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Twenty percent of state lawmakers late on taxes

ATLANTA — About a fifth of Georgia’s state lawmakers have failed to pay their taxes on time, according to a review by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The review by the newspaper found that federal, state or local governments have filed liens worth about $1.4 million in taxes, fees and interest against 16 state lawmakers and 32 representatives. A lien is a legal filing allowing government officials to seize and sell a person’s property to settle a tax debt.

The liens ranged from less than $100 to hundreds of thousands in dollars owed by the lawmakers or by businesses that they or their spouses own. Lawmakers who owed taxes blamed the problems on a bad economy, business difficulties or even bureaucratic mistakes, such as an unpaid tax bill being sent to the wrong address.

House Ethics Chairman Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, told WSB-TV that he wants to ban lawmakers who owe taxes from serving on legislative committees. He said an exception should be made for legislators who have reached an agreement with tax officials to repay overdue debts.

“Any elected official should be held to a higher standard,” Wilkinson said. “Any official who is voting on taxing citizens should be in compliance himself or herself. If you owe undisputed taxes, then you should be not allowed to serve.”

An organizer for the Georgia Tea Party Patriots, Julianne Thompson, said each case needs to be considered individually.

“I don’t think I would be comfortable saying anyone who hasn’t paid their taxes or was late shouldn’t run for office,” she said. “Mistakes happen; people are human.”

Tax problems span the chamber, affecting both Republican and Democratic lawmakers. Rep. David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, paid nearly $401,000 to the federal government for overdue taxes, interest and penalties from 1996 to 2005. He also paid roughly $33,000 in unpaid withholding and Social Security taxes for the employees of his law firm. He blamed those problems on a bookkeeper who later pleaded guilty to embezzlement.

This summer, Ralston paid $1,300 in overdue property taxes on land his wife owns. He called the late bill and oversight.

Other lawmakers who have faced liens include:

n Sen. Jack Murphy, a Republican who chairs the banking committee. He was hit with 27 liens for failing to pay taxes on Atlanta rental properties from 2007 to 2010. Murphy said he has paid the debts.

n Former Rep. Jeanette Jamieson, D-Toccoa. She pleaded guilty in June to tax evasion, was sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to pay more than $15,000 in back taxes, interest and penalties.

n Rep. Paulette Rakestraw-Braddock, R-Hiram. The U.S. Internal Revenue Service has placed a lien against the lawmaker for more than $36,000 in unpaid incomes taxes for 2006 and 2007. She said the problem happened when her direct marketing business was hurt during the recession. The lawmaker said she is negotiating a resolution with federal tax officials.

“I’ve always paid my taxes,” she said. “I started business in ‘88 and I have paid substantial taxes during that time.”