The GREAT Plan that isn't

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All of us, on some level, hate taxes.

Taxes are the necessary evil that keeps our society going. They fund our security to provide us peace of mind. They maintain and improve our infrastructure to provide us a good quality of life. They can be redistributed to help rich and poor. It's a system that has worked, with varying degrees of success, for thousands of years.

But we still hate taxes.

As recently pointed out by Alan Essig, executive director of the nonpartisan Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, America was forged in the crucible of a tax rebellion. We're hard-wired to hate them.

And that's exactly what Georgia House Speaker Glenn Richardson is counting on.

Richardson has been shopping around a new state tax proposal to Georgians, and he plans on pushing it in the early days of the 2008 legislative session. It's called the GREAT Plan - the acronym stands for "Georgia's Repeal of Every Ad-valorem Tax."

That probably perked your ears up, didn't it?

His proposal calls for eliminating all state property taxes, and broadening the sales tax by including services and removing some current exemptions.

Based solely on that description, many of you would be awfully tempted to jump right on board with that, wouldn't you?

Not so fast. There's a catch - several, actually.

First, think about what this would mean to Georgia cities. If they can't tax your property anymore, they can't collect that revenue anymore. Statewide, that amounts to $9.5 billion that local coffers won't get - and local residents won't benefit from.

Instead, under GREAT, the state government would take all its collected sales tax money and redistribute it to cities using a funding formula.

But every municipality has individual needs. There's no cookie-cutter formula that can work for all of Georgia's 535 cities. And there have been no hard numbers put forth to show that cities' surrendered property taxes would be fully recouped under a broadened state sales tax.

Richardson has asserted that municipalities and school boards would get the same revenue under GREAT as they did with property taxes - presumably through his "formula." Under his proposed expansion, sales tax revenue would have to double to accommodate that; state sales tax revenue last year came to only $4.8 billion.

GREAT shows a gross disrespect to municipalities - as if they're too irresponsible to handle their own tax dollars. The state becomes a Big Brother, patting cities condescendingly on their heads and soothingly saying, "Don't worry. We'll take care of your money." It's like someone taking your checkbook and putting you on an allowance.

Remember this, too: Sales taxes are affected by recession. Who knows what kind of financial bind Georgia could find itself in if it tied its revenue so tightly to sales taxes?

Sure, property owners would see some appeal in the GREAT Plan. But if you don't own property, what then? Will you see your taxes magically drop if you rent or lease? The GREAT Plan obviously would have its greatest negative impact on the poor - and Augusta has a 22-percent poverty rate.

Let's look for a minute at how Richardson's plan could affect Augusta in particular. An increased sales tax would be disastrous, because of Augusta's placement as a border city. If someone has to pay a higher price in Augusta to get her nails done or his oil changed, what's to stop those people from zipping across the Savannah River to North Augusta to have those services rendered at a lower price? Under GREAT, local business would suffer at the worst possible time - when Augusta is trying to foster business growth.

If the GREAT Plan passes - and judging by Richardson's political muscle, it very well could - his proposed constitutional amendment would then go to Georgia voters.

Our message to you now: Don't be fooled.

The amendment on your ballot likely would have this kind of wording: "Shall the state do away with the ad valorem tax and replace it with a sales and use tax?"

Descriptions on Georgia ballot initiatives are notoriously confusing. When was the last time you remember reading one and knowing precisely what it meant? That phrase about doing away with the ad valorem tax may put stars in many voters' eyes, but the reality of voting for it - and having to live under it - will send all Georgians crashing back to Earth.

We're not averse to changes in the tax system. It definitely needs work. Though Georgia has one of the lowest tax burdens in the nation, that burden still affects low-income residents most.

But do Georgians really want what Richardson wants? To take municipalities' money and put it in the hands of a state government that has had its share of budget-management problems?

The GREAT Plan must not pass in the General Assembly. It is grossly irresponsible and could be economically disastrous.

Find out more

Tax Reform: A Reality Check is a statewide tour to educate the public about proposals, discussed by Georgia lawmakers, that would make major changes to the state's tax system. It is hosted by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

It will be in Augusta from 4 to 6 p.m. Oct. 23 in the Grove Room of the Ramada Plaza Hotel, 640 Broad St.

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