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Lawmakers see state budget differently
One says tax increase, the other not
Eric Johnson Office 2
Sen. Eric Johnson in the Capitol - photo by Courier file photo
With $2 billion cut from the budget, the Georgia General Assembly wrapped the 2009 session last Friday, but the House and Senate — or it might be a Democratic-Republican split — seem to differ on whether taxes went up.
State Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, said the $18.6 billion budget approved during the session’s 11th hour was the largest tax increase in Georgia history “because they failed to fund homeowner tax relief grants.”  
He voted against the budget.
“This would go down as a legislative session that put special interest over the public interest,” Williams said.
Sen. Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, said there is no tax increase.
“Obviously, the county can lower the millage rate, but we were attempting to reduce the assessments, but right now real estate should be down,” Johnson said. “Property taxes should be going down, if assessors are honest.” 
Without the estimated $200-$300 grant, Williams said homeowners will be forced to pay the difference for the first time since 1999. And he called that a tax increase.
“You can dress a skunk up. You can wash him, but at the end of the day, he’s still a skunk,” Williams said. “The bottom line is the homeowners in Georgia got a tax increase.”
The county is scheduled to be reimbursed $2.5 million this year for 2008, according to Liberty County Tax Commissioner Virgil Jones. But reimbursements for this year still hang in the balance.
“So when the [tax] digest comes down, there should be a reflection in declining property values,” Johnson said.
An additional tax for transportation projects failed to get through this session.
“Communities still have the existing penny tax they can put in transportation,” Johnson said. “Transportation is still a top priority, as is funding for a statewide trauma system.”
The House wanted a statewide tax, while the Senate wanted the tax divided into regions.
“We could never agree on how to do this. So it ended up, second year in a row, doing nothing,” Williams said.
He is sure the issue will come up again.
“It has to because transportation is vital and here we sit again, really hurting the economy and the growth of Georgia because we can’t come up with an agreeable transportation bill,” Williams said.
One new revenue stream for the state will start July 1, when speeders going more than 85 mph will be fined an extra $200. Most of that will fund trauma care across the state.
While applauding the Super Speeder Bill, Williams said it was not nearly enough.
“We just took a step toward trauma funding,” he said. “We just gave it a wave, to make it look good, but we haven’t addressed the real problem.”
Johnson said the speeder bill is estimated to bring in $23 million.
“But it wasn’t a complete package, so we’ll continue to work on it,” he said.
The Republican senator and the Democratic representative agreed partisanship surfaced during the 40-day session.
Williams saw it through the budget and the federal stimulus package approvals.
He was also one of the 24 representatives who walked out March 20 in protest of the House’s refusal to pass a resolution making President Barack Obama an honorary member of the Legislative Black Caucus.
“We did a mean spirited thing,” Williams said, calling it personal animosity. “Because at the end of the day, no matter how you feel, he’s still everybody’s president until you choose to give up your citizenship.”
Williams explained it was mainly the words “impeachable character,” that brought discord.
He did credit legislators for making strides.
“We were able to get the school nurses off the chopping block where the governor put them,” Williams said. “We also restored Medicaid. His [Perdue’s] proposals would have been devastating to hospitals and medical treatment for the poor.”
Johnson, chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, was pleased a bill to expose those legislators who do not pay their taxes passed.
“That unfortunately appeared to be a partisan issue,” Johnson said.
But he added when the bill came for vote, it was almost unanimous.
An increased cigarette tax “didn’t see the light of day,” and Williams was disappointed they did not get to vote on the bill that could have added funding for trauma care.
Johnson regretted school vouchers failed to get through.
“Obviously, I would have preferred to expand education options for parents,” Johnson said.
But he hopes to see jobs created because of bill giving tax credit to businesses for hiring the unemployed and waiving start-up fees for new businesses.
“Trying to encourage the movement of the inventory that’s out there,” Johnson said.
Williams predicted the General Assembly will be forced to call a special session before they are scheduled to convene again in January.
“Hopefully, the economy is turned around this time next year,” Johnson said.
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