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State Senate passes ‘devastating’ HB 399 despite Clayton’s pleas

ATLANTA — After a long fight, legislation that prohibits Clayton County from collecting property taxes from concessionaires at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport has cleared the Georgia General Assembly.

The state Senate passed House Bill 399 by a 39-13 vote Tuesday. Members of the Clayton County Legislative delegation had been fighting the bills’ passage for a year because it would create a major hit on tax revenues for the county’s government and school system.

They had succeeded in getting it stalled in the Senate during the 2013 session. However, it didn’t stay down for long once the 2014 session began and made its way back through Senate committees on its way to a floor vote.

As senators prepared to vote on the bill Tuesday, Sen. Gail Davenport (D-Jonesboro) tried one last time in vain to convince her colleagues to reject the legislation.

“Clayton County has been burdened over, and over and over again,” she said. “The economic impact to the county is devastating.”

Since the bill had already passed in the House of Representatives, it now goes to Gov. Nathan Deal, who can either sign it into law, or veto it. Davenport said legislators would try to get a veto, but she didn’t express optimism that it could be done.

“The governor’s going to look at the number of votes, and who opposed it,” she said.

Clayton County government and school system officials have been sounding the alarm bells for a year because of the looming threat from House Bill 399. The legislation bars local governments across Georgia from assessing ad valorem taxes on leases retailers hold at airports owned by another government.

It’s technically statewide legislation, but Clayton County is the only location where such an situation exists.

At one point, the hit to the county government and school system was projected to be as much as $12.6 million.

School system officials authored a letter to legislators last year in which they estimated a $9 million hit on their revenue stream. In the letter, Interim Superintendent Luvenia Jackson said the district would have to lay off teachers, cut school bus routes or scale back transportation for athletic and fine arts events to cover the hit.

These are points Davenport used on the Senate floor as she tried to convince her fellow legislators to vote against the bill. She pointed out that in recent years, legislation has repeatedly been passed in the General Assembly that ultimately hurt Clayton County’s tax base.

After the vote, Davenport conceded that although she and Sen. Valencia Seay (D-Riverdale) were able to stall the bill long enough to get county officials and concessionaires to the negotiating table, its passage was inevitable.

“It’s passed in the House and Senate so there’s nothing else the delegation can possibly do,” Davenport said. “We’ve worked hard on it and we’re going to continue to work with the county and the city of Atlanta to make sure they come up with a solution to this.”