published Monday, April 23rd, 2012

Money flowed before tax vote in Georgia

James Salzer and Aaron Gould Sheinin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA — Lobbyists and business groups that successfully backed a state tax overhaul contributed more than $100,000 to Georgia lawmakers in the weeks leading up to the recent legislative session.

In the week before the session in January, lawmakers received at least $80,000 from the tax bill’s supporters and other businesses that would benefit from the bill, according to recently filed reports reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The groups doled out more than 200 checks to lawmakers that week.

Gov. Nathan Deal signed the tax bill — which helps auto dealers, manufacturers, farming and mining interests, airlines and brick-and-mortar retailers — into law Thursday in front of an applauding crowd attending a manufacturers’ awards luncheon in College Park.

While lawmakers say there is no connection between the dozens of last-minute campaign checks and their votes, businesses including Wal-Mart and auto dealers wound up getting what they wanted in the bill.

No Influence?

Most of the contributions came during a hectic pre-session week that lobbyists often describe as a “cattle call” of political receptions.

Lawmakers say they hold the early January fundraisers because, by law, they can’t raise money during the session.

But they say the last-minute flood of donations does not influence their votes.

Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, treasurer of the House Republican campaign fund and a member of the committee that produced the tax plan, said the contributions had no impact on the outcome of the tax bill.

“They have that right to contribute to us,” said Peake, who called the tax bill a “jobs creator.”

“We are going to continue making decisions that are in the best interest of our citizens,” he said.

But William Perry, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, said there’s a direct correlation between the contributions and what ended up in the bill.

“Of course, that’s why they spend that way,” Perry said. “They want to see their legislation passed.”

Lobbying for the tax bill was done mostly behind the scenes, with legislative leaders and business interests working out the details of the package in private. The bill quickly passed both houses after it was made public in March.

The measure phases out the sales tax on energy used in manufacturing, a move long favored by legislative leaders. The governor said that provision helped the state land Baxter International and Caterpillar, two recent economic development triumphs that will create as many as 2,900 jobs.

The measure also:

• Increases the income tax exemption for married couples.

• Eliminates the annual property tax on motor vehicles, instead adding a one-time fee when Georgians buy a car.

• Reinstates a sales tax holiday for back-to-school shoppers and people buying energy-efficient appliances.

• Eliminates a sales tax on certain products used in the agricultural and mining industries.

• Requires many online retailers to collect sales taxes.

• Creates a permanent 1 percent sales tax exemption on commercial aviation fuel.

Wal-Mart a Big Donor

Many businesses, from Delta Air Lines and Wal-Mart to auto dealers, chicken processors and carpet makers, had a big stake in the bill.

Two of the leading contributors the week before the start of the sessions were the giant retailer Wal-Mart and the Georgia Food Industry Association, which represents grocery stores. The two were members of the “Stand with Main Street” coalition, which lobbied to pass legislation to make online retailers like Amazon.com collect sales taxes on Georgia sales.

Combined, the two gave out 80 checks worth about $30,000 the week before the session. Other coalition members contributed at least another $12,000 that week. (Some, like the Georgia Chamber, lobby on many issues, not just taxes.)

Wal-Mart gave $14,000 to lawmakers the week before the session.

“With more than 160 stores across Georgia, it is important that we remain engaged on key legislative issues that may impact our business, our associates and our customers,” said Daniel Morales, Wal-Mart communications director.

Wal-Mart gave another $5,000 to a Georgia Retail Association political fund the month after the session started.

The Georgia Food Industry Association gave nearly $16,000 to 55 elected officials the week before the session. The association’s president, Kathy Kuzava, said grocery stores won’t be a big beneficiary of making more online retailers collect sales taxes. But she said the group stands behind storefront businesses that have to collect taxes and compete against online businesses that don’t.

“We strongly support the idea that the playing field should be fair,” she said.

The coalition included the Georgia Retail Association, the Georgia, Metro Atlanta, North Fulton and Cobb County chambers of commerce, Best Buy, Macy’s, Sears, Target, Home Depot, Walgreens and smaller businesses.

A spokesman for Amazon.com, which contributed nothing to lawmakers the week before the session, declined to comment.

Auto Dealers: $24,000

Auto dealers gave about $24,000 to lawmakers the week before the session.

Auto dealers and two statewide associations have been lobbying for years to get the state to tax car sales between individuals.

Car dealers charge a sales tax when someone buys a car from them; individuals don’t. Under the new law, purchasers will have to pay a title fee that essentially replaces the sales tax. Everyone, including people who buy from individuals instead of dealers, will pay the fee. Auto dealers say that “levels the playing field.”

The auto dealers lobby has long been a major source of campaign cash for lawmakers. Mo Thrash, who lobbies for the Independent Automobile Dealers, said his group’s contributions in the weeks leading up to the session were no different than in past years.

“We didn’t donate to have influence on the tax issue,” he said.

‘A Serious Tax Cut’

Lawmakers say the contributions had no influence on the bill’s contents or outcome.

Senate Rules Chairman Don Balfour, R-Snellville, who helped write and championed the bill, called it the culmination of years of work.

“We failed at it last year and we were finally able to get it through this year,” he said.

Balfour is one of the General Assembly’s most proficient fundraisers. The money he got from groups interested in the bill was only about a quarter of the $33,000 he raised the week before the session.

Balfour received money from America’s Car-Mart, the auto dealers’ lobby, the poultry federation, the grocery lobby, Georgia Retail Association and the manufacturers’ lobby that week.

Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, collected about $11,000 of the $61,000 he raised the week before the session from groups or businesses benefiting from the tax legislation. Like Balfour, he said the money had little effect because many of the provisions have been discussed for years.

“I cannot see any correlation between private sector companies that donate to legislators and the passage of this bill, since it has been around so long,” Rogers said. “If donations had been the key factor for passage, it would have passed long ago. ... The package, while not perfect, is a serious tax cut for Georgians and Georgia businesses.”

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