Outlawing train wrecks

If the governor could sign a bill prohibiting a train wreck, he'd do it, of course.

That's pretty much what he did on Tuesday.

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue held his nose and signed a bill releasing $428 million in "homeowner tax relief grants" for local governments that had promised the relief to their local taxpayers.

Under the program, a holdover from Gov. Roy Barnes, the state pays a portion of your local property tax for you (using, of course, money you sent to the state in the first place).

Gov. Sonny Perdue never liked the scheme, and we can't blame him a bit; it's just a shell game. So, when the state saw last year that it would be facing a $2 billion budget shortfall, the program was immediately targeted for elimination.

That was still up in the air until Tuesday, however.

State lawmakers, feeling heat from local units of government, had passed a bill that would keep the revenue-sharing program alive for at least this fiscal year. But the governor wasn't sure where the money would come from -- for this program he doesn't much care for. So it wasn't certain what was going to happen.

A train wreck was possible if the state didn't come through with the money and local governments either had to cut their budgets or bill homeowners for the $200 to $300 apiece that the grants amount to. Perdue decided to avoid that train wreck when it became known that Georgia would be getting federal stimulus money that could cover the amount of the grants.

We've said before that we agree with the governor that the tax shell game is ludicrous and should be ended. But it was clearly turning out to be a hardship on local governments for the state to end the program abruptly, after the year's budgets had already been set in stone. So yeah, a train wreck outlawed.

The program definitely needs to be ended in future fiscal years. It's just silly for the state to use your tax money in Atlanta to subsidize your local property taxes to make them look artificially smaller.

In truth, the governor's pen may have averted several train wrecks.

If the state had withheld the tax relief grant money to local governments, the Association County Commissioners of Georgia was advising its member governments that, by law, they would be forced to send out new tax bills -- and to have homeowners cover the cost of the withdrawn state funds. The ACCG claimed that not passing on the cost of the grants to taxpayers would have been an unconstitutional "gratuity."

We think that's abject nonsense, and perhaps fodder for a court challenge. A loss of revenue is not a "gratuity." By that logic, anytime the state or local government receives less revenue than expected, it's an unconstitutional "gratuity" to taxpayers, and taxes must be raised.

How silly is that?

Thankfully, Perdue sidestepped that dilemma, and local governments didn't have to choose.

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