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Georgia lawmakers getting rid of tax breaks, rather than just adding more

Feb. 28 2017 - Atlanta -  Rep. Brett Harrell, R - Snellville, presents HB 204, which would prevent Property tax bills from adding non ad valorem items, such as garbage fees.  It passed, passed 111-61.  The 26th legislative day of the 2017 Georgia General Assembly.  BOB ANDRES  /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Feb. 28 2017 - Atlanta - Rep. Brett Harrell, R - Snellville, presents HB 204, which would prevent Property tax bills from adding non ad valorem items, such as garbage fees. It passed, passed 111-61. The 26th legislative day of the 2017 Georgia General Assembly. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Lobbyists crowd meeting rooms at the Capitol most years, asking for tax breaks that they swear will create or save hundreds if not thousands of jobs.

Such tax breaks save their clients -- usually businesses -- and cost the state hundred of millions of dollars each year.

But House and Senate leaders have been challenging the long-held belief that the General Assembly never met a special-interest tax break it wouldn’t approve. Or keep on the books forever.

The Senate pushed to eliminate a few tax breaks after a study committee found they didn't do much. And the chamber this week approved legislation that would allow the heads of the Legislature's tax-writing committees -- the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee -- to request economic reviews to see whether what lobbyists and businesses promise their tax bills will do has a chance of being true.

A House subcommittee got into the act Tuesday when it voted to wipe a tax break off the books to give employers credits for hiring parolees. House Ways and Means Chairman Brett Harrell, R-Snellville, the measure's sponsor, said to expect more of the same this session.

Harrell supported the tax credit when it was proposed to give businesses incentives to hire parolees. But he said nobody used it.

“Obviously, I was for the original intent, but it ain’t working,” Harrell said. “I just also love taking things off the books.”

Currently,  tax breaks often occur after supporters provide testimony or data from industry lobbyists or other parties that would benefit. Those advocates typically tell lawmakers the tax break will create or save jobs, and legislators give the OK.

Some tax breaks pass without lawmakers being told how much they will cost the state, or save the business or industry, although there are fewer of those now than in the past.

Businesses hire lobbyists specifically to get such tax breaks passed because they can mean millions of dollars to a company.

Many times tax breaks pass in the final hours of a legislative session, when lawmakers are taking hundreds of votes and have little time to review what they are voting on.

But both Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome and Harrell have made it clear they plan to closely scrutinize tax break legislation before their panels.

Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, headed a special committee a few years ago to begin examining tax breaks. The panel only looked at a handful of the dozens on the books, but it found the state could get rid of a few of them.

Albers also pushed legislation to get more economic reviews on proposed tax breaks or look at ones that were already on the books to see whether they are as good as advertised.

Harrell has supported the effort, and the move to get rid of the parolee hiring tax break may be the first of many.

House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, D-Luthersville, said eliminating the parolee tax break may not have the best "optics" because the state has spent the past decade trying to reduce prison populations and help parolees prepare to find work.

“It is disappointing that (the tax break) has not been used,” said Trammell, a member of the Ways and Means Committee.

Another committee member, Rep. Sharon Beasley-Teague, D-Red Oak, said it could be that employers don't know about the tax break. "It should have boosted employment for people getting out of jail," she said.

But Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, said he'd been told the "ban the box" campaign may have something to do with it.

In 2015, then-Gov. Nathan Deal signed an executive order implementing a policy to end a requirement for people with criminal histories to disclose that information on an initial job application. Deal's criminal justice reform council had called it a barrier to employment that could exclude released inmates from consideration even if they were qualified for the job and the conviction had no bearing on the work.

Cities, including Atlanta, also adopted legislation banning the requirement, so Martin said employers may not know they are hiring parolees and eligible for a tax break.

Harrell’s committee is also taking a closer look at groups requesting tax breaks. Specifically nonprofits.

Before backing a permanent sales tax exemption for food and ingredients sold to food banks, Harrell read details about the revenue state food banks have and some of the six-figure salaries paid to those who run them.

Harrell said the state’s food banks do important work, and he supported the tax break. But he made it clear he will request the same financial information from other nonprofits requesting tax breaks.