Originally created 11/18/99

Repeal 'secret' tax



As public resistance to tax increases has increasingly hardened the past few decades, government bureaucrats have grown more inventive in finding ways to raise levies without the public knowing.

A case in point is how the Georgia Revenue Department altered the way it assessed vehicle taxes a few years ago. It blandly announced a bookkeeping change that drew yawns from the public.

Henceforth, the agency said, it would tax a car's value on the price a dealer would sell it for on the retail market. There was no hint that this "accounting efficiency" would translate into millions of dollars in higher taxes for Peach State car owners.

However, the change marked a sharp departure from the long-established practice in Georgia and most other states of using a straight depreciation formula to determine what each car owner should pay, and dropping the tax as the vehicle aged and mileage increased. This is what determines a used car's trade-in value.

Dealers obviously mark the cars up before they resell them -- and that's the value on which Georgians now pay their auto taxes.

The difference can be substantial. For instance, the dealer-retail value of $15,750 the state sets on a 1995 Ford Explorer calls for a tax of about $307. However, if the state assessed the same vehicle on a trade-in value, the tax would be $85 less, according to the Kelley Blue Book.

"The government can use any kind of valuation benchmark they choose," says Donald Ratajczak, head of economic forecasting at Georgia State University. "But let's not pretend they are taxing the correct worth of the car, because they are not. They're overtaxing it."

Indeed, Georgians should be up-in-arms, not just at the higher auto tax, but at the sneaky way it was levied. This is not a tax that would have ever gotten through the Legislature if anyone had been witless enough to propose it.

Basically, it's a bureaucratic-passed tax or, on a more fundamental level, taxation without representation. Peach State taxpayers, however, don't need to stage a "Boston tea party" to strike it down.

All they must do is support the drive to repeal the tax, or at least go back to the depreciation system, in the General Assembly next year, to be led by state Rep. Steve Stancil, R-Canton, the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee.

Gov. Roy Barnes says there's no evidence the change created a tax windfall for the government. If it makes so little difference, then Barnes should have no trouble backing Stancil's repeal. Besides, the state is awash in windfalls, from revenue surpluses and the tobacco settlement.