ATLANTA -- When you pay Georgia taxes -- whether it’s sales tax at Wal-Mart or a corporate income tax bill -- you can be sure Bonaire tax attorney Larry O’Neal played a big part in setting what you pay.
O’Neal, 66, is leaving the state Legislature after nearly 15 years, most of them spent in powerful jobs.
O’Neal, R-Bonaire, said he does not feel old, but he concedes it’s time for younger people to take charge of things, even his beloved tax policy.
“Tax policy impacts every single person in Georgia, but it’s probably the dullest thing to write about,” he said.
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Yet he enjoys working with it, saying it’s like a puzzle with many moving parts.
Houston County voters sent O’Neal to the state House of Representatives in 2001, when Georgia voters were breaking a century-old dedication to the Democratic Party that would soon turn Georgia state government red.
The flip to a Republican state turned Democrats out of powerful posts and committee chairmanships that used to come only with decades of seniority.
In 2002, when he was so new he hardly knew of people called “governor’s floor leaders” who introduce bills for the governor, then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, who also is from Houston County, named O’Neal one of his floor leaders.
Just a few years later, O’Neal became chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.
Its importance is belied by the tiny basement hearing room, formerly part of the 1889 state Capitol’s horse stable, where the committee often discussed bills that affect Georgians’ pocketbooks.
Some of his best work came through that committee, in his opinion.
“Nobody likes to pay tax. I don’t. ... I appreciate even less having to pay a fortune to comply with tax code,” he said.
One of the most important things that makes Georgia business-friendly, he said, is something few people would notice except tax folks.
It was a bill that changes how Georgia corporations are taxed on sales made in other states. The formula used to contain three variables and effectively punished companies for having employees in Georgia, he said. The Legislature changed all that.
“That was a very subtle change and one of the first things I did when I took over Ways and Means,” O’Neal said. “It had a resounding impact throughout the corporate world” and helped attract a lot of corporations to locate in Georgia.
“It’s not a big news thing, but somebody had to do that,” he said.
Some other legislative successes he mentioned are equally invisible: simplified state tax returns and the paring down of what used to be an 11-page corporate sales tax return to a five-minute process online.
In 2010, O’Neal’s GOP colleagues elected him House majority leader. That means he’s No. 3 in the House and helps prioritize and pass the party’s bills.
So why would it be a problem for Republicans to move legislation in a Republican-dominated chamber?
When asked the question, O’Neal smiled a little, and paused, somewhat amused.
There are 119 House Republicans. They’re loosely bound under the conservative philosophy, he said, but still, they all are “unique individuals.”
The cracks showed this year when O’Neal himself initially voted against a bill pushed by his party superiors to raise gas taxes.
O’Neal publicly sought a smaller tax increase, proposing a position a little closer to some of the anti-tax folks in the rank and file who wanted no increase at all.
It sounds like a minor thing, but in the choreographed world of Atlanta politics, it was a bit of a stunner. O’Neal said he always tries to do things via consensus, not in an adversarial way. He advised a similar strategy for the next majority leader.
But over and above party and specific policies, O’Neal said the job for the men and women who will work in the Capitol for the next decade will be things he and his generation could not have foreseen.
In fact, while O’Neal was talking about the future, on his last day at work in the Capitol, a man from the building maintenance department popped in and asked if he could peek in the “wine cellar.”
It’s not a real wine cellar. That’s just the nickname for the space behind a makeshift door built into O’Neal’s wall. The door opens into a shaft with a ladder leading down into a utility room shoehorned into what looks like might have been a chimney well.
When architects designed the building more than a century ago, they could not have foreseen the Internet, air conditioning, fire alarms and other things that need to go into a modern structure.
A decade of major building renovations that began in the 1990s modernized everything.
In the coming years, the challenge for the Legislature will be one of modernization, too: a modernization of laws in a world where things are increasingly intangible, virtual or electronic, O’Neal said.
He defaulted to a tax example.
He bought record albums and paid sales tax. His kids bought cassette tapes and paid sales tax.
“Now kids download off the Internet to do the same thing,” he said. So what does that do for taxes?
“Are we adapting to society, keeping up with innovation? I think that’s a constant challenge for the government, not just in tax policy,” he said.
If everything is electronic, what’s the role of a library? And how should laws apply to things like driverless cars, cyber crime and identity theft?
Legislators have started to work on some of those issues. They will continue without O’Neal.
O’Neal starts this month as a judge at Georgia’s tax tribunal, which hears disputes between the state Department of Revenue and taxpayers. It was created to allow a specialist judge to hear the rather arcane disputes.
Gov. Nathan Deal appointed O’Neal to the post after a speedy vetting from the state’s Judicial Nominating Commission.
Deal said O’Neal’s background and expertise as an attorney make him a good fit for the job.
“He certainly understands state government,” Deal said.
The remaining year of O’Neal’s legislative term will be filled in a special election this summer, on a date yet to be set.
The House GOP caucus is set to elect a new majority leader this month.
As he prepares for the next chapter in his life, O’Neal said he owes a debt of gratitude to the voters who put him in office.
“Thank you, from not only my head but from my heart for the incredible opportunity (and) honor from the folks of Middle Georgia,” he said.