Originally created 07/10/06

More than 100 items exempt in state law

ATLANTA - If you're a beekeeper, you might be in luck.

Some of your sugar could be sales-tax free.

"I didn't know," said beekeeper Jim Obvey, who thinks of himself more as a honey hobbyist than a buzzing businessman.

Mr. Obvey benefits from an obscure part of Georgia law that removes the sales tax on "the sale of sugar used as food for honeybees kept for the commercial production of honey, beeswax, and honeybees," as long as the state's revenue commissioner says it's OK.

Welcome to the 9,000-word list of exemptions from Georgia's sales taxes, a roll call that includes more than 100 items, from the bees' sugar to hearing aids. There are exemptions for all kinds of farming equipment, gold and silver bullion and the Bible.

Last year, the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, estimated the exemptions cost the state more than $725 million a year in revenue.

There are also the always-popular sales-tax holidays on school supplies and energy efficient appliances.

Now, some lawmakers and think tanks are looking at scrapping the exemptions, or at least some of them, in hopes of advancing other goals. The Center for a Better South would like to see the exemptions pitched overboard as part of a plan for creating what the organization says would be a fairer tax structure.

Some Republicans are taking a look at the exemptions as part of broader tax-reform efforts that could eventually include tax relief in other areas balanced out by repealing some of the exemptions.

"The truth of the matter is, tax exemptions are just a redistribution of taxes," said Rep. Larry O'Neal, R-Warner Robins, the chairman of a House panel studying the state's tax system.

Or, as the Center for a Better South puts it, the main problem with the exemptions is that everyone else ends up paying for them through a higher sales tax or other government charges.

"Over the years, special interests have gotten millions of dollars of customized sales tax breaks which eroded the pot of goods and services from which governments taxed sales," reports Doing Better: Progressive Tax Reform in the American South, a report the center issued last month. "In turn, governments have had to increase sales tax rates to balance the revenues lost to special interests."

Most of the sales-tax exemptions get through in the late days of the session, when legislators aren't as attentive as they might otherwise be, said former Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat who helped unveil the center's study. He said the public would be outraged about some of the exemptions.

The center, for example, advocates doing away with the sales-tax holiday for school supplies It estimated that the holiday will cost the state $11.3 million in revenue this year.

Mr. Barnes, however, differs with the center over the education sales-tax holiday issue, pointing out that it helps some families afford computers.


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