This time, Georgia Senate says no to last-minute special-interest tax break

Sen. Carden Summers, R- Cordele, was incensed when a tax break he proposed for timber farmers failed to clear the state Senate. "We sit here and we give tax breaks all the time to everybody that walks in here with their hands out if they wear a suit and tie and carry a briefcase," Summers told colleagues. "And we don't want to give tax breaks to a timber farmer." (Jason Getz/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)
Sen. Carden Summers, R- Cordele, was incensed when a tax break he proposed for timber farmers failed to clear the state Senate. "We sit here and we give tax breaks all the time to everybody that walks in here with their hands out if they wear a suit and tie and carry a briefcase," Summers told colleagues. "And we don't want to give tax breaks to a timber farmer." (Jason Getz/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

It was almost 11:30 p.m. on the last night of the General Assembly session, only 30 minutes away from the traditional final gavel at midnight.

Time enough for the Georgia Senate to take up a last-minute special-interest tax break, which is also a legislative tradition.

Only this time, the Senate said, “No thank you.”

After a heated debate, a rare bipartisan coalition of senators stalled a proposed constitutional amendment — Senate Resolution 82 — that would have given timber growers a tax break and forced state taxpayers to foot the bill for revenue that local governments would lose because of it.

Criticism of the measure incensed its sponsor, Sen. Carden Summers, R-Cordele, who is in the farming, real estate and outdoor advertising business and first filed what became the final version of SR 82 in February 2023.

“We sit here and we give tax breaks all the time to everybody that walks in here with their hands out if they wear a suit and tie and carry a briefcase,” Summers told colleagues. “And we don’t want to give tax breaks to a timber farmer.”

But Senate Finance Committee Vice Chairman John Albers, R-Roswell, called it a “bad bill.”

“What we are setting up in place is in the future, we as a legislative body are going to allow everybody else’s tax dollars to go supplant what should have been local property taxes to pay for county governments, cities and schools,” he said. “I have been here 14 years, and I have never heard anyone say the timber industry is in dire straits and it’s not going to survive if it doesn’t get some kind of a tax break.”

Last-minute tax breaks not uncommon

SR 82 aside, the General Assembly has a long history of passing last-minute special-interest tax breaks.

One of the more famous ones occurred in 2005, when lawmakers approved what seemed like a mundane bill to allow Georgians to delay paying state taxes on land they sell in Georgia if they buy similar property in another state. The author mentioned a last-minute change, which would make the tax break retroactive to land sales made in 2004.

Rep. Don Wix, D-Mableton, who owned a real estate business, wondered who the bill was for. It turned out Gov. Sonny Perdue could benefit, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported the next year.

Plenty of other tax breaks have been passed at the last minute over the years, but some lawmakers such as Albers and Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, have in recent years sought to determine whether the state is getting all the jobs and tax revenue industry lobbyists told them Georgia would receive when they sold lawmakers on tax break legislation. A House-Senate committee spent months studying tax breaks between the 2023 and 2024 sessions.

A move to put even minimal limits on how much the state spends on its lucrative film tax credit died under heavy lobbying during the 2024 session. However, legislators passed a short suspension on issuing tax credits for new data warehouses, in part over concerns about how much power they use.

SR 82 started out as a measure to allow county tax commissioners to waive certain delinquent taxes and penalties on nonrevenue-generating properties to make them more likely to be bought and used.

It passed the Senate about a month ago. It passed the House at 8:51 p.m. Thursday, but by then it had become a break on taxes timber growers pay when they harvest trees. It included a constitutional amendment for the fall ballot that said the state would foot the bill for the revenue lost by counties, cities and school districts.

A similar bill overwhelmingly passed the House in 2023 but didn’t get called up for a final vote in the Senate.

There are several timber growers and farmers in the General Assembly and it’s not unusual for them to support tax breaks, just like lawmakers in other lines of work. On his financial disclosure, House Speaker Jon Burns, R-Newington, lists owning at least 1,200 acres of timber, and he is a partner in a tree-harvesting business. Some lawmakers abstained from voting on SR 82 because of possible conflicts on the bill.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, represents a rural district and initially tried to help make Summers’ legislation more palatable by reducing the size of the tax break. But he worried about the idea of passing a constitutional amendment that would force the state to pick up the bill for local taxes.

“I don’t know that it’s the right precedent for states to reimburse local governments for taxes that were originally owed to local governments,” he said. “The way the amendment is structured, no county loses, the state pays back the county.”

Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, said it was unfair for state taxpayers to foot the bill.

“I have a problem with paying the bill for the folks who are getting the money and taking my money because I don’t have timber farms in my county,” he said.

But county officials say the state has spent $40 million a year or so for more than a decade reimbursing local governments for reduced property taxes as part of the Forest Land Protection Act, with much of the benefit going to corporate timber interests.

The industry has gotten other tax breaks in the past, although Summers told colleagues: “Timber growers are not up here begging and pleading for all these tax breaks that we give out constantly. This is simply a bill that will help timber growers make a little money when they sell (their timber) down the road.

“You’re not helping all these people who build these monstrous film studios. You’re helping a farmer grow timber, and timber builds homes. You’re giving them a little break.”

Albers, for one, didn’t buy it.

“It just doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. “If we do this one time, we will be here next year and the year after that and the year after that for whatever is the next perceived crisis to help somebody else out by having somebody else pay the freight for somebody locally.”

After a one-minute explanation of the resolution, it passed the House 170-1 but stalled three hours later in the Senate on a 26-26 vote at 11:45 p.m.

The Georgia Forestry Association’s president, Andres Villegas, called the tax break “critically important to the long-term sustainability of our sector.”

“While it is not the result we wanted, this process has underscored the strong support from the House and Senate to take action on the tax environment for forest landowners in the state,” he said in a GFA post-session report. “We will continue to work with our members to develop a strategic policy solution that supports the long-term investment nature of owning and managing timberland while maintaining support for rural communities and schools across the state.”

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