Atlanta legislator blocks Decatur senior tax cut, restarts APS debate

Atlanta Republican state Rep. Beth Beskin used a parliamentary move earlier this week to block proposed homestead tax exemption to senior citizens in the city of Decatur.

It was a move that prompted an outcry from the seniors who stood to benefit, Decatur city officials and Beskin’s Democratic colleagues in the House, who accused her of meddling where she doesn’t belong.

But the freshman lawmaker also reignited her debate with Atlanta Public Schools over why seniors in the city of Atlanta don’t deserve the same tax break as their counterparts in Decatur.

Beskin’s move against Senate Bill 343 was not, she says, because she doesn’t want seniors in Decatur to enjoy a break on the taxes they pay for the city’s public schools.

“When I saw (state Sen.) Elena Parent bringing SB 343, I said: ‘That’s it. The time is right to bring the same thing,’ ” Beskin said. “I want what Decatur wants.”

The problem is that in order to introduce a bill specific to just taxes paid to Atlanta Public Schools, Beskin needs at least five Democratic House members in the Atlanta delegation to co-sponsor it. She can’t find five willing to join her.

Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers who represent Decatur are sponsoring the same thing for their city. Typically, dozens of these kinds of local bills are voted on together. Beskin used a House rule to pull Parent’s bill from such a stack so it could be voted on separately. Because Beskin does not represent any part of Decatur, her decision is considered impolite at best.

“I thought it would be very difficult for Democrats to embrace and support Senator Parent’s bill for Decatur but say they’re opposed to a senior tax exemption for Atlanta,” said Beskin, who also tried to create a senior tax break last year.

Beskin said she is not acting out of spite. In fact, she allowed four other Parent bills dealing with Decatur taxes to move forward.

The two situations, however, are not entirely analogous. Parent’s SB 343 has the support of the Decatur City Commission and the Decatur school board. Beskin does not have the support of APS, although she does have commitments from at least two Atlanta City Council members.

And that’s part of the problem, said state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur.

“Decatur has been in a two-year plan, along with a $75 million bond issue, working cooperatively, and reaching an agreement with the school board, City Council and senior groups to grant senior relief,” Oliver said. “Beth has no support in Atlanta and is only serving to punish Decatur. Of four representatives serving Decatur, three of us do not have a vote in Atlanta. It is an unprecedented overreach and against Republican principles of local control and lower taxes.”

Under Parent’s bill, any senior in Decatur would qualify for the homestead exemption, regardless of income. Atlanta already has an exemption for low-income seniors and the disabled. And that’s enough for now, Atlanta Public School spokeswoman Jill Strickland Luse said.

“Atlanta Public Schools opposes a full tax exemption for all seniors, regardless of income, within the city of Atlanta,” she said. “A full tax exemption for Atlantans over age 65 would result in the loss of $115 million in funding for our students in just the next five years alone. This would be detrimental to the students we serve and would place an unfair burden on our hardworking, nonsenior residents.”

Strickland Luse said district officials have spoken with Beskin regularly and as recently as last week.

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