ATLANTA The Georgia House of Representatives passed legislation that would strip Clayton County of $12.6 million in annual taxes collected at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport late Thursday afternoon.
State representatives voted 111-56 to send House Bill 399 to their colleagues in the Senate, narrowly beating the General Assembly’s “Crossover Day” deadline to get legislation passed in at least one chamber by a few hours.
The bill technically bars municipalities across the state from collecting ad valorem taxes from vendors leasing space at any airport in the state, but the floor debate was singularly focused on Clayton County.
Clayton County Legislative Delegation members Reps. Darryl Jordan (D-Riverdale) Sandra Scott (D-Rex), Valencia Stovall (D-Ellenwood) and Ronnie Mabra (D-Fayetteville) railed against the measure.
“This would have a devastating effect on Clayton County,” said Jordan in a passionate speech to his colleagues. “No county will be affected like Clayton County. We’re not talking about chicken change here. We’re talking about $12 million a year.”
Education, government and community leaders in Clayton County have carefully watched House Bill 399’s progress in the House with weary eyes over concerns about how it might affect county services and schools.
Although Clayton County’s representatives in the House were unable to defeat the bill, Sens. Gail Davenport (D-Jonesboro) and Valencia Seay (D-Riverdale) will now take the lead as they try to derail it in the Senate.
The basis for the delegation’s argument so far has been the effect a cut in tax revenues would have on county services such as police and fire protection. Particular emphasis was put on education funding in the county.
Stovall and Jordan said the tax ban could likely lead to budget cuts in Clayton County Public Schools which could range from cutbacks in school supplies to eliminating some academic programs such as art and music classes.
In recent years, the school system has repeatedly made cuts to departments and academic programs as state funding and the county’s own tax digest shrank. The impact of those cuts has ranged from students having to walk up to a mile and a half to their schools, to cutting five days from the school year calendar.
“These funds have helped to offset the decrease in educational funds received by the state and the federal government,” Stovall said.
Before House Bill 399 was even introduced, school system officials were issuing warnings that the district could end up $33 million in debt by 2016 if additional cuts were not made.
Earlier this week, school officials said the district would likely be facing the equivalent of a three-percent budget cut if the bill became law.
“We cannot make up this type of money overnight,” Jordan said.
Jordan then accused the General Assembly of making the county the “whipping post” of the state.
He accused his fellow representatives from other parts of the state of laughing at Clayton County when its school system lost its accreditation in 2008 and cutting the county’s funding sources by giving Delta Air Lines a two-year fuel sales tax exemption in 2011.
“Something is wrong here,” Jordan said. “We’ve been hit again and again and now you are asking us to take another hit? What did Clayton County do to deserve this type of treatment?”
Meanwhile, the bill’s author, Rep. David Knight (R-Griffin), protested the county’s collection of the taxes under a section of state code that allows for collection in the first place.
“This code was amended 23 years ago for this undefined term of ‘possessory’ and only recently has Clayton County tried to come in here and assess property taxes,” Knight said.
The bill’s author said his legislation would bring “uniformity to the tax code” but the code section in question, 6-3-21, is actually part of the state’s aviation code.
Knight argued the bill was needed to protect taxpayers across Georgia from local governments who might try to find ways to assess new taxes which he claimed were not authorized by the General Assembly.
“This is very important for the people, the taxpayers of state of Georgia, the property owners and the business to make sure that we have a clear and concise code section and that they know exactly how they are going to get taxed,” Knight said.
But, Mabra offered the county argument that the bill looks out for the interests of businesses at Hartsfield-Jackson more than anyone else. The freshman representative voiced concerns that Clayton County taxpayers would be hurt most by the bill’s passage.
“It’s not right,” Mabra said. “We’ve got business owner interests being protected out here. This protects the concessionaires. It’s not looking out for the taxpayers of Clayton County and the area surrounding the airport .
“It should not have even made it out here.”