Grocery tax, HOPE debated as lawmakers return to capitol

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ATLANTA,None - Georgia lawmakers opened the 2012 legislative session with a focus on jobs and a hotly contested proposal to add sales tax to groceries.

Committee members met on Monday, working to decide what bills will make it to the floor for a debate and potentially a vote.

Republicans and Democrats alike are focused on job creation as Georgia’s unemployment rate lingers above the national average, but one thing they differ on is tax reform.

House speaker David Ralston said he favors an overall state sales tax rather than an income tax. Ralston told Channel 2 political reporter Lori Geary that nothing is off the table, including putting a sales tax back on groceries.

“I also don’t think you can look at that question in isolation. We need to look at making our tax code here in Georgia the most competitive, the most pro-job growth, that we possibly can,” Ralston said.

"The current conversation that talks about putting the tax back on groceries is a non-starter. I think that the shift from an income tax to a consumption tax is essentially saying we want to tax living," minority leader State Rep. Stacey Abrams told Geary.

Geary reported other discussion inside the capitol included expanding the lottery to video terminals in order to raise more money to fund the HOPE scholarship and pre-K programs.

"It needs to be a big discussion. A statewide discussion among a lot of stakeholders," said Georgia Lottery CEO Margret DeFrancisco. DeFrancisco told Geary that even though the seven-member lottery board has the authority to start video gaming on its own they want state lawmakers to make the ultimate decision.

DeFrancisco told lawmakers on Monday that the Georgia Lottery sold $3 billion in tickets last year, but that's not enough to keep pace with the HOPE scholarship. Lottery officials told a stunned room that if they don't start bringing in at least $100 million a year by 2014 the HOPE scholarship could be reduced to pay only 75 percent of a student's tuition. In 2016, that amount would drop to 50 percent. It's unsure if that gap would be filled completely by video lottery terminals.

"I wouldn't say I would categorically favor it but I certainly wouldn't rule it out," Ralston said.