Georgia voters are being asked today whether the state constitution should be amended to give a 10-year, $200 million boost to land conservation, solidify the state’s commitment to crime victims and cut timberland taxes.
Five proposed amendments appear on next month’s ballot, which most notably settles the long and hard-fought races for governor and other key offices.
Here’s a look at what the amendments would do and how they’ll appear on the ballot.
What this would do: Advocates lobbied for 10 years to persuade lawmakers to put this question before voters. They’re asking to set aside 80 percent of existing sales taxes on sporting goods for conservation efforts. These taxes are expected to raise $200 million over the next 10 years. The measure would sunset after 10 years, although it could be extended through a future public vote. The Nature Conservancy of Georgia, working with other nonprofits, is advocating that the tax proceeds be spent: buying and preserving large riverfront acreage, as well as large acreage in rural areas with potential public access and thousands of wildlife species; preserving and enhancing existing wildlife management areas; and offering matching grants to local governments in metro Atlanta to create parks and trails.
Deron Davis, the executive director of the Nature Conservancy in Georgia, said the proposal represents a “no-risk commitment to the basic nature we all need every day.”
The ballot language: Creates the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund to protect water quality, wildlife habitat, and parks. House Resolution No. 238 Resolution Act No. 414 Ga. L. 2018, p. 1138 “Without increasing the current state sales tax rate, shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to create the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund to conserve lands that protect drinking water sources and the water quality of rivers, lakes, and streams; to protect and conserve forests, fish, wildlife habitats, and state and local parks; and to provide opportunities for our children and families to play and enjoy the outdoors, by dedicating, subject to full public disclosure, up to 80 percent of the existing sales tax collected by sporting goods stores to such purposes without increasing the current state sales tax rate?”
Amendment 2 –Business courts
What this would do: Billed as a pro-business and cost-saving measure, this proposal would create statewide business courts. Judges in these courts would be appointed by the governor to five-year terms with the approval of the Senate Judiciary Committee and its counterpart in the House. The amendment cuts out of the process voters, who currently elect all trial court and appeals court judges. (Admittedly, some judges are appointed by the governor but must stand for election to stay in office.)
Under existing law, Georgia’s State and Superior Courts are already establishing “business court divisions.” Two operate in Fulton and Gwinnett counties under a program known as the Metro Atlanta Business Court, said Bruce Shaw, a spokesman for the Judicial Council of Georgia. Richmond County also created a business case division in 2017, State Court Judge Patricia Warren Booker said.
The state’s Superior Courts have established divisions that deal with domestic relations, drug offenses and veterans’ cases. Additionally, presiding judges currently have the power to assign complex business cases to special masters who are typically retired judges or lawyers with expertise in the subject area.
Here’s the ballot explanation: Creates a state-wide business court to lower costs, enhance efficiency, and promote predictable judicial outcomes. House Resolution No. 993 Resolution Act No. 410 Ga. L. 2018, p. 1130 “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to create a state-wide business court, authorize superior court business court divisions, and allow for the appointment process for statewide business court judges in order to lower costs, improve the efficiency of all courts, and promote predictability of judicial outcomes in certain complex business disputes for the benefit of all citizens of this state?”
Amendment 3 — Timber tax
What this would do: Tax proposals are complicated, and this one is no exception. The amendment has several missions. One is to lower the tax burden on timberland owners.
To understand what the bill does, you need to know a little history. Large timberland owners have been receiving tax breaks since the state constitution was amended in 2008, creating the Forest Land Protection Act. For almost a decade, the state has been sending millions of dollars to local school boards and county governments to make up a majority (97 percent) of what they are not collecting in taxes from these property owners. (Note: Qualifying for the 2008 tax break are owners of 200-plus acres of timberland who agreed to place a restrictive covenant on their property for 15 years. (With the 2018 amendment, that would change from 15 years to 10 years.)). Through the years, these properties have been assessed as forestland, not on the fair market value. The proposal would allow local governments to be reimbursed at rates closer to a property’s current values. Some local governments came out winners under that 2008 methodology, and some were losers. Under the proposed amendment and the new formula, that could flip — with those government winners becoming losers.
Another provision of the proposal creates a class of qualifying commercial timberland that also would be eligible for tax breaks. The amendment shifts responsibility for assessing these properties from the local tax assessor’s offices to the state Department of Revenue.
Andres Villegas, the president and CEO of the Georgia Forestry Association, said a University of Georgia study shows that the state’s working forest is taxed three times higher than in neighboring states, with 4.7 million acres taxed at rates about six times higher.
“That puts those 4.7 million acres at risk of being converted to strip malls and neighborhoods,” Villegas said. “When you make that conversion, it’s permanent, and you permanently lose the air, the water, the wildlife benefits that come from the forest, as well as the ability to produce timber for the $35 billion industry that’s converting it to things we use every day.”
Owners of 50-plus acres who take advantage of the proposed amendment’s new “timberland property” classification would not be required to have any restrictive covenants on their property.
Their taxes would be expected to go down, but not as much as FLPA properties.
Villegas said, for that reason, he expects most landowners will attempt, if possible, to take advantage of the FLPA.
Worth noting: The proposed amendment makes no provisions for the state to reimburse school boards and county governments that lose revenue due to landowners taking advantage of the new land classification.
Here’s the ballot explanation: Encourages the conservation, sustainability, and longevity of Georgia’s working forests through tax subclassification and grants. House Resolution No. 51 Resolution Act No. 297 Ga. L. 2018, p. 1127 “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to revise provisions related to the subclassification for tax purposes of and the prescribed methodology for establishing the value of forest land conservation use property and related assistance grants, to provide that assistance grants related to forest land conservation use property may be increased by general law for a five-year period and that up to 5 percent of assistance grants may be deducted and retained by the state revenue commissioner to provide for certain state administrative costs, and to provide for the subclassification of qualified timberland property for ad valorem taxation purposes?”
Amendment 4 – Crime victims’ rights
What the amendment would do: Georgia law already provides for notification of crimes victims on hearings and other proceedings in their cases. But advocates hope by making this part of the state constitution, the protections will have more weight. The proposal also would give the victim the right to demand a court hearing if he or she feels proper notice has not been given about developments in the case. This proposed amendment, known as Marsy’s law, mirrors legislation passed in several states and being pushed in others.
Here’s the ballot explanation: Provides rights for victims of crime in the judicial process. Senate Resolution No. 146 Resolution Act No. 467 Ga. L. 2018, p. 1139 “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to provide certain rights to victims against whom a crime has allegedly been perpetrated and allow victims to assert such rights?”
Amendment 5: Local option sales tax
What the amendment would do: This would remove the requirement that a county school district and a city school district within the county’s boundaries must agree before calling a referendum to raise sales taxes for education. As an example, this would affect the city of Atlanta’s school system and Fulton County Public Schools.
In Cobb County, where a similar situation exists with Marietta City Schools, the city and county school systems currently must both approve resolutions calling on voters to approve an education sales tax.
The 1 percent sales tax could be imposed for a period not to exceed five years.
The ballot language: Authorizes fair allocation of sales tax proceeds to county and city school districts. Senate Resolution No. 95 Resolution Act No. 278 Ga. L. 2017, p. 857 “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to authorize a referendum for a sales and use tax for education by a county school district or an independent school district or districts within the county having a majority of the students enrolled within the county and to provide that the proceeds are distributed on a per-student basis among all the school systems unless an agreement is reached among such school systems for a different distribution?”
What’s being said about Amendment 5: State Sen. Lindsey Tippins has said the measure was proposed because there were situations across Georgia where independent school districts serving a small portion of a county’s students would “hold the larger districts hostage” on the referendum in hopes of obtaining a larger share of the tax proceeds.