Tax breaks approved in General Assembly’s final hours

The General Assembly waited until the final hours of the 2015 session Thursday to consider the traditional lineup of special-interest tax break bills, giving final approval to a last-minute deal for Mercedes-Benz workers with little debate.

Among the proposals approved on the last day were tax breaks for contractors working on projects in historic districts, for a private college and for companies that invest in both low-income neighborhoods and high-tech startups.

The Mercedes-Benz tax break bill was brought up and rushed through the chambers in the last few minutes of the session. The Senate sponsor didn’t even mention the tax breaks in his presentation. It passed the Senate after midnight, the traditional end to the session.

After it passed in the House, Rep. John Pezold, R-Fortson, mouthed “for shame.”

Such tax breaks are routinely approved late on the 40th and final day of the session. They typically cost the state $50 million to $150 million a year in lost revenue.

Gov. Nathan Deal requested a last-minute add-on to House Bill 202, which deals with property taxes, assessments and appeals. It would keep the 800 or so Mercedes-Benz headquarters employees from having to pay taxes on the cars they lease.

Instead, the executives and staffers would get special license plates at a cost of $62. State officials estimated the tax break would cost about $1.2 million a year.

House Bill 202 was called this year’s Christmas Tree for taxes, a term given to legislation that has new provisions and failed bills attached to it and usually gets approved in the waning hours of the session.

Lawmakers also tacked on a sales tax break of up to $350,000 on the purchase of construction materials by Truett-McConnell College, a private Baptist school in Cleveland, Ga. That tax break was pushed by Sen. Bruce Thomspon, R-White, who is a trustee of the college.

Thompson presented the bill to the Senate, but he didn’t mention the tax break for his school.

“The current TATV (tax) regulation would hurt Mercedes, which has an employee leasing program,” said Deal’s chief of staff, Chris Riley. “The governor is supporting a solution. However, he will veto a bill that comes to him resembling a Festivus pole.”

Mercedes-Benz USA confirmed earlier this year that it would build a new headquarters in Sandy Springs.

The company said it plans a $93 million campus and will relocate or create 800 to 1,000 jobs. The incentive package — such as tax breaks — was valued at about $27,000 per job. State officials said the average pay for headquarters employees is expected to be more than $78,000.

Other tax bills also won approval earlier Thursday.

House Bill 308, to raise the tax credit available for rehabilitation projects in historic districts, easily won final approval. The measure was sponsored by Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, for a local development. The bill would allow developers to get up to a $10 million historic preservation tax credit.

The bill was being pushed to support the conversion of a former Savannah Electric Power Co. generation plant into a luxury hotel. Other projects will also benefit, preservationists said, noting that a few are already in the development pipeline.

The House gave final approval Thursday night to House Bill 339, which would extend the tax credit program for interactive gaming producers. It would authorize up to $12.5 million a year for such producers and their affiliates.

In the final hour lawmakers sent Deal House Bill 439, a measure that would provide $110 million in tax credits in exchange for investing in low-income communities and small businesses.

The tax credits would be split between a state version of the controversial “New Markets” federal tax credit program and Invest Georgia, a venture capital fund that is a top priority for Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the Senate’s president.

Supporters say the tax credit program would boost small businesses, back high-tech startups, and create jobs.

Opponents say at least the “New Markets” portion of the bill bears too much resemblance to the old CAPCO investment programs in other states that wound up making huge profits for a few large capital firms, or CAPCOs, that handled the money.

The tax credits would be given out over several years.

Half of the tax credits would go to Invest Georgia, which was launched in 2013 with hopes that ponying up state dollars could attract enough venture capital to help transform Georgia into a tech hub.

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