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By Eric Stirgus July 9, 2010

Barnes now opposes some of the business tax breaks that he once supported

Former Gov. Roy Barnes has offered a few mea culpas this year as he tries to get his old job back.

One key area in which Barnes has changed course is special-interest tax breaks for various businesses. As a member of the Georgia Legislature and later as governor, Barnes supported more than two dozen exemptions, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story by staff writer James Salzer that ran in Sunday's newspaper.

Now, Barnes has said in recent campaign speeches that many of these exemptions should be scrapped.

"When I was in the Legislature, I voted for all of them. When I was governor, I signed them," said Barnes, who was governor from 1999 to 2003. "We all have sinned and fallen short of the Lord. But when you tell everybody the choices are between all of these exemptions and keeping teachers in the classroom, I believe the teachers win, the children win."

Has the former governor flip-flopped on this issue? We wanted to take a closer look.

A little state political history here. Barnes did two stints in the state Legislature, from 1974 to 1990 and from 1992 to 1998. In 1998, he was elected the state's 80th governor.

But despite vastly superior funding Barnes lost a re-election bid in 2002 to an underdog, a former state senator named Sonny Perdue. Barnes had angered supporters of the old Georgia state flag, which he changed to minimize its Confederate emblem. And then he ran afoul of some state residents because of what they perceived as heavy-handed tactics when new political boundaries were drawn during redistricting.

Some political observers, however, believe Barnes' real roadblock in the 2002 defeat was the state's 125,000 public school teachers. As governor, Barnes angered many of those educators with his ambitous school reforms. Many educators felt Barnes blamed them for low test scores, poor graduation rates and other failings.

The former governor is now heading into the July 20 Democratic primary trying to win back those teacher votes. In June, Barnes took the extraordinary step of filming a 90-second video apologizing to Georgia's teachers for not listening enough to them when he attempted to implement some of his education reforms.

Now, he is promising to remove some of the very same tax exemptions for business that he supported as a state lawmaker and governor to help teachers.

As governor, Barnes approved tax exemptions on the sale of solar panels, a corporate tax credit for a Macon-based tobacco manufacturing plant and Girl Scout cookies. Jeffrey Humphreys, a prominent economist, said most states offer tax breaks and exemptions for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it's done as a deliberate strategy to help some industries grow. Sometimes it's done to lower the consumer costs on some items. Humphreys said it's often done to be competitive with other states.

"They don't want to be out of step with other states competing for jobs," said Humphreys, director of the University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth.

Humphreys believes revenue collections are more stable with fewer exemptions.

Sarah Beth Gehl, deputy director of the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, said some exemptions are worthwhile, but others are "purely political giveaways." She agrees many of them should be re-examined.

Barnes explained that some of the exemptions have hurt funding for education. The exemptions Barnes voted for and signed as governor cost Georgia, and saved the recipients, at least $1.2 billion a year, state fiscal notes show. School boards across Georgia have slashed their budgets -- and jobs, in some cases -- in recent months to balance their financial books. One problem many of them have cited is receiving less money from the state.

Barnes has said he wouldn't touch some of the larger breaks, such as the tax exemptions on the sale of many groceries and prescription drugs. As governor he'd like the authority to suspend or eliminate others, until there is more funding for education. A new commission was recently created that could make changes to some of these tax breaks and exemptions. Humphreys is on the commission.

We asked the Barnes camp which exemptions it would cut. It didn't offer specifics, focusing on exemptions approved under the Perdue administration.

"All the special interest income and sales tax exemptions passed over the past several years need to be put on the table for temporary suspension," Barnes campaign manager Chris Carpenter said in an e-mail.

Carpenter argued this is not a political flip-flop. Carpenter said state government is currently in a tougher financial pinch than when Barnes was governor. The exemptions approved under the Barnes administration never resulted in drastic actions, such as teacher furloughs, Carpenter said. Perdue, however, found the state's finances were in worse shape than previously thought when he succeeded Barnes in 2003.

Yes, Barnes has changed his position on some exemptions. But Barnes still believes some of the breaks -- and some very large ones -- should stay in place. Because of that, Barnes sidestepped a full Flip Flop on the Truth-o-Meter. He gets a Half-Flip.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Teacher vote at center of race," June 20, 2010

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Barnes reverses on tax breaks," July 4, 2010

Roy Barnes campaign video, June 8, 2010

E-mail from Barnes campaign manager Chris Carpenter, July 7, 2010

Telephone interview with Sarah Beth Gehl, July 8, 2010

Telephone interview with Jeffrey Humphreys, July 8, 2010

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Barnes now opposes some of the business tax breaks that he once supported

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