GOP tax bills sail quickly through Alabama House
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Jan 16, 2014 | 3407 views |  0 comments | 41 41 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY — The Alabama House of Representatives quickly passed four modest tax reform bills Thursday morning, accomplishing nearly half of House Republicans' 2014 agenda on the third day of the legislative session.

"When we announced our agenda, we made it clear this was going to be our objective," House Speaker Mike Hubbard said of the bills' quick path through the House.

By overwhelming margins, the House passed four of the five tax bills on the House GOP's nine-bill agenda for 2014. Hubbard and other House GOP members announced weeks before the session that they wanted to make "taxpayer relief" their theme for this year.

Among the bills on that agenda was a measure that would set up an independent court for hearing taxpayers' appeals. There's already an appeals court within the Department of Revenue; the House bill, sponsored by Rep. Paul DeMarco, R-Homewood, would make that court an independent entity.

Revenue Department officials have opposed the bill, saying that the current appeals judge is effectively independent. DeMarco said an independent court gives taxpayers more confidence in the court's fairness.

"The perception would be that we have a fair court, outside the body, that can hear these cases," DeMarco said. The bill passed the House in a 97-2 vote.

House members also approved a bill that would change the process of paying sales taxes for some small businesses. Under current state law, businesses have to estimate their sales taxes for the month ahead, and pay up front if their taxes add up to more than $1,000. Under the bill passed Thursday, the threshold to pay up front would rise to $2,500.

Removing the up-front requirement would, in effect, save businesses below the $2,500 threshold one month of sales tax payments — and cost the state about $4.5 million in sales tax revenue. The bill passed 96-2.

Also moving quickly through the House was a bill that would allow the Revenue Department to stop collecting taxes that cost more money to collect than the revenue they pull in. Sponsor Rep. Jim Patterson, R-Meridianville, said the bill would affect only two taxes: the state's iron ore tax and the tax on playing cards.

The decline of iron mining in Alabama has tax officials inspecting empty mines, Patterson said, and the tax stamps on decks of playing cards are more trouble to the state than they're worth.

"It costs more to put the stamps on than the money we collect," he said.

A "fiscal note" attached to the bill said it would cost the state $100,000 in revenue, and save $115,000 in administrative costs. The bill passed 95-0.

House members also passed, by a 99-0 vote, a bill that would create a short form for businesses filing personal property tax, if the assets being taxed add up to less than $10,000 in a year.

House Republicans acknowledged that the bills would save taxpayers only a small amount of money.

"It's not a lot of money, but it helps," said Rep. Koven L. Brown, R-Jacksonville. "I know the personal property thing is a pain in the butt. It costs more to prepare the return than you actually pay in tax."

Only one of the five tax bills on the GOP agenda met with significant opposition Monday. A bill by Rep. Wayne Johnson, R-Ryland, would make it a misdemeanor for Revenue Department employees to violate tax laws "for the purpose of retaliating against or harassing a taxpayer."

On the House floor, Johnson cited the controversy that erupted last year when the IRS acknowledged flagging political groups for a higher level of scrutiny. Johnson described the bill as a "safeguard" to keep Alabama from investigating groups based on their politics.

"This goes back to our constitutionally protected right of free speech," he said.

Some Democrats countered that the three-page bill seemed too broad, and needed a closer look. Rep. Artis McCampbell, D-Livingston, said bills were moving too fast and that there may already be safeguards in place.

"There are remedies that are already out there," he said. "You are trying to add on another layer of bureaucracy that I am kind of worried about."

The House held the bill for consideration later.

Hubbard said that when the House returns Tuesday, it will likely take up the Healthcare Rights of Conscience Act, one of the more controversial bills on the House GOP agenda. Sponsored by Rep. Becky Nordgren, R-Gadsden, the bill would allow health care workers to opt out of providing medical services that violate the workers’ conscience. Abortion clinics are explicitly exempted from the bill, but opponents of the measure say it could affect women's access to contraception, particularly in rural areas.

The bill was initially on the House's Thursday schedule, but was pushed back. Hubbard said the bill was postponed because the House was focusing on tax-themed bills Thursday.

"It didn't quite fit," he said.

All the bills approved in the House on Thursday will move on to the Senate for a vote.

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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