ATLANTA – Most of the election buzz in Georgia centers around the nationally watched governor’s race, but there are also five proposed constitutional amendments that await Georgia voters.
Such amendments often ask voters to alter the state constitution while offering only a short, tough-to-decipher summary. So here’s a breakdown of what the questions on this year’s ballot mean and the arguments being made for and against them.
1. Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund
If approved, a portion of an existing sales tax on outdoor equipment would be set aside to pay for conservation efforts, such as improving state parks and protecting wildlife habitat, waterways and hunting lands.
A similar question failed a couple decades ago but the major difference is the previous proposal called for a new tax on real estate transfers. There is no new tax this time.
Rather, this proposal sets aside money already being collected on items such as fishing rods and reels and camping gear. It would devote about $20 million to Georgia’s green spaces.
The proposal, brought by Rep. Sam Watson, R-Moultrie, found broad support under the Gold Dome. Watson said earlier that while the money could be used to acquire property, he hoped it would be used first on existing state parks and land as a way to boost rural communities. Projects would be funded through a state-administered grant process.
Budget writers are not always so keen on calls to constitutionally devote state dollars to a specific purpose because it ties up revenues.
2. Creation of a statewide business court
This amendment would create a new state court system and give the governor the power to appoint judges to a five-year term, with approval from some state lawmakers.
Supporters say it would cut costs, improve efficiencies and – as the ballot language says – “promote predictability of judicial outcomes” throughout the state. Business litigation can often be complex and time-consuming cases that deal with issues such as antitrust, biotechnology and intellectual property.
Critics have frowned on the move to take voters out of the process of seating judges. Others have questioned the need for the court when Georgia’s state and superior courts can – and already do in some areas – establish business court divisions. Today, judges can also assign business cases to a special master with the expertise, if need be.
Gov. Nathan Deal, who is serving his last year in office, is a major backer of the change.
3. Forestland tax
Proponents see it as a chance to conserve forestland. Some officials are calling it a tax-increase-in-disguise for everyone else.
One thing is for sure: It’s complicated.
This constitutional amendment has been promoted by the forestry industry as the “Fair Forest Tax.” It’s a change proponents say would bring much-needed accuracy and uniformity to what is now a varied approach for taxing timberland, which is big business in Georgia.
But critics say the change takes away local control and gives timberland owners a tax break while leaving residents, business owners and other taxpayers to pick up the slack.
Here’s a breakdown of the key changes:
The proposal would update how property protected under the Forest Land Protection Act, or FLPA, is assessed. These properties benefit from a tax break in exchange for being placed in a restrictive covenant.
Local governments receive state grants to help offset their lost revenue from these properties. Some counties may see less money from the state as a result of the updates.
The measure would also create a new classification of forestland for tracts that would be assessed by the state Department of Revenue rather than local tax assessors. These properties, which must be at least 50 acres, would not be subject to a restrictive covenant, but the tax break would also be smaller.
And then there’s this: The state would not compensate local governments for revenue lost by properties gaining the new classification.
That has some local officials, who worry about the budgetary impact, calling on voters to reject the amendment that they say caters to special interests. Some counties are expected to lose revenue if the measure passes, although it’s unclear exactly which ones and how significant the losses might be.
Andres Villegas, who is president and chief executive officer of the Georgia Forestry Association, said the new classification just gives timberland owners another option. But he said the decade-old conservation program – the one that reimburses counties – will continue to be more attractive because of its lower tax rate.
This new class of forestland, Villegas said, would help conserve wooded property that is being taxed at a high rate and where owners may face pressure to develop the property into a shopping center, homes or something else.
“That land will see some relief and, hopefully, we can keep it in trees and it’s not forced to be sold, subdivided and eventually developed into an alternative use,” Villegas said Friday.
“We know, as a state and as a society, that really forestry is the best land use you can have when it comes to the air, water and sustaining society from an environmental and economic perspective,” he said.
4. Marsy’s Law
The proposal would enshrine crime victims’ rights – such as being notified when an offender is released from prison – in the state constitution.
Proponents argue there’s a lack of consistency in how well victims are kept in the loop in Georgia. The proposal would constitutionally protect victims’ rights and give victims the ability to petition the court for a hearing if they feel their rights are being violated.
“This is really just about making sure they have a voice,” Ann Casas, the campaign’s state director, said in an earlier interview.
The measure has attracted $8.3 million from victims’ rights activists, in spite of the fact that there does not appear to be opposition to the measure. The proposed amendment found overwhelming support under the Gold Dome.
Some critics question the need to alter the state constitution when these rights are already in state law. Proponents say doing so would emphasize their importance.
The millions raised have come from California-based Marsy’s Law for All and its founder, billionaire Henry Nicholas, whose sister, Marsy, was stalked and killed by an ex-boyfriend in 1983.
Marsy’s Law, as it’s known, is also on the ballot in five other states this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. About a half dozen have already adopted some or all provisions of Marsy’s Law.
5. Education Local Option Sales Tax
The measure applies to areas with multiple school systems, such as Valdosta City Schools and the Lowndes County School System. Dalton City Schools and the Whitfield County School District serve as another example.
The change would remove a requirement that both districts agree to a 1 percent sales tax, known as an E-SPLOST, before putting it on the local ballot.
Proponents for the change say that some smaller school systems in Georgia have withheld support for a local option sales tax as a negotiating tactic when deciding how to divvy up the revenues from the tax.
In the proposal, if the local school districts cannot agree on how to share the money, it will be distributed based on student population.
Jill Nolin covers the Georgia Statehouse for The Valdosta Daily Times, CNHI's newspapers and websites.