Groups ask Kemp, lawmakers to back tobacco tax hike to limit budget cuts

Only a few days before the restart of the 2020 legislative session, a coalition of more than three dozen groups sent Gov. Brian Kemp and lawmakers a letter asking them to support a tobacco tax hike and other measures to mitigate  spending cuts.

The coalition, which includes the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute think tank, the Latin American Association, the NAACP, Georgia Conservation Voters, Georgia Equality and the League of Women Voters said proposed cuts would hurt schools, family services and “disproportionately harm people of color.”

Last month budget-writers asked agencies for plans to cut state spending 14% during the upcoming fiscal year because of an expected decline in state revenue.

Earlier this week Kemp's office reported collections are off about $860 million for fiscal 2020 — which ends June 30 — and they are expected to remain down throughout fiscal 2021 as the economy slowly recovers from the coronavirus pandemic shutdown.

Under budget plans that agencies submitted last month, more than 1,000 filled jobs would be eliminated and tens of thousands of state employees would be furloughed.

Kemp recently told lawmakers to expect 11% less money in fiscal 2021, reducing the original planned cuts somewhat.

Still, at 11%, agencies would have to reduce spending about $2.6 billion.

Jennifer Owens, senior vice president of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said, “When the Legislature returns next week, lawmakers must ensure that communities and families in Georgia have what they need to come through this health and economic crisis and not just survive, but thrive.

“Georgians continue to face new health risks and economic instability, and the state’s call for draconian budget cuts will hinder our collective ability to recover.”

Owens’ group has said raising the state’s relatively low tobacco tax to the national average would bring in an extra $575 million a year.

It also said eliminating some of the myriad of special-interest tax breaks lawmakers have approved over the years could save the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Georgians in your community need your help,” the letter to Kemp and lawmakers said. “Raising new revenues can prevent the acceleration of a massive economic downturn, severely underfunding schools and negatively affecting the lives of millions of Georgians in every community across the state.”

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said last week he hasn’t heard support from his Republican majority for raising any taxes during the session, which resumes Monday after being suspended in March because of the pandemic.

In fact, Ralston backed a move before the session was suspended to cut the state’s income tax rate for the second time in two years. He did so on the same day the House pushed a 2021 budget that reduced spending in numerous agencies.

“Republicans cut taxes,” he said.

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