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Economy may make voters think twice about approving sales tax

POSTED: March 16, 2009 9:50 p.m.

In a down economy, voters, like consumers who are choosing to spend less, could say "no" to six more years of a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, but one economic expert said retirees could help it pass.

Voters in several counties across Georgia, including Hall, will be voting today on SPLOST referendums.

Neither the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government nor the Association County Commissioners of Georgia have done research on the success rate of a sales tax referendum during a recession.

But Jeff Humphreys, UGA’s director of economic forecasting, said getting voters to say "yes" to a 1 percent sales tax at the polls today could prove difficult.

He said the vote for another SPLOST comes at a bad time — the worst since the Great Depression.

"People are already under a lot of financial stress right now, and they’re unlikely to put additional stress on their household budgets," Humphreys said. "...This is probably the worst time since the 1930s to try to get a SPLOST referendum passed by the voters."

Special elections traditionally attract few voters, but those who do vote will be more aware and interested in the item on the ballot, political scientist Charles Bullock said.

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

The likelihood that voter turnout will be low today and that many of the voters who make it to the polls will be older could work in favor of the SPLOST.

Retirees are less affected by the recession than people who are still in the work force, Humphreys said, and as a result, may be more likely to vote in favor of a sales tax. Although retirees also may have seen their wealth dwindle this year, social security payments are up and many retirees live on defined benefit pension plans, Humphreys said.

"Some of those plans might go bust, and certainly they might have seen some of their wealth eroded, but they haven’t lost jobs, so to speak," Humphreys said. "So in many respects, retirees are less affected and therefore perhaps more likely to vote for a continuation of the SPLOST."

Today’s vote is for a continuation of a 1 percent tax that Hall County voters have renewed numerous times to help governments pay for infrastructure.

Still, if today’s voters are anything like the consumers, who are reportedly saving more money than they have in a decade, they might take advantage of the opportunity to pay 1 percent less, Humphreys said.

"Right now, it’s just every penny counts," Humphreys said.



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