Amendment No. 1 benefits 1 percent

Published 3:08 pm Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Constitutional Amendment No. 1, ratified last November, provides for the preferential assessment and taxation of large tracts of forest land and grants to local government. This supposedly is to encourage the preservation, conservation and protection of the state’s forest.

The real purpose of the amendment is to shift taxes from millionaire forest owners to those less fortunate who pay property taxes on homes, cars, businesses, etc., and those who pay state sales and income taxes.

Many of those voting for Amendment No. 1 had no idea what the effect of this would be. The ballot question, the required legal advertisements, HR 1276, calling for the referendum and HB 1211, the enabling legislation, were all cleverly worded to disguise how much preferential treatment would be afforded large forest tracts. Neither did many voters realize that preferential treatment has been available for family farms up to 2,000 acres for about 15 years. The primary beneficiaries of Amendment No. 1 will be those owning tracts more than 2,000 acres. Powerful timber interests pushed this through the legislature and mounted a successful PR campaign to have the amendment ratified.

HB 1211 charges the revenue commissioner with establishing a table of values for forest land put into this so-called conservation program. The table of values is to be the same as provided for under code section 48-5-269. After navigating this legal maze, the Revenue Commissioner has concluded that some forest land eligible for this program has the potential of being valued for tax purposes at less than 18 percent of fair market value.

Amendment No. 1 also provides for grants to local government to compensate for 98 Y2 percent of the resulting revenue loss. Local governments will have to absorb 1 percent of the loss. This means additional taxes will have to be collected from owners of homes, cars, businesses, etc., or budgets reduced for education, roads, public safety, law enforcement and other vital services.

More disturbing is the mandate for the state to compensate local government for 98 Y2 percent of revenue loss resulting from preferential treatment of large forest tracts. Facing over a $2.5 billion deficit, cutting budgets for education, health care, transportation and public safety, eliminating the special homestead exemption, furloughing personnel, and failing to meet its current obligations, how can the state fund new grants mandated by Amendment No. 1?

Constitutional Amendment No. 1 is with us for the foreseeable future. However, the legislature has the power to mitigate the fiscal damage it will cause, if it has the will to do so. The implementing legislation can be modified. If modified so as to value large forest tracts as near as possible to the value of non-exempt property, the tax shift would not be as great and the state would find it much easier to fund the mandatory grants. Any such legislation would have to be dealt with by the House Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Rep. Larry O’Neal.

If you feel as I do, that this is an outrage. Unless legislators hear from the voters back home, nothing will be done and the less than 1 percent of taxpayers who will benefit from Amendment No. 1 will once again prevail.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Robert A. ClayDeSoto, Ga.