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Tax bill 's latest snag is Senate leadership dispute

ATLANTA --- Legislation designed to be the answer to voters' biggest concern, jobs, is bogged down because of internal disputes in the Senate over who's in charge, the latest of many problems it's faced.

This time last year, House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle jointly announced a novel technique for improving the environment for job creation. They would appoint 12 people to a commission that would recommend changes in the tax code to spur employment.

Then-Gov. Sonny Perdue and Zell Miller, the former governor and U.S. senator, would provide the horsepower by serving on it. Observers speculated that taxing food was the ultimate goal since Miller had been the one to remove the tax. Having him recommend taxing it again would have helped sway public opinion.

To prevent lawmakers from nit-picking it to death, the recommendations would go to a special, joint House-Senate committee and then to the Legislature for votes in each chamber without amendment.

Things began to go wrong with the scenario almost immediately.

First, Miller said he wasn't healthy enough to serve. Then, at the first meeting, Perdue passed the gavel and skipped most of the other meetings, lending none of his political capital to the endeavor.

Next, the committee crisscrossed the state holding public hearings where most people complained about their local property taxes and business interests said lowering personal income taxes and exempting energy from sales taxes were their biggest concerns. At the same time, Nathan Deal was getting elected governor on a promise to lower the corporate income tax.

Just days before the commission issued its recommendations, the chief economist with Standard & Poor's told the Legislature that state tax policy, including cutting the corporate income tax, can do little to stimulate jobs. Nevertheless, the commission, meeting behind closed doors, agreed to a package of recommendations that included Deal's corporate rate cut, the personal rate cut, a tax on food and taxes on 50 services not currently taxed. Even Girl Scout cookies would be taxed.

Those secret deliberations defeated the whole point of the commission as a way to float trial balloons, air debates and ultimately win public support for the package. So for weeks after the commission issued its report, no one in the Legislature would touch it, and the leaders said it could wait until next year.

The problem: The politicians would have completed a legislative session with nothing to show voters they had responded to the need for jobs. After Democrats sent a statewide press release with a news story pointing that out, suddenly the leadership announced that it would come up with a tax bill after all -- just not everything the commission recommended.

They hastily voted out a bill March 29. Then when the House Democratic leader, who happens to be a tax attorney, pointed out that the effect would be higher taxes on the middle class, the GOP leaders decided they should try again.

Not only that, churches across the state got members to e-mail lawmakers against the bill for fear that its limitation on income-tax deductions will result in reduced charitable giving. A new tax on satellite television sparked added e-mails.

"I can't ignore all those messages from people who vote for me," said Rep. Wayne Howard, D-Augusta.

Because the bill can't be amended in either the House or Senate or fine-tuned in a conference committee, as every other bill is, it has to be in its final form when the committee votes on it. That is requiring considerable haggling.

Complicating the negotiations is the Senate's leadership crisis.

Senate President Pro Tempore Tommie Williams said the freshman senators wanted to raise the tobacco tax by $1 per cigarette pack. Deal won't sign that, though.

"At the end of the day, we've got to put the package together that we've got the votes for and the House will support and the governor will sign. Everything that I want is not in there, and everything the freshmen want is not in there," said Williams, R-Lyons, adding that taxing food might be done next year.

That was early Tuesday afternoon, when he also said negotiations on the tax bill were ongoing. A couple of hours later, the committee voted a version out, the version later recalled.

That's just one example of the whipsawing the bill has suffered. According to House Speaker David Ralston, the Senate is to blame. Changing demands and what-if scenarios from various senators have driven the House leadership nuts, and there's been no one person who can speak for the Senate.

"It depends on what day and hour it is as to who is in charge," he said.

The speaker recommended the Senate end its "little experiment." By that, he means action in which veteran senators frustrated by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle's leadership style the previous year decided to give much of his power to a committee of eight senators, including Williams.

As the current session has worn on, the same senators have grown weary of the committee's leadership, too.

Thursday, it came to a head when the longest-serving senator, a Democrat, made a motion to change the Senate rules. It was ostensibly to shuffle the order of speeches each day, but it could have been amended to restore Cagle's power.

The Senate Rules Committee killed the motion, but not before some hurt feelings.

"We voted on the rules and the leadership, and we're leading and governing under the rules that were passed," Williams said.

How the tax bill turns out depends on those rules and whether they can keep the Senate in line during the behind-the-scenes maneuvering between now and Sunday.

Walter Jones is the bureau chief for Morris News Service. Reach him at walter.jones@morris.com or (404) 589-8424.



Web posted on Thursday, April 07, 2011













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