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No to transportation SPLOST: A new tax in a bad economy is an unwise decision

POSTED: October 16, 2011 1:00 a.m.

Next July 31, voters in Georgia will go to the polls to vote yes or no to the largest single tax increase in Georgia history.

With the state and the entire country mired in a continuing recession featuring massive residential mortgage foreclosures, unemployment in the 10 percent range and devaluation of property in excess of 30 percent, why would you vote to further reduce your disposable income?

The new tax, created by the Transportation Investment Act of 2010 or T-SPLOST, will be an additional 1 percent sales tax on retail purchases for 10 years with a 10-year renewable option. For Hall, Habersham and most surrounding counties, it will lead to an 8 percent total sales tax, if approved.

That means another $100 out of your pocket for every $10,000 you spend on food, clothing, autos, appliances, furniture, etc. There is no exemption for food in this new SPLOST; the Georgia legislature is considering removing the food exemption on the 3 percent state portion of the basic sales tax, thereby increasing your food costs further.

The purpose of T-SPLOST is to generate additional transportation revenue. The state is to be divided in 12 districts similar to the Georgia Mountains Regional Development Commission. By the end of this year, each district will have chosen transportation projects to be funded by T-SPLOST.

The counties in each district will form a voting bloc independent of other districts. The vote is not a statewide referendum. Any district can vote no to T-SPLOST if the majority of the voters in the counties of that district so decide.

However, if a district votes no, the state Department of Transportation will penalize that district with higher costs for DOT services, requiring 30 percent matching funds instead of 10 percent for the "yes" districts. In some places, this strong-arm tactic would be called intimidation.

You will be told that 100 percent of the T-SPLOST collected in your district will be returned to that district. Your local government knows that won't happen. First, the merchants retain some portion of the tax collected; second, the state keeps some portion of the collections to cover their costs of collection. As we know, local governments are constantly battling with the state over incomplete returns.

Of more concern is some of the language of 2010 HB 277, the bill that created the referendum. In the section dealing with distribution of collections, I found this in Article 48-8-240: "This article shall be construed liberally to achieve its purpose." Will this open the door for designated project funds to be used for other projects such as mass transit?

We should not be misled. The primary purpose of T-SPLOST is to enhance mass transportation to, from and around metro Atlanta, and that is where most of the new revenue will go. In the mix is the rail service around the 22-mile Atlanta Inner Beltway, a new quasi-MARTA system serving Atlanta and counties that do not collect MARTA sales taxes, and rail lines connecting Athens, Macon and Chattanooga to Atlanta. The plans are ambitious but the planners admit that 10 years of T-SPLOST collection will be insufficient for completion.

In the meantime, the disaster known as MARTA continues to deteriorate with increased rates and reduced service. Transit systems in Atlanta and San Francisco (BART) each have failed to relieve traffic congestion. In addition, these cities, as with every other major city with passenger rail transportation, have proven that mass transit cannot be sustained by passenger revenue. Taxpayers must subsidize the users.

For a rail system to be reasonably economical, population must be concentrated. The Georgia mass transit planners refuse to accept the fact that people from the outlying areas will not give up their cars.

More rail will only cost more money and not improve traffic congestion.

Selling T-SPLOST to Georgia voters is the function of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce which, it is reported, will spend more than $5 million to get you to vote yourself a tax increase. This is consistent with state and local chambers of commerce who never fail to support SPLOSTs. Be ready for a new "Just a Penny" campaign. But now it will be eight pennies per dollar, and that is serious money.

An enormous amount of time and money has been spent by state government, counties and municipalities in planning and selecting the projects for T-SPLOST. Except for the rail planning, which is unrealistic, I don't believe this effort will be wasted if the tax fails. The projects that are legitimate needs, and wants will have been identified and cost estimates prepared. As our economy repairs itself and tax collections increase, these projects will get done.

We must vote "no" to T-SPLOST. A new tax when a large portion of the population is jobless, others doing all they can do to keep their homes, and with food prices skyrocketing, is totally unreasonable.

Bruce Hallowell is a Clarkesville resident.


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