Georgia Isn’t Texas, Or Florida, Or Nevada…

This week’s Courier Herald column:

With the legislature now meeting in Atlanta and the week for candidates to officially file to put their names on ballots fast approaching, Georgians can now experience the differences between campaigning and governing in real time.  You’ll sometimes have to look closely to spot the pivots.

Several candidates on the GOP’s side of the aisle have jumped on the often promised but never introduced as a bill pledge to eliminate the state’s income tax.  The patience with this idea should have worn thin by now, but it’s easy pabulum to feed a base that hears what they want, but don’t have time for the messy details of what would be required to turn a campaign plank into governing law.  

“Texas doesn’t have an income tax. They’ve figured it out. Why can’t we?” is a refrain you’ll hear at Republican party breakfasts.  “If Floridians don’t have to pay an income tax, why should I?” can often be heard over BBQ at similar events. 

These are phrased in the form of questions, but those asking aren’t interested in the answers.  They want their taxes eliminated, but they don’t want the responsibility of knowing what that would require, nor the consequences of getting what they believe they deserve.

So first, let’s talk about why we’re not Texas.  The state takes in about one in five dollars, depending on the year, from oil extraction fees.  The last time anyone mentioned drilling for oil off Georgia’s coast, Coastal Republicans responded with a resounding “no”.

Then there’s Texas’s property taxes.  They’re almost double what the average Georgian pays on a comparable house.  While local governments still collect property taxes, the state is out of that business. 

The state also jumped on Virginia’s popular “Ax the tag tax” campaign a little over a decade ago, but still pays local governments a reimbursement for the local property taxes they would have received if vehicle ad valorem taxes were still a thing.  Perhaps these candidates plan on cutting out this reimbursement to compensate for the lack of income tax revenue going forward?  Who knows?  They never say.

Maybe Texas isn’t the best example.  Nevada also doesn’t have a state income tax.  Last year, taxes on casino revenue generated $13.4 billion for the state’s coffers. They received an additional $159 million from taxes on marijuana sales.  Perhaps those that claim they can eliminate the income tax without raising taxes want to talk about how much Georgia could raise if we legalized casino gambling or marijuana?

 Can we be like Florida?  We’re just going to need to build 40 story high rises along the most ecologically sensitive and protected islands in the country to rival their tourist tax collections.  While we’re at it, we can convert most lanes used by everyday Georgians and tourists to toll lanes, like the Florida Turnpike and almost every freeway in the Miami area. 

Most of these candidates aren’t likely in favor of any of these things, nor will they tell you how Georgia can cut spending to replace what next year’s budget estimates will represent 54% of the state’s total revenue collections, including fee income.  They just want to pretend that more than half of the taxes we pay is spent on non-identified “fat”.

Meanwhile, a much quieter subset of elected officials continues to do what the state’s constitution requires of them.  They assess the state’s needs in education, public safety, health care, and transportation.  They collect the taxes necessary to fulfill these responsibilities, pass a balanced budget, and try to maintain a AAA bond rating while keeping the state “the number one” place to do business.  They do all of this while keeping the state’s total tax burden across all taxes raised among the lowest in the country.

It’s a record that has worked well since the depths of the great recession, and a record that many who claim it isn’t working simultaneously want to take credit for.  That’s, unfortunately, how too many campaigns work these days.


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