ATLANTA – Lawmakers will consider offering $200 million in tax credits for timber and pecan farmers who saw wide swaths of trees toppled in just hours as Hurricane Michael blew through last month.
But some lawmakers have asked: Is it enough? Timber and pecan farmers alone took a $1.3 billion hit. Overall, the blow to the state’s agriculture industry was about $2.5 billion.
Chris Riley, the governor’s chief of staff, called the proposed income tax credit program a “drop in the bucket” when looking at the losses. But it’s what the state can afford, he said.
Riley said the state’s financial analysts recommended not dipping into the state’s $2.5 billion reserves for agricultural disaster assistance when there is “headroom” in the budget to cover it, referring to extra revenue that has come in so far this year.
Gov. Nathan Deal has also recommended adding about $270 million to the state’s budget, including $55 million in disaster assistance for farmers and $20 million to clean up forestlands.
He has also recommended funds to aid local governments, many of them with small budgets and meager reserves. The federal government is expected to reimburse the state later.
“This is dealing with it, in some respects, in a conservative way and a way that we can afford to do it,” Deal told lawmakers Wednesday.
“Now, obviously, we cannot pay for all of the losses, nor should we be expected to pay for all of the losses at the state level,” Deal added. “But we do think that we can afford to do this.”
The powerful storm damaged about 2.4 million acres of forestland in storm-torn southwest Georgia, with Seminole, Miller and Decatur counties seeing the worst destruction.
Landowners are struggling to even salvage the damaged timber, which is enough to fill 1.4 million log truckloads.
State lawmakers hope the aid will encourage growers in two key agricultural industries in Georgia to replant the trees that have helped the state to lead the nation in pecan production and forestland.
“A lot of people have lost 40 years of investment,” Andres Villegas, president and CEO of the Georgia Forestry Association said. “Folks are looking for some kind of sign of hope.”
The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Trey Rhodes, R-Greensboro, who is the governor’s floor leader, is advancing quickly through a five-day special session called to dispatch emergency disaster aid to southwest Georgia.
It passed out of a House committee Wednesday, just two days into the special session, and is set to go to the House floor for a vote Thursday.
The measure would require farmers to replant trees in the county where the losses occurred, with the program limited to the two dozen or so counties in Deal’s emergency declaration.
The aid would be capped at $400 per acre. Budget analysts expect most of the tax credit – called the reforestration credit – to be claimed in the first few years of the program.
The money will be distributed over the total number of applicants, as opposed to divvying the tax credits out on a first-come, first serve basis. That’s a move meant to help those who have trouble finding seedlings.
“Life down there has just stopped,” said Penny Houston, R-Nashville, who has a farm in southwest Georgia. “We’ve got to remember our neighbors and how they’re suffering.”
Rep. Clay Pirkle, R-Ashburn, said the heartache is still fresh for south Georgians.
“People are walking around like they’re zombies. They’re just trying to put one foot in front of the other,” Pirkle said. “You don’t see them up at the Capitol. They’re not raising sand or anything, because they’re climbing out of the bunker. It’s just complete and total devastation in that part of the state.”