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Why are we voting in March, anyway?

Some question why SPLOST vote wasn’t held in November

POSTED: March 1, 2009 12:45 a.m.

Whether or not they approve the sixth round of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax on March 17, Hall County’s voters will pay.

By the time the county pays poll workers, prints ballots and pays for the delivery of voting machines to each polling location in the county, the special election will cost taxpayers approximately $45,000, according to Interim Elections Director Charlotte Sosebee-Hunter.

The March 17 vote is no different than any other sales tax vote. Most are held as special elections, which in turn, usually lead to low voter turnouts, University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock said.

But the timing of this election — only four months after voters paid for a general election — certainly has sparked criticism.

County resident Kevin Jarrard is one of those critics. Jarrard has voiced his opposition to the upcoming sales tax referendum in several letters to The Times.

It is not all sales taxes that Jarrard opposes; it’s this sales tax and its timing.

"My No. 1 argument against this particular SPLOST at this particular time is the timing of the special election," Jarrard said. "That’s the most obnoxious thing about this, in my opinion, is we had a general election in November, and if all this was such a wonderful idea, why wasn’t SPLOST VI on the ballot in November?"

The county’s assistant administrator, Phil Sutton, said the county typically holds the election for a new SPLOST on the last possible election date before the current tax expires. In the case of SPLOST VI, that date fell in March, Sutton said.

There have been suggestions that state law be changed to require SPLOST votes to occur during regularly scheduled election days, Bullock said, but such attempts have not been successful.

Although local officials have known for years that the tax would expire this year, Sutton said it took until one month after the general election in November to finalize the proposed SPLOST VI project list.

"It just took us that long to get it (the project list) together," Sutton said. "It took quite a bit of discussion amongst all the municipalities; it’s the way the schedule fell."

Finalizing the list in December gave local officials more time to "work on more community input and involvement than we would have otherwise had," Sutton said.

Yet the special election this month no doubt will have a lower participation rate than the 75.94 percent of Hall County voters who made it to the polls in November.

Because no candidates are campaigning, special elections for sales taxes usually attract relatively little attention and turnout is "substantially lower" than midterm and presidential elections, Bullock said.

"Thus the voters at a special election tend to be disproportionately individuals who support the objectives of the SPLOST," Bullock wrote in an e-mail.

When Hall County voters approved a special purpose sales tax for education in 2001, only 10.85 percent of the county’s eligible voters cast ballots, Sosebee-Hunter said.

The last SPLOST vote was held in conjunction with a presidential primary in March 2004. Also on the ballot that year was a proposal to change the Georgia state flag.

If voters were given the chance to vote for a sales tax referendum during a regularly scheduled election, there is the possibility that there would be a number of voters who knew little about the objectives of the tax who would instinctively vote against it, Bullock said.

"The fear is that these voters, not having considered the merits of funding the projects for which money is sought, would vote against the proposal for fear that it would increase the taxes they would pay on purchases made within the jurisdiction," he wrote.

Bullock’s theory is exactly why Jarrard, an Iraq War veteran, said he will vote against the tax this year.

"It cost the county $45,000 to hold a special election," Jarrard said. "In my world, $45,000 is a lot of money ... to a county commissioner, that’s chicken feed, right? ‘We’ve got a county budget of $90 million — why are we worried about $45,000?’ I can’t get past that. ...

"I extolled the virtues of Americanism and the democratic forms of government to the people of Iraq and I come home and this is what I get."



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