The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Features GBPI Op-ed: Shot at real reforms fumbled yet again

As posted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Posted by: Alan Essig

As we look back at the 2012 legislative session, it’s clear that Georgia lawmakers missed opportunities to make much needed reforms.

Instead of taking up comprehensive tax reform that would modernize the tax code and help grow Georgia’s economy, the General Assembly passed a bill that contained a hodgepodge of unrelated and mostly special interest tax breaks. The tax bill also included several proposals that will raise revenues in the long-term; however, much more needs to be done. Comprehensive tax reform would help set the stage for long-term economic growth in Georgia through a modern and competitive tax system that allows for investments in education, transportation and safe communities.

Georgia’s Unemployment Insurance system faces huge deficits due to years of employer tax holidays. Instead of reforming the state unemployment insurance system in a way that adequately funds the system, without hurting Georgians who are out of work through no fault of their own, lawmakers voted to cut unemployment benefits. This not only makes it incredibly difficult for struggling families to survive, but it also takes money out of the economy during a crucial time in our recovery. Meanwhile, employers will pay a very small increase in payroll taxes, so families are clearly bearing the brunt of the Legislature’s past mistakes.

Despite being the fourth highest state in foreclosures in 2011, Georgia lawmakers missed an opportunity to assist homeowners hurt by the housing bubble. Instead of using the foreclosure settlement funds to aid struggling homeowners, Georgia allocated its $112 million share to future economic development projects with no clear plan for how the money will be used or who will benefit.

Georgia lawmakers also missed an opportunity to reform the juvenile justice system. Reform advocates worked with stakeholders for years to develop a model children’s code that would modernize juvenile justice. The legislation passed the House, but never made it out of the Senate.

An opportunity was missed to assure accountability for the hundreds of millions of dollars our corporate citizens receive in public benefits or “handouts.” Without evaluations of business tax breaks, it’s impossible to assure the state’s investments are worthwhile.

Amid the disappointments of the legislative session, there was one bright spot. Lawmakers approved a bill to reform Georgia’s criminal justice system to help rein in the Department of Corrections’ skyrocketing spending and dramatic growth in the prison population. This promising step builds on the recommendations from the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform.

With far more missed opportunities than real reforms from the 2012 General Assembly, it’s clear lawmakers could have done more to bring much-needed reforms and revenues needed to implement them. Here’s to a better session in 2013.

Alan Essig is executive director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.


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