October 13, 2020 12:30 PM
This week’s Courier Herald column:
With early voting locations open across Georgia and absentee ballots already being cast by mail, voters are discovering there’s a lot more going on than the race for President. Georgia has two U.S. Senate seats, two seats for the Public Service Commission, and all seats for Congress, State House, and State Senate being contested.
At the local level, various positions such as Sheriff, County Commissioner, Clerk of Court, District Attorney, and members of school boards will be decided. I even get to weigh in on who will be my county’s Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor.
There are two people on my ballot for this (both are incumbents) and I’m allowed to vote for two of them. I think it’s safe to say they’ll be reelected without me having to research either individual or what their job actually entails.
Then, after voting for all of these races, Georgians will be asked three questions. Two of them are to ratify amendments to the state constitution. A third is a ballot referendum on tax policy.
It should be noted on the amendments that they can generally be considered bipartisan. Republicans no longer hold super-majorities in either legislative chamber and thus, Democratic votes are required to reach the two-thirds of members’ votes to put an amendment before the voters.
Amendments do not go to the Governor first before a signature or veto, but instead go on the next general election ballot. Thus, Georgians generally get the opportunity to amend the constitution every two years.
The first has a long legislative history behind it and represents a bit of a compromise. Georgians are being asked if the legislature can restrict fees collected to be used for the purpose they were originally intended.
It would seem like it’s common sense that if the legislature passes a tax on tires to fund cleanup of illegal tire dumps that the legislature would want the fees to be used for that. Over time, needs often change but the taxes don’t go away.
I recall asking a senior Appropriations Committee member about years ago, thinking he – an unapologetic conservative – would want taxes used for the purpose they were originally earmarked or that they should go away. His answer was pragmatic.
“We’re currently furloughing teachers, and you want me to extend those furloughs so that we can leave money sitting in an account just in case we have a major tire dump?” His point, made bluntly, is that legislators have to appropriate the money they have to balance a budget while funding priorities. When times change, priorities do too.
The underlying legislation for this amendment allows for emergency use situations, and thus the compromise. It adds safeguards for using fees as was originally intended, but won’t leave money sitting in state accounts when basic needs aren’t met during unforeseen economic times.
The second amendment fixes a bit of a constitutional Catch-22, if the government at the state or local level is acting outside the constitutional powers given to them. The state constitution currently provides for sovereign immunity, which prohibits suing governments acting outside of their enumerated powers.
If passed, Amendment Two would allow lawsuits against government overreach at the state and local levels, with plaintiffs looking to the Superior Courts for redress. Cases brought under this amendment would not be for monetary damages, but to instead get the government back into its proper lane.
The referendum question on tax exemptions is narrowly tailored to benefit Habitat for Humanity, but would apply to any other charity that builds or rehabilitates houses and then loans money on those homes to their residents with no interest expense. Any such charity would be exempt from ad valorem taxes, which is the fancy term for property taxes during the time that the charity owns the home.
It’s important to note that property taxes are local funds in Georgia, with the proceeds going to boards of education and local and city governments. Thus, the exemption – while for a relatively short holding period – is not a burden for the state, but for the schools and local governments where the property is located.