The state Senate this afternoon passed the first few House bills designed to overhaul the political structure and finances of Georgia's largest county, despite objections that doing so meant moving backwards in terms of racial politics.
"What these measures say is, 'We don't trust the people of Fulton County to vote right,'" said Sen. Jason Carter, D-Atlanta, as the Senate approved a series of bills that would redraw commission districts to give north Fulton another seat; allow state lawmakers, not the commission, to appoint the chairman of the county elections board; and allow the governor to appoint the county's chief magistrate judge.
The Senate then adjourned without taking up the most controversial of the House bills, one backed by Speaker Tempore Jan Jones, R-Milton, that would double the county homestead exemption, a move expected to cost the county $48 million in tax revenue.
With only three days left in this year's session, time is getting tight for the homestead hike. There's some speculation that the measure—which passed the House only after Speaker David Ralston stepped in—doesn't have the two-thirds majority support it needs in order to pass the Senate. Even if passed next week, it calls for a referendum to enact the homestead change, a vote that likely couldn't happen until next year's countywide elections. That could lead some Senators to shelve the bill until next year's General Assembly.
Regardless, Jones is moving ahead. This morning, she sponsored a bill to prevent Fulton from raising taxes until 2015. Actually, the county hasn't adopted a tax increase in nearly twenty years, but commissioners would no doubt be tempted if tax revenues plunged.
Shortly after the House adjourned, Commissioner Liz Hausmann, who represents north Fulton, appeared at the Capitol to congratulate Jones on her success.
Why does Hausmann support a measure designed to cost the county tens of millions of dollars? She explained that she's looking forward to having a dialogue with taxpayers about what kind of county services they want and how much they want to spend on them. Hausmann expects that, if the homestead exemption is raised, the county will need to hold public hearings as part of restructuring the government.
She concedes, however, that some city officials in north Fulton are not eager to pick up the bill for such costly items as arts funding or senior centers.
"Some of those cities can't raise taxes because they've capped their own millage rates, so we'll need to talk about how to deal with those issues," she says.