Georgia lawmakers may be close to deal to limit rise in property tax bills

ATLANTA (AP) — A deal between the Georgia House and Senate on limiting how much assessed home values can rise for tax purposes may be solidifying, although questions remain about the election-year push for property tax relief.

The Senate Finance Committee on Monday approved a rewritten bill and state constitutional amendment that would limit increases in a home’s value, as assessed for property tax purposes, to 3% per year, unless a local government or school board used a one-time escape hatch to opt out from the cap.

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Voters would have to approve the plan in a November referendum.

If approved, the limit would last as long as owners maintain a homestead exemption, typically as long as they own a home.

Property taxes are a hot issue for Georgia lawmakers this year, facing complaints that bills have steadily risen along with home values.

“Property taxes are the No. 1 thing that we hear about,” said Sen. Jason Esteves, an Atlanta Democrat.

A for sale is displayed outside a home, Feb. 1, 2024, in Aceworth, Ga. Georgia lawmakers said on Tuesday, March, 19, that the state House and Senate may be close to a deal to limit increases in the taxable values of homes, dampening property tax increases.

And Georgia is far from the only state where lawmakers are reacting to voter discontent over higher levies, with states including Texas, Kansas, Colorado and Pennsylvania seeing the issue take center stage over the past year.

Senators had wanted to mandate the cap for every city, county and school district that doesn’t already have a more restrictive cap, while House members had proposed allowing governments to choose to opt in. Under the current proposal, local governments and school districts would have until March 1, 2025 to opt out. But any local government or school district that didn’t exit the plan would be governed by the cap after that.

“We wanted mandatory, they wanted opt-in, and we sort of compromised and have an opt-out,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Hufstetler, a Rome Republican, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “So that’s what I believe we’ll have going forward.”

Still in question is whether senators will approve a proposal backed by House Speaker Jon Burns to increase the statewide homestead tax exemption. Burns, a Newington Republican, had proposed increasing the amount from $2,000 to $4,000. That could save some homeowners $100 a year on the tax bills by decreasing a home’s taxable value. But it might apply in as few as one-third of Georgia’s 159 counties, testimony has shown. Most counties already have local exemptions that are larger or that exclude the statewide exemption.

The Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday amended the House measure to raise the exemption to $10,000 after the House sponsor, Republican Rep. Matt Reeves of Duluth, told senators that House leaders would consider an amount larger than $4,000.

“On the amount, I’ve been given word to pass back — do the work of the Senate,” Reeves told senators Tuesday. “We did the work in the House, and whatever number you think is appropriate, we’ll take a close look at it.”

Senators have prioritized the valuation cap, but it’s not clear whether Burns will give up on his plan.

“I think we’re both very interested in passing some historic tax relief to property owners,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Shaw Blackmon, a Bonaire Republican, told the AP.

The valuation cap passed unanimously out of committee on Monday, but will need Democratic votes on the House and Senate floor to reach the two-thirds threshold for a constitutional amendment or property tax bill to pass.

The measures could also get caught in negotiations between Lt. Gov. Burt Jones and Burns on unrelated topics, such as hospital permitting. A dispute on that subject torpedoed multiple bills last year.

Republicans in Georgia have long pushed local governments to roll back tax rates to keep bills level when valuations increase, saying letting bills rise even if tax rates stay level amounts to a backdoor tax increase. At least 39 Georgia counties, 35 cities and 27 school systems have adopted local laws limiting how much assessed values can rise, according to the Association of County Commissions of Georgia. Some of those limits only benefit homeowners 65 or older.

Many governments have spent the windfall from rising values to increase employee pay and cover inflation-swollen expenses. A 3% cap could push governments to raise tax rates instead. But most school districts can’t raise tax rates above a certain level.

“The ones that are close to the cap, they can go through the steps of opting out,” Esteves said of those districts.

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