CA #3 — Urging a NO vote
Encourage the conservation, sustainability, and longevity of Georgia’s
working forests through tax subclassification and grants.

Constitutional Amendment: HR-51 * HR-51-AP

Enabling Legislation: HB-85 * HB-85-AP

Does the ballot question and measure name accurately and fully reflect the effect of passage without obfuscation?

Not really. At least this name is honest that it deals with ‘working’ forests, though we consider calling a tree farm a forest, euphemistic and misleading. This measure seems more concerned with sustaining the profitability of the forest industry than with the conservation of habitat. And nowhere in either the ballot question, nor in the title assigned to this measure by the _______ Committee, is the voter advised of the adverse impact this change will have on local school funding, though the language of the change proposed to the Constitution does make concessions to that concern.

Who would benefit from the proposed change?

The Georgia Forest Industry, mostly, and large tract land-owners who would benefit from the tax concessions provided by these changes.

Who supports the passage of this measure?

The Fair Forest Tax PAC was organized to support passage. To date, they have raised $8,700 and spent $3,150 in support of passage of this change. The money comes from a small handful of tree farmers and corporations in the timber and pulp industries.

Who supports the defeat of this measure?

What is the Georgia Green Party’s recommended position?

The Georgia Green Party urges a NO vote on Constitutional Amendment #3.

98% of Georgia forests are commercial forests, producing pulp, timber and related products. A 2010 report by Georgia Tech puts Georgia tax revenues from its forest industry at $448 million annually. Adoption of #3 is likely to put a significant dent into that figure, shifting responsibility for funding state operations onto the rest of Georgia and threatening an adverse impact on school budgets across the state, particularly for its rural counties.

In the early 90’s Question #3 added the relevant Constitutional language to provide for preferential tax treatment for ‘conservation use property’. That measure included provisions permitting the state to provide grants to impacted local school districts, to account for the revenue lost to our schools by assessing land in these conservation use convenants without taxing the timber or pulp growing on the land. The rules required that land under such covenants be preserved for at least 15 years or that the land-owner pay the full weight of the taxes due if they were to harvest their tree farm any earlier.

The changes offered with this year’s #3 change those rules so that a land owner can remove land from such a covenant after only ten years, instead of the original 15 years.

These provisions of the state Constitution, Article VII, Section I, Paragraph III, subparagraph (f), were again amended in the General Election of 2008, after the Georgia Forestry Association PAC raised and spent roughly a quarter million dollars for their YES-on-1 campaign, including $30,000 contributed by Montana based Plum Creek, Georgia’s largest land-owner which is a part of the Nebraska based Weyerhaeuser Company, which owns 13 million acres nation-wide. Now economic interests in the timber and pulp industries are again seeking changes to these provisions.

The 2018 changes now requiring approval of the voters include provisions to permit the Revenue Commissioner to receive up to 5% of the assistance grants created to offset the adverse fiscal impact on our local schools, to cover the cost of state administration of the program. HB-85, which provides enabling legislation sets the amount due the Department of Revenue at 3%, initially.

Although our research has not identified any specific beneficiary by name, this year’s changes include a curious provision which seems narrowly drawn to extend the benefits of these tax advantages to one or perhaprs a small number of land owning tree farmers.

And the key feature acknowledged in the ballot question adds a new subparagraph (f.1) to permit a distinct formula for the valuation and taxation of ‘qualified timberland property’. Such property would not be subject to the conservation covenants of subparagraph (f), but would nonetheless enjoy tax benefits which would shift the burden from large private land holdings to the working people of Georgia with further adverse impacts on local school districts.

The enabling legislation which becomes effective should the voters approve the ratification of the underlying constitutional provisions which authorize it, HB-85, adds new additional tax examptions so that ‘conservation use property’ and ‘qualified timber property’ would be assessed and taxed at 40% of its fair market value, rather than its full market value, as provided by current law. This preferential tax treatment is in addition to the exclusion of the value of the timber subject to covenant under the ‘conservation use property’ provisions adopted in 1992.

The HB-85 enabling legislation permits lands to be fragmented and subject to multiple convenants, although originally this legislation would only extend these tax benefits to tracts of 200 or more contiguous acres protected for at least 15 years by a single covenant.

‘Qualified timber property’ is required to consist of at least 50 contiguous acres. Thinning and timber sales are permitted uses for such tax exempt land, and no covenants are required as for ‘forest land conservation use’ designation, although both classes of property will benefit from the same cap at 40% of fair market value for tax purposes.