Originally created 08/24/02

Governor says he'll limit raises on property tax



Gov. Roy Barnes says that, if he's re-elected, he'll move to halt spiraling property-tax assessments with a plan to cap increases at 5 percent a year.

But Republicans say the Democratic governor is playing politics with a version of an idea they pushed years ago and that his plan would hurt local governments and could be unconstitutional.

Mr. Barnes, speaking to the Cobb County Kiwanis Club, said skyrocketing assessments in parts of the state have kept tax bills rising even as his Taxpayers Bill of Rights raised homestead exemptions and local politicians rolled back tax rates.

Mr. Barnes' plan, if approved by the General Assembly, would not allow increases of more than 5 percent in the assessment on homes or businesses.

Last year, 110 of Georgia's 159 counties raised assessments more than 5 percent. The state average was 11 percent.

"A place to live isn't a luxury; it's a necessity," said Mr. Barnes, who will face former state Sen. Sonny Perdue in the November election. "And I don't think people ought to pay a lot of taxes on the necessities of life."

On a Friday campaign stop in Augusta, Mr. Perdue called the governor's proposal a ploy.

"I want to know where Roy Barnes has been for the past four years (on this issue)," he said.

Mr. Perdue said the governor's proposal is a reaction to his opponent's strong numbers in the polls.

The governor said the plan would sidestep the constitutional questions surrounding local assessment freezes, which have become popular around the state.

Local governments could respond to such a cap by raising local-option sales taxes, Mr. Barnes acknowledged. Many support sales taxes as fairest because more people pay, including shoppers from out of town.

But opponents argue that sales taxes unfairly hurt the poor, who spend a larger portion of their income than wealthier Georgians.

A plan in Columbus, which freezes the assessment on the value of homes until they are sold, has been challenged as unconstitutional because a new homeowner pays more in taxes than a longtime owner of a comparable house.

Savannah-area Reps. Ron Stephens and Burke Day, both Republicans, got a similar plan approved for Chatham County, and it has been copied in counties throughout the state.

"The argument that was made was that you're treating two identical homes differently, sometimes sitting side by side," Mr. Barnes said. "That doesn't seem fair. This (plan) says we'll treat everybody the same."

Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson said similar Republican plans have been on the table since he joined the Legislature in 1992.

Mr. Johnson said that, because it includes businesses, Mr. Barnes' plan would drain too much money out of local government coffers and "do far more to help the owners of Home Depot than the owners of a home."

"I'm all for property-tax relief," Mr. Johnson said, "but you have to do it in a way that helps the most property owners ... and doesn't just sound good in a 30-second campaign commercial," Mr. Johnson said.

Mr. Barnes denied suggestions that his plan is an election-year ploy.

"There's only so many things we can do at any one time," Mr. Barnes said. "This is something I wanted to do for a while."

Mr. Stephens said that when Republicans in the House pushed a similar plan four years ago they were told by state lawyers that capping all assessments would be unconstitutional.

"I wish the governor all the luck in the world in getting the cap on assessments, if it can be somehow made to withstand any constitutional challenge," Mr. Stephens said. "I'll vote for it, but I'm concerned about the constitutional question."

Mr. Barnes said that he didn't think the plan would require a constitutional amendment but that he would seek one if it was needed.

Reach Doug Gross at (404) 589-8424 or dougmns@mindspring.com.