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By Eric Stirgus August 31, 2010

Thurmond claims legislation helped low-income Georgians

Michael Thurmond, Georgia's outgoing labor commissioner, calls it the most important legislation he has written.

Back in 1990, when Thurmond was a state representative, he proposed a bill to give a tax credit to Georgians with annual incomes of less than $20,000. Then-Gov. Zell Miller announced his support for the idea a year later, and it became Georgia law shortly thereafter.

Thurmond, the Democratic Party's nominee for the U.S. Senate in the Nov. 2 general election, boasted about the bill's impact on his campaign website. He is running against incumbent Johnny Isakson, a Republican, and Libertarian Party candidate Chuck Donovan.

"Thurmond authored major legislation that has provided more than $250 million in tax relief to Georgia’s senior citizens and working families," his campaign bio says.

But is that true? Did Thurmond write the legislation, and did it save Georgians that much money?

AJC PolitiFact Georgia was curious. We first called Thurmond, who was eager to talk about the statement.

Thurmond said his legislation was written to help offset the sales taxes low-income Georgians pay for groceries. Miller was part of a push in the late 1980s to remove groceries from Georgia's 4 percent sales tax. Thurmond offered his suggestion as a compromise. Miller initially opposed Thurmond's idea. But Miller eventually endorsed the plan after being told his idea was not financially viable, particularly since state finances were struggling.

Miller said he was "swallowing his pride of authorship."

The refunds in question were relatively small -- they ranged between $5 and $26. Thurmond said the refunds may seem puny to some, but he argued they were a big help to many recipients.

"For a senior citizen, that might be dinner for a week," Thurmond said of $26.

Thurmond's desire to discuss the claim stems from a successful effort earlier this year to repeal the key portion of his legislation.

State lawmakers added language to a bill on the next to last day of this year's session that ends the refunds. Gov. Sonny Perdue signed the bill on June 4.

Thurmond argues his legislation has helped senior citizens and low-income Georgians. He equates ending the refunds to a tax increase.

"I just don't believe we need to be raising taxes in the midst of a recession, particularly on low-income people," Thurmond said in an interview.

State Rep. David Knight, R-Griffin, was the lead sponsor of the effort to repeal the refunds.

"People who have paid in no income tax and have zero tax liability are in essence getting a check back," Knight told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in April about the current system. "If you pay no income taxes, how can you get a refund? How can you justify someone getting a check back from the state? That is, in its purest form, taking away from the taxpayer and giving to someone who has no tax liability. [It's] a redistribution of wealth."

Thurmond argues the sales tax has a greater proportional impact on the wallets of low-income Georgians. Sarah Beth Guhl, deputy director of the liberal-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, explained Thurmond's point in an e-mail.

"Low-income families consume more of their income, and thus pay the sales tax on a larger portion of their earnings," said Guhl, who agreed with Thurmond that a sales tax is regressive on low-income Georgians.

Thurmond admitted an error in his statement the first time we talked to him. The legislation provided about $300.3 million in tax relief over the span of 13 years, according to the most recent Georgia Department of Revenue data available. Thurmond sold himself short by about $50 million.

"It lacks the truth in a positive direction," Thurmond said in a telephone interview.

The Thurmond campaign came to the $250 million total using data available on the Revenue Department's website. The data comes from the department's annual statistical reports. The reports on the Revenue Department's Web site, however, only go back to 2000. The Revenue Department has reports that date to 1997 with annual low-income credit figures in its north DeKalb County offices.

But Thurmond's website gives him some serious wiggle room by saying "more than $250 million in tax relief." We rate his statement as True.

Our Sources

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Miller gives up on food exemption; Citing poor economy, governor opts for low-income tax credit," Feb. 26, 1991

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Senate passes measure killing refund part of low-income tax credit," April 24, 2010

E-mail and telephone interview with Georgia Budget and Policy Institute deputy director Sarah Beth Guhl, Aug. 27, 2010

Georgia Department of Revenue publications

Georgia House of Representatives, House Bill 1069

Mike Thurmond for U.S. Senate bio

Telephone interview with Mike Thurmond, Aug. 23, 2010

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Thurmond claims legislation helped low-income Georgians

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