Bill could cause school budget turbulence

— Clayton County students may lose some of their teachers or the bus that takes them to school if legislation designed to bar the county from collecting ad valorem taxes from businesses leasing space at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport becomes law.

County government and school leaders have to look over their shoulders as they develop their upcoming budgets because of events unfolding at the state Capitol this week.

That’s because of House Bill 399, which would place a restriction on tax collections at the airport. If the legislation makes it out of the Senate by the end of the General Assembly’s Sine Die Day Thursday, it will go to Gov. Nathan Deal, who might sign it into law.

If it doesn’t make it out of the Senate, county officials would have nearly a year to build support to defeat it when the legislature resumes work next year.

“We’re definitely keeping an eye on it,” Clayton County Commission Chairman Jeff Turner said. “We’re getting daily updates on what’s going on down at the capitol and we’re hoping for the best.”

Members of the Clayton County Legislative Delegation have repeatedly sounded the warning call, telling residents and colleagues in the legislature that passage of the bill would be “devastating” to the county.

The legislators previously said the county would lose $12.6 million in tax revenue if the bill passes, but Tax Commissioner Terry Baskin said Tuesday the numbers are still being crunched on the net loss. He expects to know the actual loss to the county by the end of the week.

That isn’t stopping officials from fretting about what they will do if they lose a revenue source, though.

Clayton County Public Schools officials have projected losses of as much as $9 million if the bill becomes law. In a March 22 to the delegation, interim Superintendent Luvenia Jackson painted a grave image of what that could mean for the district.

“Clayton County Public Schools would have to reduce the number of teachers or regular bus routes,” Jackson wrote. “Extended bus route and fuel would have to be reduced by half of the present cost. Athletics and fine arts transportation would be reduced.”

Turner said the county government is still early enough in its budget planning that it has time to make adjustments if the legislation becomes law. He said he does not want to make cuts that affect employees or essential services, such as police and fire protection.

“I would prefer making any adjustments without people or services being cut,” said Turner.

The chairman said those cuts may have to be made though “if all else fails.”

So far, the bill has spent a week in the Senate’s Rules Committee and the chamber wasn’t scheduled to meet Wednesday. Barring any late action out of the Senate Tuesday, the bill was expected to still be in the Rules Committee when the General Assembly convenes Thursday for its final day of the 2013 Legislative Term.

But, with Capitol typically being a flurry of activity on the last day of any legislative term, officials are being extra cautious about the possibility of an 11th hour passage of House Bill 399.

“Anything is still possible concerning last minute passing,” Jackson wrote to the delegation. “Please continue to be alert.”