Georgia can’t turn bad ideas into good ones

August 28, 2011 

It would be one thing if there were no precedent. It’s quite another when the evidence is no farther away than the other side of the Chattahoochee River. Which is another way of saying: Why does Georgia seem so hell-bent on adapting Alabama’s worst practices?

Glenn Richardson, the former and bipartisanly unmissed speaker of the Georgia House, had the GREAT (that’s actually what he called it) idea of making sales taxes the bulk of Georgia’s revenue stream. Whether through better fiscal judgment or divine intervention -- and you could make a compelling case for either -- a tax plan that would have made Georgia’s current economic slump look like a gold rush went creeping quietly out the door along with its author.

But even if the recession hadn’t exposed the hazards of retail-heavy taxation, a century of Alabama economic stagnation surely has. Is nobody in Atlanta paying attention?

Before Zell Miller drank the electric Kool-Aid that sent him tripping off into the political Twilight Zone, he had the decidedly enlightened idea as governor of making sales taxes less punitive for the working poor by exempting food.

Of course there are sales tax exemptions in Alabama, too. In fact, just about every politically connected special interest has one. If you’re a working mother pouring hoarded change out of a Mason jar for a can of baby formula, you don’t qualify. Quit whining and get a lobby. A few hundred thou should cover it.

So what was at the top of the tax “reform” agenda in Georgia this year? You got it: putting the sales tax back on groceries. Aside from its sheer moral bankruptcy, the idea ignores another time- and budget-tested lesson: Poor people are a notoriously unproductive tax base.

But the latest idea is especially intriguing: Pari-mutuel gambling. So … how’s that working out over on the west side of the Hooch?

When then-Gov. Bob Riley shut down the seedy casino-like operation at the Macon County dog track, former Tuskegee Mayor Johnny Ford actually called it a “civil rights” issue. Call me cynical, but somehow I doubt speakers at the dedication of the MLK Memorial in Washington will invoke the spirit of greyhound racing and electronic bingo.

What Georgia lawmakers are considering is horse tracks, and the evidence suggests horses bred and groomed for racing are considerably more coddled than those poor greyhounds. So that’s not really the issue.

A recent poll -- commissioned by the Georgia Equine Education Project, mind you -- showed a majority in favor of at least letting Georgians vote on it, and good for that, too. It should ultimately be the people’s call.

But horse racing as an alleged revenue and jobs engine looks suspiciously like another trick for letting politicians off the hook in making tough decisions about budgets -- in other words, avoiding the dreaded “T” word. You might have noticed, despite desperately dishonest political efforts to keep you from noticing, that “anti-tax” lawmakers are mostly “anti” taxes on the politically connected and, even more important, the politically generous. Insidious, incremental leechings like sales tax, and trick taxes like lotteries and pari-mutuel gambling, don’t disturb their sleep all that much.

Horse track advocates’ timing might be terrible. Another study, this one by the Jockey Club, says the racing industry is in trouble. Betting is down by 37 percent, track attendance by 30 percent; thoroughbred racing is projected to lose fans at a rate of 4 percent a year.

It’s a Georgia pattern, embracing bad ideas just as others are getting past them. (When every other major league sports city in America was building open-air stadiums and retro-modern baseball parks, up went the dreary and godawful Georgia Dome.)

Oh, by the way: State Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, keeps trying to lift Alabama’s sales tax on food, and one of these years he’s going to get the votes to do it. It would be a grimly funny and not altogether unpredictable irony if Alabama were to take that step toward fiscal decency just as Georgia decides to slink the other way.

Dusty Nix, 706-571-8528; dnix@ledger-enquirer.com.

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