We may be about to witness a melding of the Atlanta race for mayor and the Democratic contest for governor, over the stodgy issue of tax collection.
A promise is to a political campaign what yeast is to bread _ essential, but largely puffery. The problem is that most campaign promises cost money.
And in this monster of a downturn, no government has any cash to spare. Suggesting more taxes, pulling more dollar bills from the thinning wallets of working stiffs, is a highly distasteful option.
Over the last several weeks, mayoral candidate Lisa Borders has called Atlanta “broke and broken.” Fixing the city, and boosting the current level of policing, will require increased spending, she admits.
How to get there? Borders has focused on the state’s antiquated and inefficent collection of sales taxes. Right now, penny taxes of all sorts flow straight from the cash registers of businesses to the state Department of Revenue, which redistributes to Georgia’s counties, cities and school boards their share of the wealth.
Local governments across the state, including the city of Atlanta, think they’re shortchanged millions of dollars each year _ by businesses that dodge the tax, and by the sticky fingers of the state. The Department of Revenue hangs onto the cash it collects just a little too long, they contend, in order to reap the interest.
Let Atlanta and other entities collect their own taxes _ or hire it done, Borders contends, and many of them could close their budget gaps.
State sales tax policy may sound like an odd topic for a mayoral candidate. But Borders’ campaign manager is Rep. Stacey Abrams of Atlanta. And Abrams was one of six Democrats to sponsor H.B. 356 during the winter session of the Legislature, which would do exactly what Borders proposes.
Another sponsor of the bill was House Democratic Leader DuBose Porter, the Dublin newspaper publisher and candidate for governor. Porter has made sales tax reform a centerpiece of his campaign, in an attempt to position himself as a champion of school systems hurt by budget cuts imposed by Gov. Sonny Perdue and a Republican-controlled Legislature.
Borders and Porter will appear together at an event in Atlanta this week, to highlight the sales-tax issue. When asked what he thought of Borders laying claim to it, the Democratic candidate for governor e-mailed the following response:
“This is exactly the kind of innovative thinking we need to see from our future leaders. I wholeheartedly endorse her backing of ‘point of sales’ [legislation] and think her endorsement will help us push this much needed bill through the House.”
That, my friends, is very close to an endorsement of Borders herself. The statement nearly presumes the city council president’s election as mayor.
We’ve already had one candidate for governor attempt to insert himself into the Atlanta mayoral race. Republican John Oxendine first clashed with former state senator Kasim Reed after the insurance commissioner proposed a new interstate through east Atlanta. Then he invited Councilwoman Mary Norwood to debate the road’s construction.
But Porter’s wooing of Borders is more serious, and a true gamble _ on his part, not hers. Expect Borders to do little more than smile and nod at any public overtures from the gubernatorial candidate.
But a Borders victory in November would at least place the Dublin newspaperman in the new mayor’s good graces come next July’s primary. And Atlanta remains a Democratic town. On the other hand, if the new mayor is named Reed _ well, that’s why you roll the dice.
Now, as for puffery.
Lamar Norton, chief lobbyist for the Georgia Municipal Association, says that state officials recently estimated that about $1.6 billion in sales tax remains uncollected each year. A new tax collection system that captures two-thirds of that _ local governments would likely privatize the process _ would generate $1 billion.
Perhaps half of that, $500 million, would belong to metro Atlanta, to be divided among dozens of cities, counties and school boards.
Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock) acknowleges that sales tax collection is a problem that needs to be addressed _ but doesn’t want to subject every retailer in the state to a storm of audits from local governments. A study committee he headed finished last year. He expects to offer a negotiated measure when the General Assembly convenes.
But if Rogers thinks Democrats are dreaming if they think any found money will be enough to cure the budget woes of Atlanta or any other government budget.
“We are losing some, and we need to find it. We want everybody to pay what they owe, but there’s no way it’s $1 billion,” he said. “This will not be a solution for anyone’s financial problems.”