Georgia Voices: Tax break faulty, so Legislature should get it fixed
by The Savannah Morning News
October 02, 2012 01:57 AM | 1494 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Here’s Job 1 for local state legislators when they report for duty in Atlanta in January: Fix the tax break that’s designed to promote new Georgia tourist attractions.

Apparently, the law that the Georgia Legislature passed and Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law in May 2011 is about as useful as a fifth wheel. That means potential projects that could put more unemployed Georgians to work and boost the economy are stuck in neutral.

This situation needs to get unstuck — especially since Georgia taxpayers are paying a price for what seems to be an overly complicated piece of legislation.

For example, taxpayers have spent $50 million to lure convention groups and other visitors to the state-owned Jekyll Island, just down the coast from Savannah and the site of a new 128,000-square-foot convention center and beachside park.

This public investment was the centerpiece of a tourism makeover that includes private development of new hotels. But the private money hasn’t come.

That’s because the Georgia Tourism Development Act, the law passed to encourage development of convention hotels, water parks, museums and other tourist magnets by providing tax breaks for up to 10 years, apparently is indecipherable. State officials said the law is so complex and writing the necessary regulations has been so tricky that lawmakers may need to amend the tax break next year before it can be implemented.

Developers of a new 200-room Westin hotel on Jekyll were counting on that tax break to secure a $25 million loan that would have allowed them to break ground this month. Jekyll Island officials, who just opened the new convention center in March, have dozens of groups lined up to check into the finished hotel starting in mid-2014.

Good luck with that. Construction is in limbo.

Meanwhile, uncertainty over when the convention hotel will get built has caused a handful of groups to back out of plans to meet at Jekyll. Officials say the lost business is worth about $3.8 million. That’s bad news for Jekyll, which is trying to make a comeback from years of slumping tourism. Without the hotel and its guests, the retail development that Jekyll needs won’t happen either.

The state departments of Revenue and Community Affairs were tasked with the bureaucratic rulemaking needed to implement the tourism tax break. Community Affairs spokeswoman Saralyn Stafford said it’s been tough because the law has a number of unusual eligibility requirements.

For instance, the final call on whether projects get approved or denied is to be made by the governor alone — something no other Georgia tax incentive requires.

Apparently, Mr. Deal and the rulemaking agencies are considering asking the Legislature to change some provisions before issuing final regulations.

State Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Savannah) authored the tax break. He said it got bogged down with complex and subjective requirements to appease fellow lawmakers. That’s often a bad sign.

It also means Mr. Stephens, with the support of the governor and key lawmakers, must strip the law of its political baggage so it can do the public some good.
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