When Georgians vote in the general election on or before Nov. 6, they will see five proposed constitutional amendments and three other referendums at the end of their ballots, and proponents of each referendum interviewed by the Neighbor said each one is important and deserves a yes vote.

Also, information provided by the state Legislature outlines what each referendum is about (see the 2018 Statewide Ballot Questions PDF to the left).

Amendment 1

Amendment 1 calls for the creation of the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund “to protect water quality, wildlife habitat and parks,” the ballot states. It’s based on House Resolution 238. Deron Davis, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Georgia, a nonprofit devoted to protecting the state’s environment, said the new trust fund will come from the state’s general fund. It is expected to generate about $20 million annually.

“It will help protect clean drinking water across the state as well as natural areas, beaches and wildlife for future generations,” Davis said. “I think in short, by voting yes on Amendment 1, we are investing to protect our land and water with no new taxes or fees.

“Given what we know about the contribution that outdoor recreation like hiking and hunting, which have contributed $27 billion to the state economy annually, offer, by voting yes on 1 and investing in those lands and waters, we’re also boosting our local economies and local tourism. … In addition protecting to clean drinking water in natural areas, it’s also making an investment in quality of life in local economies.”

Amendment 2

Amendment 2 calls for the creation of a statewide business court to lower costs, enhance efficiency and promote predictable judicial outcomes. It’s based on HR 993, which was co-sponsored by District 51 State Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs.

“It will help expedite the concerns that the courts have as well as litigants with major issues of commerce in litigation,” he said. “For instance, a situation where let’s say two million tons of peanuts are in a warehouse, and a dispute arises about ownership of those peanuts for the right to acquire them or sell them. In the meantime the peanuts may perish because of a delay. We see the need to have a court to handle expeditiously claims dealing with commerce. They have to be a certain size for the court to invoke that jurisdiction. This is setting a constitutional framework for a business court to be created.”

Willard said the court, if approved by voters, would likely only hear cases involving commerce/products valued at $1 million or more.

“It’s something other states have done,” he said. “It’s a business-friendly provision for us to have in Georgia so when a dispute arises with a large sum of money that it can be resolved expeditiously.”

Amendment 3

Amendment 3 calls for urging the conservation, sustainability, and longevity of Georgia's working forests through tax subclassification and grants. It’s based on HR 51. Andres Villegas, president and CEO of the Georgia Forestry Association, which advocates for the timberland industry, said if it’s approved, the amendment would allow forestry land owners to keep their property by lowering the taxes they must pay annually.

“Georgia’s the No. 1 forestry state in the nation, and has 22 million acres of privately held working forests or timberland, covering two-thirds of the state,” he said. “Every single one of those acres pays taxes on it. We’ve also got a lot of pressure on that resource from urbanization. The biggest pressure that oftentimes comes is a landowner’s ability to continue to pay taxes on the timberland, and today Georgia has the highest taxes of any state in the Southeast.

“There’s two tax tiers: one around $15 an acre and the other around $6.5 an acre. Compare that to South Carolina, where it’s $2.75, and Alabama, where it’s $2. Of the 22 million, that places about 5.7 million acres at risk of being converted into other uses such as development and farming.”

Villegas said it’s unclear how much timber farmers could save if the amendment is approved since it hasn’t yet been determined by the Georgia Department of Revenue. But one thing he does know, he said, is it will also have other benefits.

“The reason we have the high tax rates is we have 159 counties in the state, and each one interprets the tax code differently. It breeds a lot of (inconsistency),” Villegas said. “One of the biggest things this does is brings uniformity and it makes it more competitive for the land in the highest risk of being converted to other uses.”

He also said the amendment will allow all counties, but especially those rural ones dependent on ad valorem/property taxes, to preserve the grants that go to schools and county governments.

Amendment 4

Amendment 4 calls for providing rights for crime victims in the judicial process. It’s based on SR 146 and Marsy’s Law, a California Victims’ Bill of Rights Act of 2008 that has been applied to Georgia law. Bruce Cook, founder and board secretary of the Crime Victims’ Advocacy Council, a Vinings-based nonprofit that advocates for crime victims, said his organization helped write the Georgia legislation and that state’s original crime victims’ bill of rights. Cook added the amendment, if passed, would “give crime victims more standing in the court.”

“It equalizes crime victim rights with offender rights and brings about more equity,” he said. “We have 6,500 names of people murdered on our memorial walls and 2,200 on our mailing list of who people lost a loved one to murder in the metro Atlanta area since 1991. We absolutely believe those who have lost a loved one or suffered a serious violent crime should have standing in court to assert their crime victim rights.”

Cook said the old law only suggests crime victims would have a right to speak up against suspects accused of crimes against them or their family members.

 “They’ve always been tantamount to a suggestion and (under the amended law) they would be tantamount to a statutory assertion,” he said.

Amendment 5

Amendment 5 calls for permitting fair allocation of sales tax proceeds to county and city school districts. It’s based on SR 95, which was co-sponsored by District 37 Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, and resolves an issue that arises with counties that have both a county and a city school district.

“The problem is under current law, under ESPLOST (education special-purpose local-option sales tax), you have to have all school districts in a county agree to the levying of that tax and to agree how the funds will be divided,” Tippins said. “All districts have to approve the ESPLOST before it can be put before the voters. We’ve had situations where the leaders of school districts with a very small percentage of the students in the county that may even be a district that straddles two counties say, ‘We’re not going to sign off on it unless we get a disproportionate share of funds per student.’

“In absence of an agreement, those funds would be split on a per-capita basis, regardless of what district they are in. If districts representing the majority of the students in that county approved it, it would go forward and that’s what the fund split would be. You wouldn’t have a (smaller student population) district hold a gun to the head of a (larger student population) district.”

Referendum A

Referendum A would provide for a homestead exemption for residents of certain municipalities. It’s based on HB 820, which was sponsored by District 54 State Rep. Beth Beskin, R-Atlanta. Beskin said the bill, due to the way it was written, is being voted on statewide but will affect only Atlanta residents.

It would place a 2.6 percent cap on annual property tax assessments so the government could not raise taxes at a high rate through skyrocketing appraisals. Beskin said it could save $600 for a homeowner who had their property go up by $200,000 in assessed value.

“Many people in Atlanta got an increase of 100 percent (or more in their 2018 property tax assessments), so, for example, their home went from $500,000 to $1 million,” she said. “Rather than paying taxes on such a high increase, it would take 27.5 years for an increase to double a home property in value.”

Referendum B

Referendum B calls for offering a tax exemption for certain homes for the mentally disabled. It’s based on HB 196.

According to a document from the Georgia House Budget and Research Office, “Referendum B proposes expanding the property tax exemption on homes for the mentally disabled to allow for homes which are indirectly owned by limited-liability companies (LLCs) to be included, if the LLC's parent organization is a qualified 501(c)(3) organization under Internal Revenue Code."

Darlene Schultz, CEO of 3 Keys Inc., a Brookhaven-based nonprofit that provides housing for the homeless in DeKalb and Fulton counties, said the referendum will help organizations like hers keep the tax exemption that comes with nonprofit status.

3 Keys set up limited liability companies to own the properties it uses for homeless housing, and as such, it was able to get a property tax exemption for those facilities. But when it applied for funds to revitalize its oldest one, Phoenix House, it got much of its monies for the $10.2 million project through low-income tax credits from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.

However, Schultz said, getting tax credits from the state requires an organization to partner with state and national tax credit syndicators, all of which are for-profit entities.

“That then negated our property tax exemption,” she said. But if the referendum is approved by voters, the exemption would remain.

“We hope people vote yes,” Schultz said. “It will save upwards of $30,000 a year for Phoenix House alone, and it will help other nonprofits around the state in a similar situation.”

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