Tax council discusses sunsets for exemptions; recommendation not ready

Special-interest tax breaks in Georgia could automatically end after a period of years under a proposal considered Wednesday by a special committee studying changes to the state's tax code.

The committee, created by the General Assembly earlier this year to produce a report by January suggesting broad changes to the state's tax system, did not make a final decision on the idea but agreed to study it more before issuing its final recommendations.

The law creating the council requires the panel to issue its report before lawmakers return to Atlanta on Jan. 10. It is widely expected those recommendations, which the Legislature may only give an up or down vote, will be released during the Legislature's biennial conference in Athens from Dec. 12 to 14.

The committee held its final meeting Wednesday at Mercer University's Atlanta campus in an auditorium packed with lobbyists.

There was disagreement whether every tax exemption and tax credit should sunset after a few years. The state has more than 100 sales-tax exemptions and more than 30 tax credits, committee members said.

"I don’t think every provision should sunset," said committee member Gerry Harkins, chairman of the National Federation of Independent Business' Georgia Leadership Council. "If we said business inputs are going to sunset in three, five or 10 years, we will discourage people from coming to Georgia and opening businesses."

Mercer University economist Roger Tutterow suggested drawing "a distinction between permanent and transitional" exemptions.

A.D. Frazier, the committee chairman, suggested creating a five-year standard for  exemptions, and that lawmakers could review each exemption to consider extending it. He said a smaller group of the council should meet and discuss whether some exemptions should be considered permanent.

"From a policy standpoint, it's going to sunset unless we say specifically it's going to be a permanent thing," Frazier said.

Frazier suggested, and the committee agreed, to recommend that the state's economic development commissioner, who is appointed by the governor, have discretion to adjust the size of credits.

"If it's five jobs [created] in Fannin County, maybe that ought to be worth a maximum $5,000 per job," Frazier said. "But maybe if it's in Gwinnett County, where there's positive growth, it would be worth $2,000."

The committee voted to approve a recommendation to set aside a pot of money every year, outside the regular state budget process, that the economic development commissioner would control with oversight by the governor. The money could be doled out as incentives to companies to create jobs or new investment in the state.

The panel also discussed whether cutting corporate income taxes or offering incentives would better boost the economy. Gov.-elect Nathan Deal campaigned on a promise to reduce the state's 6 percent corporate income tax by a third.

"I'm not sure that lowering the corporate rate a little more is going to get us much farther," University of Georgia professor Jeffrey Humphreys said, adding that incentives to lure business "will get you more bang for the buck."

Harkins, the NFIB leader, agreed.

"We need to encourage job creators to create jobs," he said, "and the best way to encourage someone to do something is to reward them."