer said, “It’s designed to encourage people to create jobs here. People who have jobs tend to vote Republican, so anything we can do to create jobs is helpful politically.”

Practice stretches back decades

Democrats used similar tactics for years.

When Gov. Zell Miller was running for re-election in 1994, politicians across the country were vowing to throw the book at habitual criminals. They proposed “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” laws that sentenced repeat offenders to lengthy terms or life in prison on their third conviction.

At the time, Miller faced a stiff Republican challenge from millionaire businessman Guy Millner, whose campaign was run by Shafer, then a young political consultant.

Miller was a master of campaign strategy and sound bites, and for the longtime politician, three strikes sounded like one too many. So he proposed locking away violent offenders for good after their second conviction. Anyone found guilty twice of one of “the seven deadly sins” — murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, rape, aggravated child molestation, aggravated sodomy or aggravated sexual battery — would be given life without parole. A constitutional amendment to implement the laws was put on the ballot. It easily passed, while Miller narrowly defeated Millner.

“I don’t think it was an accident that it was conceived in late 1993 so it could be one of the biggest things he did for the 1994 election cycle,” said Rick Dent, Miller’s then-press secretary.

In 1998, Massey pushed the HOPE measure as secretary of state and gubernatorial candidate, but Democratic rival Roy Barnes was in the state House, and he proposed his own version. Barnes beat Massey in the Democratic primary, and he ran as one of the authors of the proposed amendment that mandated the popular HOPE scholarship be the top priority for lottery money. Barnes had opposed the lottery when he ran for governor in 1990, but in 1998, he ran as a protector of HOPE.

Barnes won handily, but the amendment barely passed.

Four years later, when Barnes was running for re-election in 2002, voters got the chance to expand a popular tax break for senior citizens. The referendum passed, but it didn’t help Barnes, who lost.

In 2004, when Republicans were fighting to complete their sweep of the statehouse by winning the state House, they promoted a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Georgia law already prohibited same-sex marriages, but the issue was pushed nationally to stir social conservative voters. As in the case of Shafer’s tax amendment, supporters said if the ban wasn’t in the constitution, a future legislature could overturn it. The amendment, which passed easily, was credited with boosting turnout and Republicans took control of the House.

In 2006, when Gov. Sonny Perdue ran for re-election, the hot national political issue was “eminent domain.” So lawmakers proposed a constitutional amendment putting more limits on the government’s ability to seize private property, a measure that won even more convincingly than the previous election’s gay marriage measure.

Lawmakers also put six special tax-exemption measures on the ballot, all of which passed. Tax breaks are popular with voters: they’ve appoved more than two dozen on statewide ballots in the past 20 years.

If that wasn’t enough, the ballot that year included a Republican proposal “to provide that the tradition of fishing and hunting and the taking of fish and wildlife shall be preserved.” The proposed amendment’s sponsor, then-Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, who helped engineer the Republican takeover in Georgia, said he feared “animal rights extremists” — a frequent target of conservatives —would eventually set their sites on the state’s hunters and fisherman. While some argued it was designed to court rural voters, the amendment didn’t play much of a role in the gubernatorial campaign. Perdue won handily, and 81 percent of voters backed enshrining the right to hunt and fish in Georgia’s constitution.

Every ballot proposal needs a target

Johnson’s “animal rights extremists” rhetoric highlighted an established feature of the amendment/referendum strategy.

Pitting Georgians against perceived evildoers, whether they be kleptomaniacal governments, malevolent future lawmakers, gay-marriage activists, criminals or animal rights extremists, has long been part of the amendment sales pitch.

Alan Essig, executive director of the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, may play the role of Johnson’s “animal rights extremists” on the tax amendment.

Essig has, in fact, mentioned raising income taxes or making taxes more “equitable” from his perch at a think tank. But Republicans quickly dismiss Essig, a former state budget analyst, as a tax-hugging “liberal,” and he acknowledges raising income taxes “has never been on the table” at the Capitol.

“The reality is, in the 25 years I’ve been down here, there has never been a serious proposal to increase the income tax,” Essig said. “This (amendment) is to get out the Republican vote.

Lowering the rate and eliminating state income taxes, Shafer says, is his ultimate goal. “This is just a first step.”

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