They say it every January under the Gold Dome: This legislative session is going to be unlike any other. Jobs are going to be lost. Programs are going to be cut. Sacrifices are going to have to be made. For the budget to balance, taxes may have to be raised.
Yada, yada, yada.
Seriously, before you pull the rug from under us landowners once again, Governor Perdue, et al, show us what you’ve done to make state government as efficient as possible for the past year. Show us that lobbyists’ money doesn’t influence the decisions that are made by the General Assembly.
Show us that everything the General Assembly does is in the sunshine, rather than relegating critical discussions to back rooms, where the true costs of government are revealed. Show us that you’re collecting taxes equitably. Show us that you have taken a cut in pay and benefits. Show us that government is as good as it can be under your watch.
For most Americans, it’s just hard to take government at any level seriously, anymore. Thus, the talk of what a tough budget year this is going doesn’t cut it with us. The same thing happens each year at the local level.
In Albany, Georgia for example, the poor-old, electric utility-subsidized city added to its workforce and further taxed electric customers this fiscal year rather than cutting back, as most municipalities have done. Indeed, in the past year and a half, nearly 2,000 municipal employees in Georgia have lost their jobs due to funding cutbacks, and many others have taken furloughs, the city opted not to do either.
So, with the legislative session and the local budget season looming, where do we go from here?
How can equity and frugality be pursued in state and local government?
We have three suggestions.
A start would be for all of the public’s business to be conducted in the sunshine. Georgia’s open-government laws pale in comparison to Florida’s, for example. If every discussion at the local and state level of government were conducted with the public an earshot away, spending would be significantly reduced. Politicians just aren’t capable of looking voters in the eyes when they build bridges to nowhere or unplanned riverside archways. An open government, it has been appropriately stated, is a more efficiently run government.
Another way that government can ensure that its budget is balanced is to vigorously pursue tax collections. This, too, would necessitate government being conducted in the sunshine. If local and state governments worked together transparently, for example, by comparing lists of retailers paying sales taxes with lists of retailers paying occupational taxes, they could significantly increase local and state revenue.
In some cases, doing so could directly prevent property tax increases.
Meanwhile, rather than keeping sales tax collection information secret as it currently does, the state could publish business-by-business sales tax data on the Web. This would give whistleblowers and others the opportunity to identify scofflaws. And locally, the City of Albany and Dougherty County could hire a firm to ensure that businesses remit their collected sales tax to the state – or public employees could do the work themselves.
A recent series by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution brought focus to one of the primary reasons people disdain property taxes in the first place: Indeed, the government’s stated value of real estate often does not reflect market reality. That brings us to our final suggestion: Ensure that assessed land values are accurate.
Property transfers show that real estate continues to sell for far less than the assessed value in many cases. That is certainly the situation in Dougherty County – even after taxpayers spent nearly $1 million on a consultant to get the assessments right.
Whether landowners are overpaying property taxes, not paying enough, selling their property for a fraction of its assessed value, or unable to sell their land because the assessment is too high, it is government’s role to prevent these scenarios from happening. We say that it’s never too late to do the right thing and we call on the Dougherty County Commission to have its staff correct assessment calculations once and for all.
By Kevin Hogencamp