Election-year tax package a serious stretch

By Tom Baxter

Seriously? Seriously?

That little mirror phrase has spread recently through comedy shows and social media, to a point where it has become nearly as hackneyed as the dreadful “at the end of the day.” But you can’t help but think that when a lot of people picked up their Sunday paper and read about the plan to launch yet another attempt at a major tax overhaul late in this election-year legislative session, their response had to be, “Seriously? Seriously?

Last year, proponents of major tax reform tried the high-road route, with a bill based on the recommendations of a blue-ribbon commission headed by businessman and Atlanta Olympics executive A.D. Frazier. All good intentions aside, the modernization proved too much for the legislature to swallow, nor did the recommendations make it on the agenda for last summer’s special session for congressional redistricting. Months of hearings followed by an energetic round of campaigning by Frazier and other proponents proved inadequate for a coltish legislature and a governor still getting his feet on the ground.

So now, a couple of weeks past crossover day, a legislature previously preoccupied with baiting every easy election-year hook from ultrasound abortion testing to drug testing for welfare recipients is going to turn its attention to a big tax reform package. This legislature, in the state that just got ranked dead last on a national ethics scorecard of governmental transparency, is going to take up a complicated package that will affect every taxpayer in the state, with little time for serious debate.

Seriously? Actually, that’s a good question. The big piece in the package is the elimination over three years of the state sales tax on energy, a measure which can be sold to voters as a boon to the state’s economic competitiveness. But if the bill’s framers intend to put it on a bill with so much potential election year poison, you do have to wonder how serious they are about any of it.

This late-breaking initiative has some of the appearances of a massive hog wallow, to be followed by a heart-felt “guys, we tried” to the manufacturers, car dealers and various other potential beneficiaries, after the pig has died.

Do the election-year math. If your intention is to buy a $60,000 luxury car in the next year or so and drive it five or six years, you’ll be loving the provision which gets you out of paying a stiff ad valorem tax every year in exchange for a one-time title fee in the 7 percent range. If your intention is to get rid of your clunker before another costly repair and buy your sister-in-law’s Honda, you are about to know the joy of taxes you never had to pay before.

It would have to be a pretty tony Republican district indeed for the former to outnumber the latter. Nor is the number of married voters elated over a $2,000 increase in their income-tax exemption likely to outnumber the legion of those who are irritated when they buy something online and discover they’re paying a state sales tax.

Some of these proposals may be good ideas, and it’s a shame the legislature didn’t give them a proper debate when the recommendations were made. But after a session like this one even good ideas will come off as election-year pandering.

Any measure which changes the balance of taxation creates potential opponents. This one is like a neon sign over qualifying day. The best thing you can say is that they’re probably not serious about it.

***

There will be a lot of stories told in the next few days about Furman Bisher, the best of them, I expect, from the veterans of the fiercely competitive sports department which he headed back in the Atlanta Journal’s glory days.

When I got to the Journal as a city desk reporter in 1974 the sports department was under less tempermental management and Bisher’s efforts were devoted to what was essentially the dream job, traveling where he chose to write about the great sporting events of his day. He was a jovial presence, but could still send a copy carrier scurrying in terror when his tickets would up in the wrong mail slot. He seemed a lot to me like the Wizard of Oz.

A column which strings together a number of short items on a subject is called a three-dotter. When I was asked to write a three-dotter political column, I went up two floors to ask the advice of one of the great three-dot writers, and his words were very useful.

“First, get yourself a box,” Bisher said, pulling from beside his desk a cardboard box filled with press releases, programs, notes from other people and notes to himself, the jumble of bits and pieces which he turned, with a wry economy of phrase, into one-line jewels.

A lot of information comes in digital form these days, but Bisher’s advice is even more timely in an age when the flow of information can be overwhelming. To get a handle on it all, get yourself a box.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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