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Georgia editorial roundup

Associated Press Updated: February 11, 2015 at 3:04 pm

Recent editorials from Georgia newspapers:

Feb. 9

Morning News, Savannah, Georgia, on historic tax credit bill:

How far should Georgia's state government go in using the tax code to pick winners and losers?

That question is at the heart of a debate that's emerging in Atlanta. State lawmakers from Savannah are apparently pushing statewide legislation, expected to be introduced this week, that would eliminate Georgia's existing cap on state income tax credits for developers who rehabilitate historic property.

It's a debate worth having.

Savannah is known far and wide for its success in historic preservation, a main driver of Savannah's robust tourism economy. And while tax policies may sound dry and boring, they affect the lifeblood of the economy.

It's noteworthy that Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, is behind this measure. He chairs the committee in the House where bills that affect economic development generally spring.

The specific property prompting this bill is the decommissioned power plant on West River Street. Hotelier Richard Kessler sees this distinctive, century-old, brick structure as the centerpiece of a five-building, $235 million hotel project, which would go on a relatively undeveloped part of the riverfront and create an estimated 700 to 800 jobs.

Current state law on historic tax credits allows developers to recover 25 percent of the cost of rehabbing historic property, up to $300,000. Twenty other states have similar provisions. Some cap the maximum tax break, ranging from a skimpy $50,000 to a generous $5 million. Fifteen have no caps at all.

If lawmakers vote to remove the cap, Kessler would reap an estimated $10 million tax break from his investment— a net $9.7 million increase over $300,000.

Coincidentally, Kessler paid $9 million for the riverfront property when he bought it on Jan. 1, 2013. Two months later, he laid out impressive plans to redevelop the site.

Given his sterling reputation as the developer of The Mansion and Bohemian hotels, he quickly gained public support, convincing City Council to grant a variance on the new buildings' heights and to build a $14 million extension of the river walk.

But nothing was mentioned publicly two years about the need to change the rules of the game to help complete Kessler's project. Why now?

"Those tax credits are crucial," said Mark Kessler, president and COO of the development company behind this project. "Three-hundred thousand is not an incentive to do anything."

It's true that 300k isn't much of a carrot to someone spending $235 million. But if scrapping the tax credit is crucial to the success of the Kessler project, why is the bill just going before the Georgia Legislature now, two years after hotel plans were first proposed? That seems backward.

That said, there's much to like about incentivizing projects that create good-paying jobs. Tax breaks work. Those who insist that government must always take a hands-off approach to tax breaks should consider one example: Savannah-based Gulfstream.

Two years ago, state lawmakers approved an extension of the sales-tax exemption on parts used to repair airplanes. It's a powerful incentive for owners of corporate aircraft, who can afford to fly anywhere, to do their preventive maintenance in the city and state where their planes are manufactured. This tax break helps keep thousands of well-paid, skilled blue-collar jobs here at home.

Preservation groups, including the Historic Savannah Foundation, are right to see tax credits as a way to save buildings with historic value from the wrecking ball. But at this point, this bill needs more work. Supporters suggest that Georgia may be losing by capping these credits. How? What about raising the existing cap instead of scrapping it?

One early version of the proposed bill is a non-starter: Tying elimination of the cap to freezing property values for tax purposes. Such a move unfairly robs local governments of revenue they count on. There's no legitimate reason to hamstring them.

The bigger question for the Georgia Legislature is whether the benefits from eliminating the $300,000 cap outweigh the hit to the state's treasury. It could be particularly hard sell this year, given the need to plug a $1 billion hole in Georgia's road-building budget.

Lawmakers should remain open-minded. They don't need a study to learn what historic preservation means. They just need to visit Savannah, where this process is proven winner.



Feb. 8

The Times, Gainesville, Georgia, on children safety:

"Safety first" was taught to a generation of children in eras past, and remains a top priority for parents, schools and society. Back in the day, children cowered under their desks to prepare for nuclear attack; today, they hunker down in hallways braced for tornadoes.

Yet today's kids face threats never imagined, from inside and out, as seen in recent headlines. And how we react to them is telling.

Wednesday evening, Gainesville High school informed law enforcement officials about an undisclosed threat written on a bathroom wall. As a result, officials swept the school for dangers and made students check in the next day under tighter security measures. That is standard procedure, and local officials handled it well. The key is to take such dangers seriously when warranted, keep everyone calm and respond properly without overreacting.

This doesn't seem to have been in the recent case in Upson County when an autistic fourth-grader admitted to scrawling "bone thrat" on a bathroom wall and was charged with terroristic threats. That's similar to the case of the Baltimore-area second-grader suspended for chewing his Pop Tart into the shape of a gun. Common sense tells us Pop Tarts can't shoot, and 9-year-olds who can't spell "bomb" aren't able to make one.

Author and columnist Lenore Skenazy, the "free-range kid" advocate, has compiled a list of "Top 10 zero tolerance follies" like this. She says officials play a disaster movie in their heads when such threats are found, fantasy overcoming reality.

Such imagined dangers seem to be everywhere. The Atlanta downtown connector recently was shut down for two hours so SWAT teams could detonate a suspicious device that turned out to be a camera placed by a Georgia State student as part of an art project. Before 2001, a plastic pipe taped to an overpass would have been taken down, inspected and discarded. This time, thousands were inconvenienced and the student faced possible charges.

It seems silly, but if we put ourselves in officials' shoes, we can understand their dilemma. School and law enforcement leaders must walk a fine line in a post-9/11 era of heightened awareness. Enough incidents have resulted in violence to justify not shrugging them all off. Better to face ridicule than tragedy and err on the side of caution.

And yet, amid these benign threats lurks a real one much more dangerous to children. All of a sudden, measles are back on the march, more than 100 cases confirmed nationwide, after a growing number of parents declined to have their children inoculated.

Those from the "duck and cover" cold war era remember when the trinity of childhood diseases — mumps, measles and chickenpox — were a common rite of passage. Over the years, vaccines helped make them rare and eradicate the lifelong health dangers they can pose.

Yet some parents believe childhood immunizations can carry dangerous side effects, among them fears they lead to autism, a claim refuted by most medical experts. But like school officials who default to the worst-case scenarios over threats written on a wall, some parents see measles shots as a greater danger than the virus they target.

This clash opens a debate between the need for public safety and protection of individual rights. Two potential presidential candidates, Chris Christie and Rand Paul, already have been chastised for suggesting parents should be free to exercise such choice.

It's clear the danger to public health posed by measles should trump fear of the vaccines based on little more than anecdotal evidence of their ill effects. Parents should choose to immunize their kids, for their sake and others. And public school districts should require such shots if children are to be enrolled.

Yet we also shouldn't blithely dismiss parents' freedom to make decisions about their kids' health. Everyone wants what is best for children, but that traditionally has been the role of parents, not government, to make that call. Parents who feel strongly about avoiding vaccines should accept the consequences and home-school their kids while keeping them away from others, out of common courtesy. Those who choose to vaccinate but stagger the schedule of shots to minimize the side effects should be allowed to do so within reason.

Whenever an overriding public concern trumps individual freedom, it should be thought through carefully. Otherwise, our society may become one in which such liberties are too easily swept aside for the "good of the state."

In the big picture, we should ask: What are we frightened of? Which is a bigger threat: terrorism and the horrors of random violence, or the more insidious danger posed by untreated diseases?

In H.G. Wells' science fiction classic "War of the Worlds," the Martians who invade earth are "slain, after all man's devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth" — bacteria that kill them slowly from within. Perhaps there's a lesson there. It's likely not a pipe bomb on an overpass that will kill us but a deadly virus that can resist "man's devices" delivered by a syringe.

We can't keep children safe all the time, as certain politicians have promised. Life involves risk. All we can do is be a little wiser to address the real threats we face to keep future generations safe and healthy.



Feb. 10

The Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle on state's DUI law:

Rep. Earnest Smith's heart is in the right place. But the Augusta Democrat's bill in the General Assembly about DUIs misses the mark.

House Bill 42 would require all convicted first-time DUI offenders to serve at least 72 hours in jail. "Three days in jail is corrective," Smith said.

The existing law sounds pretty corrective as-is. Here's what convicted DUI first-offenders can face in Georgia now: a $300-$1,000 fine; 40 hours' community service; up to 10 days in jail; 12 months' probation, minus any jail time; a one-year license suspension; DUI school; and a string of work-permit limitations. Offenders get a mandatory 24 hours in jail anyway if their blood-alcohol level is at least .08.

Also, your auto insurance skyrockets. Add up all the costs and a DUI can cost an offender thousands of dollars.

Every DUI case is different. Harsher circumstances — if a fatality is involved, for example — will draw appropriately harsher penalties. And feel free to throw the book at willful repeat offenders.

But Georgia's DUI law, as is stands for first-offenders, is a stern enough deterrent that doesn't need to be tweaked.


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