Federal tax overhaul a hot topic for Georgia candidates, pro and con

Bloomberg photo by Michael Nagle.
Bloomberg photo by Michael Nagle.

The messages emanating from Georgia Republicans’ emails, fundraising notices and social media accounts over the span of a few days earlier this month were unambiguous and remarkably similar: They love their party’s tax overhaul and planned to sell it wherever they went.

U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson’s and U.S. Sen. David Perdue’s offices blasted out photos of the duo touring Aflac’s headquarters in Columbus, touting how the law’s massive corporate tax cuts have led to increased 401(k) matches for the company’s employees and other major U.S. investments.

Then there was Roswell Congresswoman Karen Handel, who sent out a pair of fundraising emails to supporters the week prior warning that if Democrats retake control of the House, they “will repeal the GOP tax cut bill and put more of YOUR money back into the government’s coffers.”

Incumbent Republicans from Georgia and across the country have made their party’s tax overhaul, passed in December without a single Democratic vote, and the improving economy centerpieces of their re-election efforts this year. They see the individual and corporate rate cuts included in the $1.5 trillion plan, voters’ increased take-home pay and economic confidence as key to their party maintaining control of both chambers of Congress this fall.

Local Democrats are taking a much different approach as they seek to topple GOP incumbents. They acknowledge the economy is on better footing but say much of the groundwork was laid while Barack Obama was president. They frame the tax plan as mainly a giveaway to large corporations and the wealthy, with at least one candidate vowing to repeal it outright should she win in November.

The partisan split is not all that surprising given the results from Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News polls of likely Georgia primary voters conducted last month. They showed that party orientation is a major factor in determining whether voters see themselves as benefiting from the tax law.

Nearly 40 percent of likely GOP primary voters said their take-home pay has increased since the federal tax law went into effect at the beginning of the year. Nearly half as many Democrats, 21 percent, agreed.

‘A tank of gas every week’

Republicans on Capitol Hill are positive their tax and economics-heavy message will resonate, particularly with their base. But Republican respondents to the AJC/Channel 2 poll of likely primary voters differed about whether they have been affected and what they would like to see from their lawmakers.

Bob Maloch of Cumming describes himself as a tea party conservative who voted for Donald Trump for president. He said the tax cut didn’t affect him much since he is retired, though it has boosted the take-home pay for his stepson’s family. He wants to see the government do away with the federal income tax and switch to a national consumption tax on goods and services.

“They did not go quite far enough,” said Maloch, who retired from producing meetings and other events for corporations. “There are a number of ideas out there that would work better than the type of tax cut that we have now.”

“I’m more concerned about my kids and my grandkids,” he said. “It wouldn’t have that much of an effect on me.”

Rick Cree, a computer network engineer from Sandy Springs, said the tax cut has had no impact on his paychecks. A Republican, he said he opposes it because it has added to the national debt, and he added that a Democrat could get his vote in the upcoming 6th Congressional District election.

“It’s not too late to change their minds or rework it,” said Cree, who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. “The president doesn’t have any problem changing his mind.”

Robert Kiger of Columbus, a fellow Republican who designs bus routes for the Muscogee County school system, said the tax cut has increased his monthly take-home pay by about $100 a month.

“It’s small. But, you know, it’s a tank of gas every week, so it all helps,” said Kiger, who voted for Trump.

Georgia Republicans rallying

Senior Republicans on Capitol Hill see the tax overhaul as their signature accomplishment going into this fall’s midterms, and message-makers seek to frame the election as a lower taxes-higher taxes choice between the GOP and Democrats.

“People don’t want to do away with their tax cut. They don’t want to lose the growth they’re getting in the economy,” said U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, the head of House Republicans’ campaign arm. “The Democrats have pledged to repeal our tax plan, which means our economy will grind to a much slower pace, wages will go down.”

That message has carried down to Georgia, where the state’s lawmakers have sought to highlight that contrast while mingling with their constituents.

Most Republican members of Georgia's delegation appeared with House Speaker Paul Ryan when he stopped by Home Depot's store support center in March to tout the tax plan. And several were also on hand two weeks later when Vice President Mike Pence visited town to energize conservative voters about Trump's agenda.

Handel was among them, as was U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville. They’re both locked in competitive re-election battles this year in Atlanta’s northern suburbs.

The tax plan has added to almost everybody’s paycheck, Handel’s congressional website says. “With the trend of economic growth and confidence continuing,” it says, “Americans are going back to work, staying at work, and getting paid more for the hard work they do.”

Woodall wears a pin on his lapel every day showcasing his support for the “Fair Tax,” a proposal long linked to Georgia that would replace federal personal and corporate income taxes with a national sales tax.

He supported the Republican tax plan and sold it to constituents as a steppingstone to the Fair Tax system.

The legislation, he said at the time, “is a mechanism to move away from the failings of the past, and I believe it positions us to do even bigger things with tax policy moving forward.”

Repeal, revisit

While the region’s Republicans are out touting the tax plan, their Democratic challengers have all lined up against it.

Carolyn Bourdeaux, a Georgia State University professor challenging Woodall, has called for its repeal.

“That was not a tax cut, that was a cash advance on our national credit card,” she said last week during an Atlanta Press Club debate. “And it is very heavily weighted toward corporations and very wealthy individuals.”

Two of her most well-funded opponents, businessman David Kim and attorney Ethan Pham, opposed the law, but they didn’t call for its outright repeal.

“I will support any bill that actually puts more money into the pockets of working families and small businesses in Gwinnett and Forsyth counties,” Kim said. “Unfortunately, this bill does not do enough.”

A spokesman for Pham said the candidate supports tax cuts that “actually reach the middle and lower classes, while reversing the cuts for those at the top, including corporations that off-shore profits.”

Next door in the 6th Congressional District, where four Democrats are tangling to take on Handel in the fall, several frame the tax plan as a giveaway to the rich that blows a hole in the national debt.

“I absolutely oppose the Trump-Handel tax scam. I think it is fiscally irresponsible,” Lucy McBath, a prominent gun control advocate, said during a recent debate. “I want to be able to give tax relief to middle-income families and small businesses.”

Former news anchor Bobby Kaple criticized the law’s new limits to the state and local income tax deduction, which he said harms working families, while businessman Kevin Abel faulted GOP tax-writers for making the corporate tax cuts permanent but not those for middle-class families.

“I support permanent tax relief for hardworking Americans and have no problem with cutting tax rates to make American businesses more competitive,” Abel said, “but this bill was an irresponsible and reckless giveaway to the ultrarich and corporations.”

2018 campaign

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is covering the issues and candidates ahead of Georgia’s primary on May 22. The AJC has already produced stories looking at gun rights, immigration and how President Donald Trump factors in the stances candidates are taking. It also has conducted polls to determine what’s most important to voters from the two major political parties. Look for more at PoliticallyGeorgia.com.