A bill that that could lead to doubling the Fulton County property tax homestead exemption passed the Georgia House on Wednesday with no room to spare.
House Bill 541 received 120 votes, the exact number required for it to pass. Fifty-one House members, all Democrats, voted “no.” Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, who rarely votes on legislation, gave HB 541 its 120th “yes” vote.
The bill, which would let Fulton voters decide whether to increase the county’s homestead exemption to $60,000, became embroiled over the past week in internal county politics. The new GOP majority on the county’s legislative delegation has sought to make major changes in Fulton’s governance.
The bill, which required a two-thirds majority, received 119 votes last week, but the House reconsidered that vote Monday when Rep. Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, used a procedural move to block a series of bills sponsored by Democrats. Lindsey said those bills would stay blocked unless Democrats helped pass HB 541.
All those bills passed Wednesday and now go to the Senate.
Lindsey said his intention was never to kill Democrats’ bills but to get them to “respect the tradition we have in this House of respecting the importance of allowing local delegations to have discretion on local bills.”
Two Democrats voting for HB 541: Reps. Mike Glanton and Valencia Stovall, both from Clayton County. Both are sponsors of HB 330, which would increase their county’s homestead exemption and was also set for a vote Wednesday.
Local legislation, bills that affect one city or county, typically get a quick, easy vote of the full House. Most local bills need a simple majority of 91 votes. But bills to change the homestead exemption need 120. Democrats, from Fulton and beyond, helped block HB 541 last week when several Republicans were absent or did not vote.
In response, Lindsey used the power of the GOP’s 119-member majority to temporarily scuttle Democrats’ local bills.
HB 541 is sponsored by Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton. It would require voters to approve the exemption’s increase in a 2014 referendum and would cost the county an estimated $40 million to $50 million in annual property tax revenue. Fulton County Republicans have also backed bills to redraw Fulton’s County Commission lines to add representation on the Northside.
In largely Republican north Fulton, lawmakers and taxpayers have long said their money has gone to benefit the less affluent and more Democratic south Fulton, all while their power to influence policy has been limited. Most of Fulton is now incorporated into cities, which they see as a justification for scaling back the county budget.
But opponents counter that county taxes still fund libraries and health care, including Grady Memorial Hospital, and that the cuts Republicans propose will be devastating.
That is still the case, said House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta.
“I personally dislike this bill because it will shift responsibility from Fulton County to DeKalb County and the state for Grady hospital,” she said. “It’s an irresponsible bill and has no fiscal merit.”