Candidates for governor, both Democrats and Republicans, found common ground on Monday: Changes are needed at the state Department of Revenue.
Speaking at a forum sponsored by the Georgia Municipal Association, several of the 10 candidates taking part zeroed in on the department as a source of ire as well as a potential source of additional tax revenue.
Some of the suggestions were based on policy and equipment. For example, Republican Karen Handel, the former secretary of state, said the department needs a technology overhaul that would help auditors better track and collect state sales tax.
But some recommendations were aimed squarely at Revenue Commissioner Bart Graham, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue.
"We need a new Revenue commissioner," former Adjutant Gen. David Poythress, a Democrat, said.
The Department of Revenue is responsible for tracking and collecting income and sales taxes, as well as auditing tax returns and catching scofflaws who don't file as the law requires. Democrats, and some Republicans, have argued for years that the department is unable to accurately track whether businesses in the state are properly collecting and forwarding sales tax collections to local governments.
House Minority Leader DuBose Porter (D-Dublin), a candidate for governor, has made it a top issue in his campaign. Porter claims the state loses out on up to $1 billion in uncollected sales taxes and has been openly critical of Graham's handling of the issue.
"The Revenue department cannot account to you unreported and unpaid sales tax," Porter told the gathering of the state's mayors.
The concern was bipartisan. Republican Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, now running for governor, said he has plans to "start a massive overhaul" at the Revenue department once he's elected.
"It is embarrassing how that Revenue department is run," Oxendine said.
Graham and his department are easy targets as tax collectors are rarely popular. Graham has argued that budget cuts have seriously wounded the department.
It no longer has three shifts of workers processing paper-filed income tax returns, for example, and a computer overhaul is being implemented in stages due to budget shortfalls.
Democrats participating Monday were former Porter, Poythress, Gov. Roy Barnes, Attorney General Thurbert Baker and Ray City Mayor Carl Camon. Republicans included Oxendine, Handel, Rep. Austin Scott (R-Tifton), U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) and states rights activist Ray McBerry.
Many of the candidates will gather again Wednesday for a forum sponsored by the National Federation of Independent Business. Five of the top Republican candidates will debate on Feb. 4 in an event sponsored by Beacon Media in Alpharetta.
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