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Second time around is charm for tax cuts

By Dave Williams

and Camie Young

dave.williams@graypub.com

camie.young@gwinnettdailypost.com

ATLANTA - Proving that nothing is ever dead in the General Assembly until the final gavel, the House passed legislation Tuesday to abolish Georgia's car tax and the state portion of property taxes.

The overwhelming 166-5 vote sent tax reforms Speaker Glenn Richardson has been pushing for the last year to the Senate. If approved there, the constitutional amendment would be on the ballot in November.

"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again," Richardson (R-Hiram) told his colleagues, just six days after House Democrats appeared to have killed the plan by denying it the two-thirds majority required to pass.

The salvaging of the speaker's tax reforms highlighted a marathon "Crossover Day" in the General Assembly, the deadline for bills to pass at least one legislative chamber.

Lawmakers also passed another of Richardson's bills overhauling career and technical education courses, clamped down on police agencies' use of no-knock warrants to enter homes, put new restrictions on the managed-care companies that run Georgia's Medicaid program and decided not to act on an English-only measure.

The tax reform legislation the House approved on Tuesday included many of the provisions in the measure that was rejected last week.

It would eliminate the car tax over a two-year period, starting in July of next year, saving taxpayers an estimated $672 million a year when fully implemented in fiscal 2011.

The legislation also would take off the quarter-mill state portion of the property tax, lopping another $94 million off of tax bills.

The Senate already has passed a similar measure introduced on behalf of Gov. Sonny Perdue.

House Speaker Pro Tempore Mark Burkhalter, who first introduced the car-tax repeal several years ago, said the state can afford to cut taxes, even when the economy is starting to turn sour.

In fact, he said, a downturn is the right time for the economic stimulus tax cuts provide.

"You cut taxes, the economy grows," said Burkhalter (R-Alpharetta). "The economy grows, Georgia prospers."

But Rep. David Lucas (D-Macon) argued that lawmakers' tax-cut fever would deprive the state of the revenue it needs to fund vital services.

"Government operates with money, not water," he said. "It costs."

Richardson's legislation also would freeze the assessed values of all residential and commercial properties at current levels and allow local governments to increase assessments no more than 2 percent a year on residential property and 3 percent on commercial property.

But, in a concession to Democrats, the speaker took out a provision that would have prohibited local governments and school boards from raising their property tax revenues by more than 5 percent a year without seeking voter approval.

That was enough to get the vast majority of Democrats who opposed last week's legislation on board.

"The part that would hurt local governments the most is out of this bill," said House Minority Leader DuBose Porter (D-Dublin).

After the constitutional amendment passed, lawmakers then overwhelmingly approved an accompanying bill imposing a $10 car registration fee to fund a planned statewide trauma care network.

Although widely supported, the fate of trauma care funding was put in doubt last week because it was part of the version of Richardson's plan that failed.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who presides over the Senate, gave Tuesday's House actions a positive reception. But he warned that senators won't act as a rubber stamp.

"The Senate will take time for meaningful and substantial deliberation on tax relief to benefit our economy during this economic downturn," Cagle said in a prepared statement.

Richardson's other major legislation enjoyed a much smoother ride through the House.

It would require the state to develop a career and technical education curriculum to prepare students for fields that are in high demand, from health care to engineering to information technology.

Students enrolled in the program who pass an employer or industry certification exam wouldn't have to take the high-school graduation test.

"For too long, we have focused on every kid going to a four-year college," said Rep. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody), the bill's chief sponsor. "It's time we were honest with our parents and students about what's required for success."

The no-knock warrant bill, which passed the Senate 44-8, was prompted by the shooting death of an elderly Atlanta woman in 2006 by city police during a botched drug raid.

The Medicaid bill passed by the House would place new restrictions on the three "care-management organizations" - HMO-like insurance companies - the state hired to oversee a major portion of the program.

Rep. Mickey Channell (R-Greensboro), the bill's chief sponsor, said a huge outpouring of complaints lawmakers heard last year from doctors, therapists and hospital administrators made it clear that the initiative needs state oversight.

"The perception among providers is that CMOs use the current process to delay payment and arbitrarily deny payment," he said.

The English-only bill would have prohibited state and local government agencies from requiring employees to speak or learn any language other than English, Georgia's official language.Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson said senators shelved the legislation because of concerns that it would have hampered efforts to encourage the hiring of bilingual officers in areas with diverse populations.

"It may have inadvertently reduced their ability to deal with immigration, legal and illegal," said Johnson (R-Savannah).