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Good-government measure aimed at suspended elected officials tops proposals on statewide ballot

After Gov. Brian Kemp suspended then-state Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck in 2019 following Beck’s indictment for fraud and money laundering, he continued collecting his annual taxpayer-funded salary of $195,000. Those dismaying political optics would be avoided in the future if Georgia voters approve a constitutional amendment on the November ballot prohibiting statewide elected officials and members of the General Assembly from being paid after they have been indicted for a felony and suspended from office. The proposal is one of four that voters will decide on Nov. 8, along with the fates of a myriad of candidates for federal, state, and local offices. A second constitutional amendment would allow cities, counties and local school districts to temporarily exempt disaster victims from paying property taxes. Two other ballot questions contain tax exemptions for farmers and foresters. Supporters say amending the state Constitution to prevent indicted elected officials from collecting salaries while awaiting trial would close a glaring loophole in state law.

Georgia Sen. Larry Walker III, R-Perry, the amendment’s chief sponsor, called it a “common-sense measure” when it was debated on the Senate floor.

“As elected officials, we have a duty to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money,” Walker said. “In the business world … you wouldn’t pay someone convicted of a felony to do a

job.” With bipartisan support, the amendment passed the Senate unanimously, then cleared the state House of Representatives overwhelmingly.

The constitutional amendment aimed at helping disaster victims was prompted by a strong tornado that hit Heard, Coweta, and Fayette counties in March of last year. “We had so many homes and properties destroyed,” said state Rep. Lynn Smith, R-Newnan, the amendment’s chief sponsor. “We’re still recovering from the storm.” Smith said property owners who lost everything that spring still were hit with property tax bills last fall, forcing some to pay taxes on homes and businesses that essentially didn’t exist.

“The cities, counties, and school systems had no way to waive what was due from these homeowners who were devastated,” she said. The amendment would let local governments and school boards grant temporary tax relief to owners of properties that have been severely damaged or destroyed by a disaster and are located within a nationally declared disaster area. Details such as how long that temporary tax forgiveness would last are yet to be worked out. Smith said if voters approve the constitutional change, lawmakers will take up an “enabling bill” during the 2023 General Assembly session specifying how the tax exemption would work.

The third proposal Georgia voters will decide is a ballot question that would exempt from state property taxes equipment used in the timber industry.

Georgia ranks as the No.-1 forestry state in the nation, tops in commercially available timberland with 22 million acres, tops in the volume of timber harvested each year, and tops in forest product exports with an estimated annual trade value of $3.9 billion, according to the Georgia Forestry Association.

The tax exemption would include not only the heavy equipment used to harvest timber but also the tractors used in planting trees for reforestation, said Matt Hestad, vice president of engagement for the forestry association.

“Some of these pieces of equipment can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Hestad said.

The fourth and final question on the ballot would expand an existing property tax exemption for agricultural equipment by applying it to equipment shared by two or more family farms.

“The intense amount of capital required to farm makes neighbors share equipment sometimes,” Walker, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said during a recent summit on agricultural issues in Perry. “Becoming as efficient as we can in how we use technology is one part of solving the equation.”

The ballot question also would add dairy products and unfertilized poultry eggs to the tax exemption.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

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