Ga. tax reform council decided big issues secretly

ATLANTA -- The 11 members of a special council that will recommend ways to overhaul the state's tax structure -- and possibly resume taxing groceries -- made their substantive decisions privately, members revealed today.

The council held a brief, final meeting today in what observers expected to include votes on several controversial issues, such as removing the sales-tax exemption on groceries, raising the tax on cigarettes and lowering income taxes. However, the chairman, A.D. Frazier, gave a 20-minute outline of the general areas of prior public discussions and said that the controversial recommendations would come when the council releases the final report to the public Tuesday. It is required to deliver the report to the speaker of the House and lieutenant governor Monday, the legislature's opening day.

"I'm not going to go into specifics now," Frazier told reporters after the meeting.

Council member Roy Fickling, a real estate developer from Macon, said the decisions have all been made although some final calculations remain before the final report is completed. Subcommittees assigned by Frazier hammered out each recommendation for consideration by the whole group, Fickling said, but the debates were kept out of view of the public.

"It was discussed, but you just can't get all together at one time and discuss it," he said.

Why not? "Because it would have to be done in an open meeting (under Georgia law)," he answered.

Council member Roger Tutterow, an economics professor at Mercer University, said the broad scope of the council's work made public discussion unworkable.

"We all have talked as individuals from time to time. That's the nature of this type of analysis," he said.

Fickling and Tutterow were on the subcommittee looking at the dozens of exemptions to the sales tax. Asked if the council will recommend removing the food exemption, which is one of the largest, Tutterow was vague.

"We have considered it as we have tried to consider virtually every significant part of the tax code," he said.

Outgoing Gov. Sonny Perdue was a member of the council but missed most of the meetings. He wasn't present today or at the December meeting.

The council's recommendations will go before a special, joint committee of the House and Senate for a series of hearings. But legislators will have to vote to approve the recommendations without being able to amend them.

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