Cobb board mulls new sales tax for schools

Would require change to state constitution, voter approval

George W. Bush was still president when Cobb County school employees got their last pay raise. They had their pay cut by 2 percent in 2010, a reduction that has not been restored.

What’s to blame? Cobb officials say getting less money from the state is part of the problem.

Cobb School Board Member David Banks says he’s got part of the solution: a change in the state constitution that would allow school districts to ask voters to approve a 1 percent sales tax earmarked for K-12 education.

Banks' plan — which will be discussed when Cobb's school board meets Wednesday morning — would also require districts in counties with at least 50,000 residents to roll property taxes back by at least 30 percent of what's collected by the new sales tax. Smaller districts would be under no such restriction.

So, if a new 1 percent sales tax brings in $120 million — which Banks said is a reasonable estimate for Cobb — property taxes would be reduced by at least $36 million. The net gain for the school district in that example: $84 million.

The new sales tax would be different from the special-purpose local-option sales tax, or SPLOST, that many counties already use. Unlike SPLOST funds, the new sales tax revenue would not be restricted to capital projects.

It also would represent a shift away from property taxes as the primary source of local funding for schools.

Sales taxes are typically regressive in nature, meaning poor people pay a higher share of their income on them than other people. But the idea could gain traction as a way to get more money to schools while decreasing the property tax burden on local homeowners.

Banks has been pitching the idea to legislators, fellow board members and school officials in other districts, many of which also have budget issues.

“I think we’ve got a historic piece of legislation,” Banks said.

Changing the state constitution requires a two-thirds vote of the state House of Representatives and the Senate and then approval of Georgia voters.

One key legislator, House Education Committee Chairman Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, said he likes the concept.

“I have no problem if people want to tax themselves,” Coleman said. “The concept is good. I want to see the details.”

So does Cobb School Board Chairman Randy Scamihorn. “Our current model is strained at best,” Scamihorn said. “Any options that could help us and allow our citizens to vote is a good thing.”

T-A-X is a four-letter word in the Republican-controlled Legislature, and Banks was quick to point out that he’s not seeking a tax increase.

“It does not increase taxes,” he said. “All it does is give the authority to go out and ask voters if they want to tax themselves for education.”

Roger DePuy, a Cobb County retiree, said he’s open to the idea. “Without knowing all of the facts, I’m leaning toward it,” he said. “I think we need to get more revenue.”

School districts in Georgia are limited by state law in the level of taxation thay can impose. Cobb already uses 94.5 percent of its taxing authority. Using the rest would require the board members to approve a property tax increase, and Banks estimates it would bring in "only about $20 million."

“We need much, much more than that,” he said.