State lawmakers prevent extra tax bill

Published 8:20 pm Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Lawmakers in Atlanta had some good news for property owners across Georgia on Tuesday.

Georgia’s Homeowners Tax Relief Grant, which had been threatened by a budget shortfall, will be funded for 2008 property taxes, according to a news release from the office of Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.

The Homeowner Tax Relief Grant is a credit the state government gives directly to taxpayers. The credit is deducted from property tax bills and the credit amount is then reimbursed to participating counties by the state.

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Gov. Sonny Perdue had previously proposed scrapping the tax grant to help make up a shortfall, which occurred after the economic downturn worsened last fall. The grants provide about $428 million in tax relief for about 3 million homeowners, according to Cagle.

“During this tough economy, now is not the time for Georgians to decide between paying an additional tax bill or meeting the immediate needs of their families,” Cagle said.

County Tax Commissioner Don Belcher said he has seen the poor economy’s impact on taxpayers.

Last September, his office sent out 15,500 property tax bills to property owners in Decatur County. By state law, taxpayers have to pay the bills within 60 days. Belcher said he actually allows until Dec. 20 before penalties and interest are assessed on unpaid bills. Normally by January, the Tax Commissioner has at least 90 percent of bills paid. At the start of this year, the figure was closer to 80 percent, although the total paid bills have increased since then, he said.

While the relief grants were saved for the current state fiscal year’s property taxes, they could be taken away in successive years, at least until the economy improves, according to the text of the law passed to keep them for now.

As recently as last week, Gov. Perdue had warned attendees of a statewide county commissioners’ conference that Georgia couldn’t afford to pay counties for the grants, even though they had been approved by both houses of the Georgia Legislature, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. However, Cagle said lawmakers had worked together to cut nearly $2 billion from the state’s budget.

While the Georgia House of Representatives approved the grants by a 117-55 margin, the grants were just barely approved by the Senate in a 29-24 vote. Both Rep. Gene Maddox (R-Cairo) and state Sen. John Bulloch voted in favor of funding the grants.

Perdue has said he believes the grants have been misused because some counties keep the money for other spending rather than use them to more dramatically lower taxes. Lawmakers’ compromise for this year was based in part upon an expectation that the state government will make up the difference using money it gets from the federal economic stimulus package signed into law Tuesday, the Atlanta Business Chronicle reported.