Legislation that would require the state Department of Revenue to report the names of lawmakers who fail to file state income tax returns gained key approval in a House committee on Tuesday.
Senate Bill 168, sponsored by Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford), passed the Senate as an ethics bill, changing some requirements for electronic filing of campaign and personal finance reports. But Tuesday, the House Governmental Affairs Committee amended it to include the tax return information.
The bill could make it to the House floor next week.
The amendment comes weeks after Revenue officials released a report to legislative leaders showing that 19 other lawmakers – 16 in the House and 3 in the Senate – have not filed state income tax returns, some of them for six years. The names were redacted and have not been released because the information is still considered confidential until the individuals are given a chance to respond to revenue officials.
The report prompted Sen. Eric Johnson (R-Savannah) to propose a change in Senate rules that would allow the Senate Ethics Committee, which he chairs, to investigate tax compliance among fellow legislators. But the Senate voted down Johnson’s proposal.
Opponents called it a politically motivated witch-hunt.The resolution, which needed a two-thirds majority, failed by six votes, 32-16.
But Unterman’s bill now revives Johnson’s efforts while expanding it to the Senate and the House.
Unterman does not mind the change.
“It’s time,” Unterman said. “I’m glad they did. We do not need deadbeats serving as elected officials.”
Rep. Austin Scott (R-Tifton) chairs the Governmental Affairs Committee and said the bill will make a real difference.
As amended, the bill would require the Department of Revenue to first notify the lawmaker who has either not filed a tax return or is in default on his or her taxes. The legislator would then have 30 days to become current.
Lawmakers who have been granted an extension to file taxes would not be affected.
If, after 30 days, the legislator does not correct the situation, the Revenue commissioner would notify the chairman of the Ethics Committee in the legislator’s chamber. The committee would then be required – and that’s a key point, Scott said – to investigate.
“It mandates the investigation,” Scott said.
Should the bill pass the House and make it back to the Senate — which would have to approve the changes made Tuesday — opponents are ready.
Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown (D-Macon), who railed against Johnson’s original proposal, calling Johnson a “blood-sucker” on the Senate floor, remains against the idea.
“I would still be opposed to it,” Brown said Wednesday. “It gives an opportunity for witch hunts.”
“There’s evidence that the Department of Revenue has not been an honest broker in this,” Brown said of the Department’s work to get a law passed. He would not elaborate on what that evidence was.