Fuel tax bill amended

By Justin Boron

Clayton County gained some ground Friday in its efforts to dodge a "devastating" loss in revenue through House Bill 341, which aims to help a struggling Delta Airlines amid skyrocketing fuel prices.

The proposal, which initially gave Delta fuel sales tax exemption, was amended in the House rules committee Friday to allow for the county to collect $14 million in Local Option Sales Tax and Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, said Speaker Pro Tem Rep. Mark Burkhalter, R-Alpharetta, who introduced the bill.

The amendment caps fuel sales collection of the two separate penny taxes at $7 million each annually and adds a sunset provision to end the caps two years after they begin, he said.

Although Clayton County's collections on fuel tax exceeded $7 million this year, Burkhalter said he expects them to be reduced by a projected fall in oil prices.

But Lou Hisel, who co-chaired the SPLOST campaign in 2003, said the provisions do not change the county's financial outlook by much.

"It's better than it was," he said. "It's still an untenable position."

Hisel also said he felt the bill discriminates against the county by singling it out to bail out Delta.

"It sets a terrible precedent," he said.

Some legislators worry, however, that the failure of an economic engine like Delta, one of Georgia's largest private employers, could stunt a slowly improving job market.

Characterizing the waning company as a "patient in critical condition," Burkhalter said the consequences of Delta going out of business are far greater for Clayton County than if it sacrifices some of its tax collection.

The central concern for many citizens, though, is not Delta or a dramatic hike in their tax bills. Instead, they have used the financial question brought on by the bill as a catalyst to draw attention to six recreation centers that are promised in the SPLOST and which, they say, have been categorically prioritized behind several roadway enhancements 14 months into the program.

A news release issued after the introduction of the fuel tax bill said if the bill passes, it would sideline several road projects and recreation centers.

County Commissioner Carl Rhodenizer said he believed the bill's pace had slowed in the Legislature and wouldn't pass.

But the amendment in the Rules committee breathed new life into a bill.

Rep. Mike Barnes, D-Hampton, who has negotiated with other lawmakers to stymie the bill's impact on the county, said he was led to believe it would stall in committee or be amended to begin in 2008 after the SPLOST program had completed.

The bill's progress is being further pushed along by an influential Burkhalter, who said he thinks it has a good chance at passing.