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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Georgia Ad Attacks

In recent weeks, we’ve posted two articles on our main site on the misleading ad war being waged on Georgia airwaves. The Senate run-off election is set for tomorrow (Dec. 2) to determine whether Republican Saxby Chambliss holds onto his seat or challenger Jim Martin, a former state representative, adds to the Democratic majority.

Before the votes are tallied, we wanted to give Georgians the low-down on one last suspicious claim we hadn’t addressed. A Chambliss ad says that Martin "tried to raise property taxes 150 percent" – and the incumbent has repeated the charge in interviews and on a campaign Web site. The National Republican Senatorial Committee also features the claim in one of its TV spots, though it specifies that this would have been an increase on property tax assessments. Either way, it sounds like a huge increase for Georgia taxpayers. Did Martin really propose such a thing?

Not quite. The charge misrepresents a bill Martin introduced in the Georgia House in 1995. The legislation would have increased the assessed value of property to 100 percent of market value, from the 40 percent level that prevailed, which is indeed a 150 percent increase. But the bill also said there would be "a proportionate increase in homestead exemptions," which reduce property tax bills for owners living in their homes. And the Martin campaign says there was also a corresponding property tax rate decrease, so that the bill wouldn’t have resulted in anyone’s taxes going up.

What was the purpose, you may ask? Research Director Patrick Suter told us the bill was meant to curb a spate of lawsuits. It would have simplified the way property taxes were assessed in Georgia, he said. "It changed the method of calculation but did not actually have an impact on tax liability."

The bill never came to a vote, and it’s a confusing bit of legislative-speak. It clearly does, however, call for a "proportionate" hike in the homestead deduction. We tried to get someone at the state Department of Revenue to comment on the bill, but a spokesman told us too much time had passed for anyone there to put the legislation in its proper context. We then asked a tax expert at Georgia State University to take a look at it and tell us whether there was also a proportionate tax rate decrease somewhere in the bill. David Sjoquist, the director of the Fiscal Research Center at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, said the bill calls for decreasing the millage rate, which localities set. But he didn’t see that it was a requirement. "I didn’t see anything in the bill that would mandate that the tax rate a city levies has to be rolled back," he said. "It would be up to the jurisdiction to decide … can we leverage the same millage rate?"

If jurisdictions were to follow the bill’s recommendation, however, the tax owed wouldn’t go up.