At the bottom of every Georgia ballot for the Nov. 8 election are four questions written in legalese about proposed new constitutional amendments and state laws, asking voters to choose “Yes” or “No.” Atlanta Civic Circle translates.
One is a question about whether to stop paychecks to top Georgia officials who’ve been charged with crimes that folks started asking after the state’s former insurance commissioner got indicted for fraud. Others are about high-dollar topics: timber and agricultural taxes – and who does and doesn’t pay them.
Constitutional Amendment 1
“Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to suspend the compensation of the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General, State School Superintendent, Commissioner of Insurance, Commissioner of Agriculture, Commissioner of Labor, or any member of the General Assembly while such individual is suspended from office following indictment for a felony?”
Here’s the context: Back in 2019, Georgia’s then-insurance commissioner, John Beck, received an unwelcome document: A federal indictment accusing him of fraud against his previous employer. His state paycheck continued though, and that made some lawmakers angry.
Gov. Brian Kemp suspended Beck from his job soon after he was indicted and replaced him with another Republican, John King (who is running for re-election). But Beck continued to collect his nearly $200,000 annual paycheck for over two years while he fought the charges. A jury finally convicted him in October, 2021 of embezzling over $2 million from the Georgia Underwriting Association. In the meantime, Georgia had to pay the salaries of two insurance commissioners.
A “yes” vote on this amendment means Georgia’s top elected officials would lose their pay if they’re charged with a felony and suspended from office. Right now, an elected official only forfeits their salary if they’re actually convicted of a crime.
A “no” vote means indicted officials would still draw pay unless they’re convicted.
The amendment’s sponsor, state Sen. Larry Walker III (R-Perry), said it would prevent the state from having to pay two salaries at once — one for the suspended official and one for their interim replacement. Walker noted that if the person accused of a crime were reinstated, they’d also get back pay.
But in a committee debate earlier this year, state Sen. Kim Jackson (D-Stone Mountain) raised a serious objection: “Indictment is not being found guilty,” Jackson said. “I have grave concerns about removing someone’s livelihood before they have had due process.”
In the end, both Republicans and Democrats voted overwhelmingly to pass the question to the public.
Constitutional Amendment 2
“Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to provide that the governing authority of each county, municipality, and consolidated government and the board of education of each independent and county school system in this state shall be authorized to grant temporary tax relief to properties within its jurisdiction which are severely damaged or destroyed as a result of a disaster and located within a nationally declared disaster area?”
This amendment would allow cities, counties and school boards to suspend property tax payments for areas affected by natural disasters. Right now, local governments can’t do that. Properties that have been hit hard or even destroyed are still taxable as if they were fully intact.
The legislation is sponsored by Representative Lynn Smith (R-Newnan), whose district was swept by tornadoes last year. “Local governments aren’t forced to adjust property taxes, but now [would] have the option to do so,” she told a state Senate committee earlier this year.
The option would only apply for an officially declared natural disaster, so not the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith says.
Republicans and Democrats in both the state House and Senate unanimously supported sending this question to the voters. A “yes” vote means local governments could choose to temporarily give property owners a tax break after a natural disaster.
A “no” vote keeps the law the way it is now: Local governments cannot respond to a natural disaster with property tax breaks.
“Shall the Act be approved which grants a state-wide exemption from all ad valorem taxes for certain equipment used by timber producers in the production or harvest of timber?”
This bill is about annual “ad valorem” taxes of the kind familiar to car owners, who pay a tax every year on their car’s value. Some other kinds of vehicles are subject to those annual taxes. . If approved by voters, timberland owners would no longer have to pay those annual ad valorem taxes for equipment used to plant and harvest trees.
It’s unclear how much this tax break would be worth to the timber industry. None of the legislators sponsoring or hearing the bill got a “fiscal note,” which is a nonpartisan, official calculation of the proposed law’s cost.
But in Georgia, the timber industry is literally vast: At least one-sixth of the state’s entire surface area is dedicated to it, judging by the 5.7 million acres that receive a property tax reduction for larger timber tracts. That doesn’t even count tracts under 200 acres.
(Another 15.1 million acres are in a much larger state program that gives ten-year property tax breaks for smaller tracts of land that could be fallow, could be in an ecologically sensitive area or could be in use for agriculture, forestry or ecological conservation. )
The bill’s sponsor is state Rep. Sam Watson (R-Moultrie). The forest industry PAC tops his donor list with a $2,000 contribution.
Supporters like Andres Villegas, the president and CEO of the Georgia Forestry Association, say the tax exemption would put forestry on the same economic footing as Georgia’s agricultural sector, which does have broad exemptions from ad valorem taxes. For example, even very small farmers can get a GATE card to waive paying sales tax on farm equipment.
It’s true for any industry that if it pays fewer taxes, it could have more revenue to potentially spend on new people or equipment. On the other hand, dozens of industries turn up at the state legislature every year asking for tax exemptions of one kind or another–and most get turned down.
After all, if one group gets a tax break, some other group has to pay for it–either in higher taxes or fewer services.
Republicans and Democrats alike voted overwhelmingly to send this question to voters as a ballot referendum. It will take effect if Georgia voters pass it.
A “yes” vote means lifting the current ad valorem taxes on timber industry equipment. A “no” vote means keep the system the same and continuing to tax it..
“Shall the Act be approved which expands a state-wide exemption from ad valorem taxes for agricultural equipment and certain farm products held by certain entities to include entities comprising two or more family owned farm entities, and which adds dairy products and unfertilized eggs of poultry as qualified farm products with respect to such exemptions?”
This legislation, also from state Rep. Sam Watson (R-Moultrie), would expand Georgia’s already broad ad valorem tax breaks for the agricultural sector to a few more edge cases on farms.
Equipment is already broadly exempt from annual ad valorem taxes, but right now, if two family farms partner to buy expensive equipment — for instance, to share costs on what could be a six-figure tractor or combine — those partnerships aren’t exempt. This bill adds a few lines to the state’s definition of what family-based legal entities can get the exemption.
It also adds dairy products and unfertilized poultry eggs to the ad valorem exemption list, which currently covers harvested and stocked-up agricultural products — things like Christmas trees in the field, crops and livestock.
As with the bill for ad valorem tax breaks for timberland equipment, neither the bill’s sponsors, nor the relevant committee chairs asked state budget staff to make a nonpartisan official estimate of the bill’s cost.
A “yes” vote means the existing ad valorem tax break for the agricultural sector would expand to some more farmers and farm products A “no” vote would keep taxes as they are.