In final days of session, a bill to audit tax breaks becomes a vehicle to renew them

02/09/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Special Committee of Elections Integrity committee member Rep. Shaw Blackmon speaks during a committee meeting on day 14 of the Georgia Legislative session at the Paul D. Coverdell Legislative Office Building in Atlanta, Tuesday, February 9, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
02/09/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Special Committee of Elections Integrity committee member Rep. Shaw Blackmon speaks during a committee meeting on day 14 of the Georgia Legislative session at the Paul D. Coverdell Legislative Office Building in Atlanta, Tuesday, February 9, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Senate Bill 6 is now the annual ‘Christmas Tree’ bill

Georgia senators wanted to review special-interest tax breaks and do a once-a-decade study of the state’s tax structure to make sure it fits today’s economy.

The House wanted to add more tax breaks and extend others.

The House’s solution in the final days of the 2021 session: combine the two aims into one bill.

To Neill Herring, a longtime Capitol environmental lobbyist who refers to special-interest tax breaks as “stealing bills” in his daily email report to followers, the latest version of Senate Bill 6 had a certain uniqueness, even for the creative minds of the General Assembly.

“This is the combination now of auditing of stealing bills and stealing bills to audit in one package,” he wrote.

ExploreAJC Bill Tracker: Live updating bills to watch in the Georgia Legislature

But the melding of bills — in this case at least four of them — is what the final few days of a legislative session are all about. And this year’s session, which ends Wednesday, is no exception.

This is the time of the session when bill numbers can be meaningless if you’re not paying attention. A House Bill 100 to protect tenants behind on rent can quickly be gutted in the Senate and turned into legislation to make it easier to evict them.

SB 6, which started as a modest effort to review a few tax breaks every year to see whether they actually created jobs — as lawmakers are always told they will — has now become what’s known as a “Christmas Tree.”

For decades, legislative leaders late each session string bills and proposals onto innocuous measures that nobody could be against. Such “Christmas Tree” bills have often been a collection of tax breaks.

That’s one of the reasons the state has approved tax breaks worth $9.5 billion to $10 billion a year over the decades. Many of them have been hailed as vital to building a strong economy in the state, of attracting or keeping jobs, and helping create businesses by reducing taxes on select industries.

Companies and industries hire some of the Statehouse’s top lobbyists to help pass tax breaks and get them renewed if those measures have a sunset provision — meaning they’ll expire after a certain amount of time if they’re not reapproved.

The state has seldom done a thorough review of tax breaks to see whether they do what lawmakers were told they would do. In recent years, however, legislators have sought to study a select number of tax breaks each year.

The General Assembly in 2019 approved a bill by Sen. John Albers, a Roswell Republican, to do just that, but Gov. Brian Kemp vetoed it, saying he wanted an independent auditor to conduct the analyses, rather than a state official.

So Albers worked with the governor’s staff to get something they could agree with and tried again with SB 6, which easily passed the chamber earlier this year.

At the same time, Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Hufstetler, a Rome Republican, and other Senate leaders pushed a bill to set up a committee to do an extensive study of the state’s tax structure, similar to the one that was done about a decade ago. Several of the suggestions of that previous committee were later turned into law, including both new tax breaks and legislation that passed last year to make it easier to collect taxes on app- and internet-based sales.

The Senate passed Hufstetler’s bill, but the House overwhelmingly voted it down.

While the Senate was looking to study taxes, the House passed legislation that gave or extended tax breaks in a host of areas, for short-line railroads, for medical device and pharmaceutical manufacturers, for people who get giant yachts refurbished, for mega-site corporate projects, for Lockheed Martin and several other industries.

Most of them have Senate support. Rep. Bert Reeves, a Marietta Republican who is a floor leader for the governor, for instance, told Hufstetler’s committee the Lockheed Martin provision would help the company as it bid on once-in-a-generation contacts to produce the military’s next fighter jets, bringing and maintaining high-paying jobs. Senate Finance members were supportive.

But the House also wanted a renewal of a rural jobs tax credit program that Hufstetler has for years publicly called a “scam.”

Hufstetler wrote a column in his hometown paper noting that some states eliminated the multilayered lending program, once known in a different form as CAPCO, because it didn’t produce the jobs that were promised. The programs have been pushed by a few national capital companies that make money off what he has called a “bad investment scheme” aimed at providing credit to rural businesses.

Versions of the program have been around at the Statehouse for years as lawmakers searched for ways to prop up the sagging rural economy and the capital companies lobbied hard to get tax credits from the state. It died near the end of the session a few times, then it passed as a rebranded bill in 2015, only to have then-Gov. Nathan Deal veto it.

Two years later, over Hufstetler’s strenuous objections, it passed as the Georgia Agribusiness and Rural Jobs Act — providing tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer-sponsored credits — at 11:25 p.m. on the last night of the session. Deal signed it into law.

“Since then, there has been no audit of the money, just some self-reporting,” Hufstetler wrote.

The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, an Atlanta think tank that has been critical of the program, said the latest House bill would authorize a second round of $100 million in funding to finance the tax credit program.

But Rep. Bruce Williamson, a Monroe Republican who sponsored the tax credit bill, said the program has been “very successful” in helping businesses in 23 rural counties. The capital companies attended a recent House committee meeting, touting the program’s benefits and providing presentations by business owners who have gotten money to help them grow.

In order to give it a chance to be reupped, the House Ways and Means Committee put the tax break bills and Hufstetler’s tax system review bill into Albers’ SB 6. By doing so, they said, “we’ll give you your tax reviews if you give us our tax breaks.” Otherwise, both sides get nothing.

Several of the tax breaks are backed by state leaders, so it’s likely at least some if not all of them will get through before the session ends Wednesday. But they likely won’t pass until the final day.

Our reporting so far

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been closely watching special-interest tax breaks — writing about the cost to the state and their impact — for more than 20 years, with beneficiaries ranging from Delta Air Lines to wealthy mega-yacht owners. More recently, the AJC has also written extensively about efforts to do reviews of tax breaks to see whether they are doing what lawmakers have been told they would do: create or retain jobs.

In Other News