Law and Government

Decoding Georgia’s 2018 Ballot Questions – Updated with Results

**Update Nov 7, 2018 with election night results

On November 6, 2018, Georgia voters will be asked to weigh in on 5 constitutional amendments and 2 statewide referenda. Since such ballot initiatives are often worded in a confusing manner and are often addressing complicated issues, we’ve prepared a brief guide to give voters some additional resources.

Let’s start by addressing why you’re seeing these questions in the first place. The Georgia Constitution can only be changed with the approval of voters. Bills related to certain issues, mainly taxes, require the Constitution to be amended in order to be enacted, which is why these constitutional amendments frequently appear on ballots. In addition to constitutional changes, exemptions from property tax must also be approved by the voters.

Unlike in many western states, Georgia does not allow for direct ballot initiatives – that is, voters are only given the direct opportunity to vote on changes to laws when two-thirds of the legislature approves of such initiatives. This contrasts with other systems, such as California’s, where measures can appear on the ballot once enough signatures have been gathered  – no approval needed by the legislature. This means that in Georgia, voters can look up which legislators voted to put initiatives on the ballot. Under each initiative, we’ve provided the voting breakdown.

Constitutional Amendment 1: Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund

This is perhaps the least controversial of all the initiatives on the ballot this year. A “Yes” vote would siphon off up to 80% of the sales tax collected from sporting goods stores and put those funds in an Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund. Money in the Trust Fund would then be used to protect and preserve the natural environment. No new taxes are being levied since the Amendment simply re-allocates taxes already being collected. Since many people shopping at sporting goods stores will also be using rivers, lakes, and forests for recreational purposes, it makes some sense to populate the Trust Fund with the sales tax collected at those stores.

Voting Breakdown

House Resolution 238

House, 168-1 (168 House representatives voted to put this question on the ballot while 1 voted against it)

Senate. 55-0

Election Night Results

Yes – 83%

No – 17%

Constitutional Amendment 2: Creation of Business Courts

From the least controversial to the most controversial. The traditional structure of our court system includes a lower trial court, a court of appeals, and a supreme court. On the federal level this translates into hundreds of federal district courts, 12 circuit courts of appeals, and one US Supreme Court. On the state court level, Georgia assigns a superior court for every country to act as the trial court, a court of appeals, and a supreme court. Specific issues, though, often get their own trial courts, such as probate courts and drug courts. On the federal level, bankruptcy courts only hear bankruptcy matters since those issues can often be complex.

So it isn’t unusual to carve out a new court just to hear specific matters of law as a way of efficiently and uniformly addressing particular issues. A “Yes” vote on this ballot initiative would create a separate business court system just to hear cases involving complex business matters. As opposed to federal judges who are appointed by the President, judges in Georgia’s superior, appellate, and supreme courts are elected. However, business court judges would be appointed by the governor with approval by a majority of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees. They will serve five years, but they can be re-appointed as many times as the Governor, House, and Senate like. Many other aspects of the business court are left to be determined by future laws, such as exactly what issues they will hear and what qualification are required to become a business court judge.

Creating uniformity in law is generally a good thing as it allows people to more reliably predict how their actions will be viewed legally. However, uniformity isn’t great if it consists of laws that consistently work against certain population groups. A “Yes” vote would allow business court judges to be appointed by the governor, Senate, and House. This creates the potential for the business court to consistently be comprised of judges with similar pro- or anti-business ideologies if the governship, House, and Senate are always controlled by the same party. A “No” vote would preserve the status quo: business matters are heard in superior courts with those courts having the ability to appoint special masters to oversee particularly complex cases.

Voting Breakdown

House Resolution 993

House, 120-52

Senate, 46-7

Election Night Results

Yes – 69%

No – 31%

Constitutional Amendment 3: Conservation of Forest Land

Georgia law provides certain tax benefits for property that is used to harvest timber. Georgia also issues grants to local jurisdictions to help offset the loss of tax revenue from property owners gaining the tax benefits of having land used to harvest timber. This amendment would make changes to how that land is valued and to the grants given to local jurisdictions.

Current law allows assessors to change the fair market value of the timber land every year. A “Yes” vote would only allow changes every 3 years. It would also allow the Department of Revenue to deduct a fee, up to 5%, from the assistance grants given to local jurisdictions to help offset the loss in tax revenue. That fee would be used to administer a new class of property for tax reduction purposes related to the commercial harvesting of timber. This initiative comes in the wake of a UGA study finding that Georgia’s timber land tax rates are three to six times higher than the rates of neighboring states. A “Yes” vote would further the goal of trying to reduce taxes on land used to harvest timber.

Voting Breakdown

House Resolution 51

House, 170-5

Senate, 52-1

Election Night Results

Yes – 62%

No – 38%

Constitutional Amendment 4: Extend Certain Rights to Victims of Crimes

This proposed law is modeled after laws passed in several other states, often referred to as “Marsy’s Law”. We’ll let this AJC article further explain why it has this name. Any routine viewer of traditional legal crime shows has probably witnessed the complete takeover of a criminal case by prosecutors, police, and defense attorneys. There’s less of a focus on actually figuring out what happened and a greater focus on each side winning the debate. This means that victims of alleged crimes may be left out of the picture.

A “Yes” vote on this initiative would extend the following rights to victims of alleged crimes:

  1.  reasonable and timely notice of any court procedures involving the alleged act
  2. to not be excluded from any scheduled court hearings
  3. reasonable and timely notice of the arrest, release, or escape of the accused
  4. to be heard at any scheduled court proceeding involving the release, plea, or sentencing of the accused
  5. right to be informed of his or her rights

This initiative does not give legal standing to the victim and does not require the state to provide an attorney for the victim. Meaning, they are not given the right to actually participate in the trial, assert any arguments, or appeal any decisions. Most of the rights contained in the initiative are already prescribed by Georgia law, so the initiative would simply unify those laws in the Georgia Constitution.

Voting Breakdown

Senate Resolution 146

Senate, 55-0

House, 169-0

Election Night Results

Yes – 81%

No – 19%

Constitutional Amendment 5: Allocation of Sales Tax to School Districts

A “Yes” vote would allow a county board of education, in a county that contains one or more independent school districts (aka a city school district), to call a referendum to raise a 1% sales tax for educational purposes. Current law only allows the county board of education to call a referendum to raise taxes if no independent school districts are within the county’s borders or if the independent school district concurrently calls a referendum.

Proponents of this initiative say the current law effectively allows smaller city school districts to restrict the ability of the larger county school districts to raise funds through this mechanism. A “Yes” vote would therefore make it easier for county boards of education to ask voters if they want to raise taxes because city school districts would no longer be able to block referenda for education-based tax raises.  If voters agree to raise taxes then the county and independent school districts would negotiate how the funds would be distributed, or else they would be distributed based on enrollment.

Voting Breakdown

Senate Resolution 95

Senate, 41-6

House, 128-44

Election Night Results

Yes – 71%

No – 29%

Statewide Referenda A: Atlanta Homestead Exemption

A “Yes” vote on this initiative would cap Atlanta property tax increases at 2.6% each year. Residents would be able to choose their property’s 2016, 2017, or 2018 value as the base year in determining taxes owed. Property taxes are a critical source of funding for local governments, but dramatic tax increases year-over-year can hurt lower- and middle-income homeowners.

So why is this a statewide initiative instead of a local, Atlanta-only initiative? It’s appearing on everyone’s ballot because the Atlanta delegation did not agree with this plan – so voters across the state (as opposed to those people elected by Atlanta residents or Atlanta residents themselves) will determine taxes paid by Atlanta homeowners.

Voting Breakdown

House Bill 820

House, 158-6

Senate, 55-0

Election Night Results

Yes – 57%

No – 43%

 

State Referenda B: Tax Breaks for Financiers of Housing for the Mentally Disabled

Georgia currently extends tax breaks to non-profit owners of housing for the mentally disabled. A “Yes” vote on this initiative would allow those tax breaks to exist if a business corporation obtains an indirect ownership interest in the housing for the purpose of financing the construction or renovation of such housing. A share in the tax breaks would be allowed in exchange for the financing. Once the financing obligations are met, the for-profit corporate owner must relinquish its ownership interest.

Essentially, a “Yes” vote allows for-profit companies to receive tax breaks in exchange for financing the construction or renovation of homes for the mentally disabled run by non-profits.

Voting Breakdown

House Bill 196

House, 149-3

Senate, 49-5

Election Night Results

Yes – 77%

No – 23%


 

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