Georgia voters are being asked today whether the state constitution should be amended to give a 10-year, $200 million boost to land conservation, solidify the state’s commitment to crime victims and cut timberland taxes.
Five proposed amendments appear on next month’s ballot, which most notably settles the long and hard-fought races for governor and other key offices.
Here’s a look at what the amendments would do and how they’ll appear on the ballot.
What this would do: Advocates lobbied for 10 years to persuade lawmakers to put this question before voters. They’re asking to set aside 80 percent of existing sales taxes on sporting goods for conservation efforts. These taxes are expected to raise $200 million over the next 10 years. The measure would sunset after 10 years, although it could be extended through a future public vote. The Nature Conservancy of Georgia, working with other nonprofits, is advocating that the tax proceeds be spent: buying and preserving large riverfront acreage, as well as large acreage in rural areas with potential public access and thousands of wildlife species; preserving and enhancing existing wildlife management areas; and offering matching grants to local governments in metro Atlanta to create parks and trails.
Deron Davis, the executive director of the Nature Conservancy in Georgia, said the proposal represents a “no-risk commitment to the basic nature we all need every day.”
Under existing law, Georgia’s State and Superior Courts are already establishing “business court divisions.” Two operate in Fulton and Gwinnett counties under a program known as the Metro Atlanta Business Court, said Bruce Shaw, a spokesman for the Judicial Council of Georgia. Richmond County also created a business case division in 2017, State Court Judge Patricia Warren Booker said.
The state’s Superior Courts have established divisions that deal with domestic relations, drug offenses and veterans’ cases. Additionally, presiding judges currently have the power to assign complex business cases to special masters who are typically retired judges or lawyers with expertise in the subject area.
To understand what the bill does, you need to know a little history. Large timberland owners have been receiving tax breaks since the state constitution was amended in 2008, creating the Forest Land Protection Act. For almost a decade, the state has been sending millions of dollars to local school boards and county governments to make up a majority (97 percent) of what they are not collecting in taxes from these property owners. (Note: Qualifying for the 2008 tax break are owners of 200-plus acres of timberland who agreed to place a restrictive covenant on their property for 15 years. (With the 2018 amendment, that would change from 15 years to 10 years.)). Through the years, these properties have been assessed as forestland, not on the fair market value. The proposal would allow local governments to be reimbursed at rates closer to a property’s current values. Some local governments came out winners under that 2008 methodology, and some were losers. Under the proposed amendment and the new formula, that could flip — with those government winners becoming losers.
Another provision of the proposal creates a class of qualifying commercial timberland that also would be eligible for tax breaks. The amendment shifts responsibility for assessing these properties from the local tax assessor’s offices to the state Department of Revenue.
Andres Villegas, the president and CEO of the Georgia Forestry Association, said a University of Georgia study shows that the state’s working forest is taxed three times higher than in neighboring states, with 4.7 million acres taxed at rates about six times higher.
“That puts those 4.7 million acres at risk of being converted to strip malls and neighborhoods,” Villegas said. “When you make that conversion, it’s permanent, and you permanently lose the air, the water, the wildlife benefits that come from the forest, as well as the ability to produce timber for the $35 billion industry that’s converting it to things we use every day.”
Owners of 50-plus acres who take advantage of the proposed amendment’s new “timberland property” classification would not be required to have any restrictive covenants on their property.
Their taxes would be expected to go down, but not as much as FLPA properties.
Villegas said, for that reason, he expects most landowners will attempt, if possible, to take advantage of the FLPA.
Worth noting: The proposed amendment makes no provisions for the state to reimburse school boards and county governments that lose revenue due to landowners taking advantage of the new land classification.
In Cobb County, where a similar situation exists with Marietta City Schools, the city and county school systems currently must both approve resolutions calling on voters to approve an education sales tax.
The 1 percent sales tax could be imposed for a period not to exceed five years.
Two other statewide referendums are on the ballot dealing with homestead exemptions in overlapping jurisdictions and tax exemptions for homes for the mentally disabled.
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