Barnes reverses on tax breaks

Former Gov. Roy Barnes travels the state slamming special-interest tax breaks and saying they need to be eliminated to fund education.

But for Barnes, the front-runner among Democrats in this year’s governor’s race, that’s a big change of heart.

While serving in the General Assembly, Barnes voted for more than two-dozen sales tax exemptions, according to a review of legislative records. He supported exemptions for everything from the sale of solar panels and crab bait to aircraft parts and Girl Scout cookies. As governor from 1999 to 2003, he signed at least 13 more exemptions that are still in effect.

In addition, he signed a $2 million-a-year corporate income tax credit for Brown & Williamson tobacco’s manufacturing plant in Macon. Shortly after Barnes signed the tax break into law, the company started cutting jobs, and it eventually closed.

Combined, those exemptions cost the state — and save the recipients — at least $1.2 billion annually, according to state fiscal notes.

Barnes said if he’s elected, he wouldn’t touch some of the biggest ones, such as tax exemptions on the sale of many groceries and prescription drugs. But he’d like to have the authority to suspend or eliminate many of the others.

The state’s fiscal crisis, which has brought teacher furloughs and shorter school years, demands it, he said.

“When I was in the Legislature, I voted for all of them. When I was governor, I signed them,” Barnes said. “We all have sinned and fallen short of the Lord.

“But when you tell everybody the choices are between all of these exemptions and keeping teachers in the classroom, I believe the teachers win, the children win.”

Barnes is one of several gubernatorial candidates who want the state to take another look at the billions of dollars of tax exemptions lawmakers have approved over the years. One of the other hopefuls, Democrat and former Adjutant General David Poythress, also supports examining the tax breaks. But he questions Barnes’ newfound opposition to them.

“It’s vintage Roy,” Poythress said. “Roy says what voters want to hear when he wants to get elected. What he does in office is contrary to that.”

But as the state’s budget woes continue, some politicians who once backed every tax break in sight are having second thoughts.

The idea of reviewing and possibly eliminating tax exemptions is more than political rhetoric. A new commission is about to begin work that could lead to a complete rewrite of the state tax code. The group will likely consider eliminating sales tax exemptions, including the one on groceries that has been in place since the late 1990s.

The commission may also recommend making Georgians pay sales taxes on more goods and services. However, it could compensate for those increases with lower income taxes.

Candidates in both parties have voiced support for a tax code review.

With revenue plummeting during the recession, lawmakers began cutting back on special sales tax exemptions during the 2010 session. It also let a few sales tax exemptions expire.

Alan Essig, head of the Atlanta-based Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, isn’t surprised to see the exemption issue being raised.

“The fiscal crisis has brought this to a head,” Essig said. “Without the budget crisis, it probably wouldn’t be as seemingly popular as it is now.”

Essig, a former state budget analyst, said the process of getting special tax breaks has largely been lobbyist-driven. There are lobbyists at the Capitol who specialize in getting tax breaks for individuals and businesses.

“Until recently, it was any tax break was a good idea, no matter what it does,” Essig said.

Among the items exempted from sales taxes in recent decades: Church bells, stud bulls and sheep, a game of pinball, sod grass from sod farmers. Many of the big-industry exemptions likely won’t be touched by the tax commission. Republican gubernatorial candidates Eric Johnson and Karen Handel, while supporting a review of exemptions, want to add an exemption on the sale of energy used in manufacturing.

Former House tax committee chairman Richard Royal, who now lobbies for agriculture, forestry and manufacturing interests, was the sponsor of many of the exemptions approved over the past two decades. When he was in the General Assembly, he sought a number of exemptions for agriculture. “I don’t ever remember passing one that wasn’t justified at the time,” Royal said.

Poythress said not all exemptions are bad. But he said that all of them should be looked at again to make sure they make economic sense.

“Over time we have dozens of these things and they are bleeding the state white.”

Barnes said he now opposes exemptions that are not broad-based. The sales tax exemptions on most groceries and prescription drugs should stay because most Georgians benefit, he said. Barnes has not specified on the campaign trail which tax breaks he’d like to end.

The former governor needs to cut exemptions to help make his proposal to raise school funding work. He recently told a group at the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce you can’t create more than 100 exemptions “to the sales tax and still support schools.”

Basic school funding has taken more than $3 billion in cuts over the past eight years, Democrats say. That has led districts to cut teacher pay and furlough and lay off teachers. Barnes has pledged to reverse that, but it will take lots of money to do so. In fact, he probably needs far more than the tax exemptions he wants to eliminate, but they would be a start.

“The No. 1 priority is to have a teacher in the classroom,” he said.

Essig’s group puts out regular end-of-the-legislative-session reports criticizing the special-interest exemptions. He said he’s glad to see Barnes and others have a change of heart on the issue.

“I don’t care how they get religion, as long as they do,” he said.