Bill would extend college tax exemption to private developers

The state House passed a bill Wednesday that could let developers get a property tax exemption when they take over operations of university system dorms.

House Bill 788, introduced by Rep. Lynn Riley, R-Johns Creek, is part of a plan by the University System of Georgia to privatize student housing on its institutions’ campuses and decrease its $3.8 billion in debt.

The bill passed the House 166-0 and now heads to the state Senate.

If the bill passes there, voters would get to weigh in later this year on whether to amend the constitution to allow developers to get the exemption. But critics say the wording of the proposed ballot question is misleading and doesn’t mention the lucrative exemption.

If it gets on the ballot as written, critic say, voters could have a hard time figuring out that the legislation has anything to do with privatization. As it’s worded in the House bill, the ballot question would read:

“Shall property owned by the University System of Georgia and utilized by providers of college and university student housing and other facilities continue to be exempt from taxation to keep costs affordable?”

Rep. Jeff Chapman, R-Brunswick, called the language misleading.

“Who’s going to vote against keeping costs affordable as it is written?” Chapman said after the vote.

The ballot language “doesn’t really tell the voter what it does,” said Jim Kulstad, lobbyist for Common Cause Georgia.

A university system official disagreed, calling the ballot language “artfully crafted.”

“It’s plain, understandable and clearly presents a yes or no question,” said Tom Daniel, the university system’s chief lobbyist.

The university system worked with the bill’s sponors on the amendment, he said. “It is to the point and properly frames the question.”

Similar criticisms were made about the ballot language for a 2012 state charter school amendment that changed the Georgia constitution to ensure the state can approve charter schools and established a commission to consider applications for them. The amendment was approved anyway.

Before Wednesday’s vote the new exemption bill ran into some resistance in committee meetings amid concerns about the length of the contracts with companies selected and potential cost increases for students. That led to changes in the legislation limiting the property receiving the tax exemption to that used for housing and parking; a competitive bidding clause also was added.

Rep. Chuck Sims, R-Ambrose, voted for the bill but said he still was not satisfied with the changes. With private companies operating the dorms for extended periods, costs for students are likely to increase, he said.

“This (bill) takes the heat off the (Board of) Regents,” Sims said. “They aren’t raising student fees; it’s private businesses catching the heat and raising the fees.”

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