Georgia Senate members take the oath of office on the first day of the 2021 legislative session on Jan. 11, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Georgia senators advanced a bill Wednesday aimed at auditing up to five tax credit programs each year in a bid to curb wasteful loopholes in the state’s tax structure.

The bill, introduced by state Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, would appoint outside auditors to scrutinize the chosen tax programs on request from certain General Assembly committee heads. It passed the state Senate last February but was sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is a great opportunity for us to look at [tax credits] that are performing well … and others that may need to be tweaked or changed,” Albers told the state Senate Finance Committee Wednesday.

The revived audit bill comes as the committee looks to possibly clamp down on lucrative tax credits and exemptions in Georgia that supporters say attract economic activity and opponents argue diminishes the state’s already-tight revenues.

State Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, an anesthetist who has chaired the Finance Committee since mid-2019, has set his sights on taxes like the state’s tobacco levy to give lawmakers an alternative for drumming up new revenue instead of cutting spending during tough economic times.

Hufstetler said Wednesday lawmakers plan to propose a two-year study focusing on areas to trim the fat on Georgia’s entire $9.5 billion tax-incentive structure. Georgia’s tax incentives were last examined in a 2017 study.

“I think it’s time we take a look at it again,” Hufstetler said at Wednesday’s committee meeting.

Last year, lawmakers passed a tax on online retailers like Google and Amazon that has netted the state millions of dollars in additional revenue. But they rejected any changes to Georgia’s $4.5 billion tax break for films, which has been a boon to the state’s film industry but a thorn for fiscal hawks.

Renewed discussions over tax breaks come as the General Assembly grapples with state government budgets for 2021-22 that have been hit hard by the COVID-19 economic downturn. State tax revenues have picked up since summer, prompting Gov. Brian Kemp to avoid ordering more budget cuts.

Lawmakers like Hufstetler and analysts from the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute have called for increasing the state’s tax on tobacco from 37 cents a pack up to the national average of $1.81. That could raise up to $700 million in revenues per year, according to state budget estimates.

Kemp and other top Republican leaders have not yet said where they stand on raising the tobacco tax in the 2021 legislative session that kicked off earlier this month.

This story was updated to state the correct national tobacco-tax average of $1.81 per pack, not $1.35 as originally reported.