Georgia ballot questions, explained

At the foot of your midterm ballot, there are going to be some referendum questions. Here’s what they mean:

ATLANTA QUESTIONS

 

Referendum A: a partial cap on rises in property tax bills in the city of Atlanta

A “yes” vote means: yes, cap the city part of your homesteaded property tax bill so it won’t go up more than 2.6 percent a year.
A “no” vote means: keep the same system, property tax bills will rise with assessments.

This is a partial cap because it only applies to the city part of your property tax bill. It doesn’t touch the Atlanta Public Schools’ part of the bill, which is the biggest part of the typical tax bill.
So if your Atlanta neighborhood is so hot that the value of your house is going up by the double digits every year, this will keep some of that heat out of your tax bill. That’ll be useful to legacy residents of gentrifying neighborhoods. The flip side is that such a break is regressive — folks with very expensive homes save more money than those with modest homes.
It passed the Legislature with few objections. More details in House Bill 820.

Special Election: bigger Atlanta schools homestead exemption

A “yes” vote means you’d get a $50,000 homestead exemption for the schools part of your property tax bill through 2021.
A “no” vote leaves the homestead exemption for the schools part of your property tax bill at $30,000.

This also saves you a little money on property taxes — but it’s only meant to be a short-term protection from higher property values that are expected as Fulton straightens out its valuation process. After 2021, lawmakers may, or may not, return to the idea of expanding the homestead exemption.
On the one hand, it does mean less revenue for schools. On the other hand, it also grants homeowners some relief from higher property taxes. But the relief is equal whether you have a mansion or a modest bungalow: $20,000 more in homestead exemption. It passed the state Legislature as Senate Bill 485 with almost no opposition.

Atlanta Sunday brunch bill

A “yes” vote means you want Atlanta restaurants and bars to be able to start serving alcohol at 11:00 a.m. on Sundays.
A “no” vote means the Sunday sales time would remain 12:30 p.m.

Call it the “brunch bill” or the “mimosa mandate;” its fans do too. This vote was set up by Atlanta City Council by a unanimous vote. The state Legislature authorized such local votes, over a lot of objections, in SB 17.

QUESTIONS THAT APPLY TO THE WHOLE STATE

 

Constitutional amendment 1, the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund

A “yes” vote means, yes, when someone buys outdoor goods (like fishing poles or tents), the state would take some of that sales tax money and spend it on buying new public land or improving the public land we have.
A “no” vote means that sales tax money continues to go where it does now: mixed into the state’s general bank account that’s spent according to a different state budget every year.

Georgia does already spend money on buying and fixing up public land already. This amendment gives public lands a dependable funding source. There are checks on the fund though: if the economy tanks so bad that the state is cutting spending on things like teachers and child protection, this would get cut too. It sunsets in 10 years, and is capped at about $40 million annually. Both Republicans and Democrats broadly supported this in the state Legislature. More reporting here on the bill.

Legal details in HB 332 and ballot language in House Resolution 238.

Constitutional amendment 2, business court

A “yes” vote means, yes, set up a separate court where businesses can take their complex disputes, separate from regular civil court.
A “no” vote means, no, keep courts the way they are.

Supporters say it’ll be quicker and cheaper to get consistent judgements in complex business cases if there’s this special venue where judges build up business expertise; and these kind of disputes won’t clog regular courts.
But the bill had many opponents in the Legislature. Mostly, but not all, Democrats. It was mainly because the judges in this statewide court would be appointed by the governor to renewable five-year terms, subject to confirmation by state House and Senate judiciary committees. That’s different from trial and appellate courts in Georgia, where judges are elected.

Ballot language and some details in HR 993

Constitutional amendment 3, timberland property taxes

A “yes” vote means make adjustments to how large timberlands are valued for taxes. This would put valuation in state hands, among other changes.
A “no” vote means leave things as they are.

This is a big deal in the parts of Georgia that are covered in timber plantations, as well as to the counties that want to collect property taxes on that land and to the state, which gives such land property tax breaks. This referendum makes various adjustments to definitions of this land and how the state reimburses counties for lost property taxes. This got nearly unanimous support in the state Legislature.

Details in HB 85 and ballot language in HR 51.

Constitutional amendment 4, victims of crime

A “yes” vote puts certain victims’ rights in the state Constitution, like the right to be notified if the person who committed a crime against you is getting released from prison.
A “no” vote leaves things as they are.

Georgia law already guarantees a pretty wide range of victims’ rights; referendum would put those rights in the state Constitution. The phrase “Marsy’s Law” doesn’t appear on the ballot, but that’s the name of the nationwide campaign for these changes. It’s a campaign by software billionaire Henry Nicholas, started in the name of his sister, a murder victim.  A South Dakota version of the bill, however, slowed courts to a crawl, and a question about changing it is on the ballot there. Various versions of it in different states have attracted criticism from prosecutors as well as defense attorneys. Georgia’s version got unanimous support in the state Legislature and does not make vast changes the way South Dakota’s did.

Details in SB 127 and ballot language in Senate Resolution 146.

Constitutional Amendment 5, sales taxes for schools

This will be on every ballot, but it only applies in counties that have more than one school district. And it only matters if those districts and that county are disputing about whether to set up a penny sales tax for education and how they’d split it. Fulton is not in any such fight right now. But if some place were in that situation, this gives the larger school district in a county more power to set up an education sales tax.
A “yes” vote means that a system or systems representing a majority of the students in a county could call a penny sales tax vote and that by default, school systems would split such a sales tax proportionally by student population,
A “no” vote means no change: school systems would have to come to agreement on any referendum and on how to split the money.

Details in SR 95.

Referendum B, sale tax for some homes for people who are mentally disabled

A “yes” vote means, nonprofit homes for folks who have mental disabilities can get a property tax break, even if those homes are financed by private entities.
A “no” vote means no change: the law would remain ambiguous.

This is a clarification of an existing law, and passed the Legislature with almost no opposition.

Details in HB 196.

Election Day is Nov. 6 but early voting is already underway.

Documents:

Official state writeup of each statewide ballot question

A sample Fulton County absentee ballot — which lists referenda in Atlanta plus Fulton cities

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

10 replies
  1. Dan Immergluck says:

    Referendum A is bad policy for at least 4 reasons:

    1) It will lock in assessed values at pre-recovery levels because the 2015 levels were not adjusted for the recovery. This will be a very large boon to those with large-value homes who have seen a great deal of market value gain. Those owning smaller homes will also likely pay an effective higher tax rate over time because they will not be living in the highest-appreciating neighborhoods.

    2) It will limit assessed value growth to an artificially low rate even though many owners have seen very large increases in value. This will shift property tax burden onto other property owners, including those of rental properties, who will pass increases on to tenants causing greater increases in rents. This disproportionately hurts lower income households to the benefit mostly of high-income owners of more valuable properties.

    3) It will result in some owners of high-value homes to pay one low effective tax rate, while newer owners pay a much higher effective rate. This will result in lock-in effects and make housing inventory tighter, making the homes that do sell, more expensive. This is what California is experiencing due to Proposition 13.

    4) It make it more difficult to raise the millage rate because the effects will hit fewer property owners more heavily, and they will have more motivation to work against raising millage rates when needed.

    Low-income homeowners in gentrifying neighborhoods do need relief. This is not the way to do it. There are some programs in place to help low-income seniors. Those need to be better deployed. For nonseniors, there needs to be a simple increase in the homestead exemption, which will have a progressive effect.

    Sincerely

    Dan Immergluck
    Professor
    Urban Studies and Real Estate
    Georgia State UniversityReport

    Reply
  2. Julian Bene says:

    Prof. Immergluck is spot on in his conclusions. I looked at about 100 home sales in various neighborhoods in 2017. The old assessments, which this amendment would let folks use, were all over the place relative to sale values; many way, way under. 2017 assessments came much closer to sale values. Locking in unrealistically low values for some, while hitting new buyers at full value, is discriminatory. Your neighbor paying half what you pay in property tax is going to stick in the craw. It’s also perverse to penalize moving house – to downsize for example – because then you’d pay tax on a realistic value. Realtors should hate this amendment because it will discourage buying and selling.Report

    Reply
  3. Jack Morton says:

    A brand new home should be appreciated at the price it is being sold. An old and outdated home should not be appreciated at the same level as a brand new home. That will hurt people who would no longer be able to afford their own home. Much less a brand new one.Report

    Reply
  4. Logic says:

    Indeed. I live in a newer home in a fast-appreciating neighborhood but I am not wealthy, just a solidly middle class single person with a single income. My mortgage payment has risen by $200 per month because of how much my property taxes have increased. My APS taxes alone are more than I spend on electricity, water, and gas every year. And I haven’t disputed my valuation because I know it’s in line with my home’s value. But I didn’t, and couldn’t, pay anything close to that for a home. If my property taxes keep rising at the same price my property is increasing in value, I’ll have to move somewhere cheaper, probably outside the city. That’s not right. A reasonable, manageable increase in taxes every year is something I absolutely support. But the people paying half a million or more for these brand new homes that are now selling should absolutely pay more in taxes than someone who’s lived here for years and bought at half that price.Report

    Reply
  5. Cora Ann says:

    Hmmm. Would a professor of real estate have a vocational bias against a measure designed to keep people from being forced to sell their homes? Hopefully the vast numbers of Atlanta residents of all income brackets who are in jeopardy of losing our homes from unbridled taxation–and who understand that fixed exemptions are no answer because they quickly become insufficient when valuations are rising 50-200+% per year; and that loans (“circuit breakers”) to pay our taxes would place untenable liens on our properties; and that there really is no logic in basing my taxes on what the richest people moving into my community can afford to pay for their properties; and that California’s Prop 13 which applies to every taxable parcel in the state is completely different from Referendum A–will apply a different perspective to our votes. Is Referendum A perfect? No. The work of politicians rarely is. Will it help curb displacement of large numbers of homeowners who deserve to be able to keep the roof over their heads in their chosen communities? Yes.Report

    Reply
  6. jonathan garrett says:

    No one wants to hear this, but it’s true. The middle and upper classes foot the ENTIRE bill of taxation already. Heaven forbid they not get reamed on annual property tax increases. This will quite literally force some people out of their homes.

    My other objection is more basic. Why does someone need to pay an annual tax on property already paid for? The act of breathing and having a home shouldn’t be an automatic excuse to tax people. This is an involuntary and unjust tax to begin with.Report

    Reply
  7. Erin Guthrie says:

    Cora Ann I agree. I am a senior who has lived in my older home, built in 1922, since I was born. My home has never been remodeled. I still have steam heat radiators instead of central heat and air. My husband and I are living on a very small income and I am terrified each passing year that I will lose my childhood home, passed down to me from my grandparents who bought it in 1939. We cannot afford these outrageous property taxes, the great majority of which go to the schools. We have no children and even though our house is crumbling and in desperate need of major repairs we are paying unaffordable taxes because we live in a gentrified neighborhood where the average income is approximately 10 times greater than ours. No senior should ever be forced from the homes they love and have lived in for a lifetime because their homes are assessed at the same rate as those remodeled or brand new homes. I know firsthand that Representative Beth Beskin, sponsor of Amendment A, has tried repeatedly for years to pass legislation that would exempt seniors from all school taxes. Unfortunately her efforts have always been voted down by the opposing party. Although she would have preferred that Amendment A go farther this amendment will help to provide some relief for those of us in my situation.Report

    Reply

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