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Our Views: Rocky road ahead for new sales tax

Regional transportation SPLOST vote is already a politically charged issue for 2012

POSTED: September 18, 2011 1:00 a.m.

Area residents have been hearing a lot about the special purpose local option sales tax for transportation in recent weeks. In the months to come, they are going to be hearing a whole lot more.

The 1 percent tax proposed by the state to be implemented on a regional basis is such a departure from anything done before in Georgia that it needs a lot of explanation. Given the current economic and anti-tax environment, those promoting the idea have major hurdles to navigate in drumming up support.

A series of public hearings throughout the region that includes Hall and other counties is now under way. Officials were on hand in Flowery Branch last week to answer questions and gather public input, with additional hearings planned this week in Toccoa and Cumming. The public hearings are part of a long process that will result in the adoption Oct. 15 of a final list of proposed T-SPLOST.

The transportation tax is novel in Georgia for a couple of reasons. It establishes a mechanism whereby a tax for funding of major transportation projects can be approved on a regional basis, so that some parts of Georgia could participate in the program while others do not. That's a major departure from traditional transportation funding, which has relied on statewide collection of a fuel tax to support financing of projects everywhere.

Northeast Georgia alone is expected to net $1.26 billion during the 10-year life of the tax, if it passes.

Because of the need for approval of a regional project list, the T-SPLOST is also a very political concept. It requires officials in various city and county governments to work together on prioritizing projects that impact constituencies other than their own. For the first time, voters in one county will be asked to cast a ballot that impacts transportation projects on a regional basis, rather than at the local or state level.

The stakes in next year's T-SPLOST vote are tremendously high. If approved by all 12 of the regions in Georgia, the tax could generate an estimated $1.4 billion a year for transportation in Georgia.

That there is a need for a focused investment in transportation infrastructure in the state is undeniable. While at the conceptual level transportation involves much more than just road building, in reality road construction and repair is where the greatest need exists for most of Georgia.

It wasn't so long ago that visitors entering Georgia from surrounding states could readily recognize an improvement in the quality of the roads on which they traveled. That isn't necessarily the case anymore.

The state's growth over the past three decades has resulted in demand that has outpaced the ability of existing funding mechanisms to keep up. The current economic downturn has exacerbated what already was a serious problem with transportation funding. The T-SPLOST is the huge gamble state officials are taking in their efforts to find new money.

As of now the T-SPLOST vote is scheduled for next July, when Georgia holds its primary elections. An effort to move the referendum to next year's general election in November was aborted in the recently concluded special section of the state legislature, but may well resurface when the General Assembly convenes in January.

Advocates of the move say the general election will result in more voters letting their voices be heard on the issue; cynically opponents point out that primary elections in Georgia are usually dominated by Republican voters, who are more likely to be anti-tax, and that shifting the vote to November would be done to improve chances of passage.

By the time we actually go to the polls, T-SPLOST will have become a highly charged political issue, regardless of its importance to the state's transportation future. The lines already are being drawn, even though the final project lists are not yet complete.

Tea partiers around the state are pushing for defeat of the transportation tax; the state's Chamber of Commerce is trying to drum up support for passage within the business community.

It seems obvious that before Georgians can cast an intelligent vote on T-SPLOST, a lot of work is going to have to be done to educate residents on the issues. There's a big learning curve on something this new and different.

What's truly problematic is that a number of state officials who have advocated for the regional sales tax as a funding mechanism for infrastructure have openly admitted there is no "Plan B," for the state, at least not now. All the eggs are sitting in the T-SPLOST basket, and if the year-plus effort to win voter support fails, it's back to the drawing board with very few crayons available.

Given the T-SPLOST's unique regional voting concept, it's also possible there will be a mixed bag of results. Imagine, for example, rural regions approving the transportation tax while it fails in the metro Atlanta region. What do state officials do then?

We suggest voters do everything they can to become educated about the sales tax before next year's referendum, regardless of whether it is held in July or November. As some officials already have noted, if passed by all of Georgia's regions, T-SPLOST has the potential to be the largest tax increase in the state's history. It also has the potential to provide desperately needed funding for infrastructure needs that affect the well being and quality of life of every resident of the state.

In the months to come, T-SPLOST may become the most overused of all state government acronyms. The stakes are high, the dollars involved are huge and the decision to be made next year one that will define how the state moves into the future.



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