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Crawford: Regional roads tax could face an uphill ride
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We are little more than a month from the July 31 election when voters decide whether to impose a 1 percent transportation sales tax for highway improvements and related transportation needs.

How does the road ahead look for this special tax? Right now, it appears that the T-SPLOST ballot issue could be headed for a three-car smashup that leaves everybody broken and bleeding.

In an independent poll of metro Atlanta voters conducted recently for an Atlanta TV station, support for the transportation tax was only 32 percent. Opponents of the T-SPLOST issue, on the other hand, clocked in at 47 percent.

Keep in mind that those numbers were registered in metro Atlanta, the region where traffic congestion is heaviest and it was thought voters would be most agreeable to paying a higher sales tax for highway and transit system upgrades.

I haven’t seen similar polls in the 11 regions outside Atlanta where T-SPLOST will be on the ballot, but if you monitor newspapers around the state, they don’t offer many reasons to feel optimistic.

You’ll see coverage of citizen groups in numerous counties that have formed to organize opposition to the highway tax: a Houston County group headed by a former county commission chairman, a Transportation Leadership Coalition in West Georgia, the Bartow Tea Party and the Cherokee County Tea Party Patriots.

The Newnan Times-Herald’s editorial page observed: “Even some strong supporters of past SPLOST votes — namely the Newnan-Coweta Chamber of Commerce — have stated a neutral position on T-SPLOST. Some Chamber members support it, some do not. The Chamber board voted unanimously to remain neutral on T-SPLOST ... We suspect T-SPLOST is doomed in Coweta and the Three Rivers region.”

Although there have been many fundraisers attended by Gov. Nathan Deal and business leaders to drum up financial backing for the T-SPLOST campaign, I don’t see a similar groundswell of popular support among everyday citizens. At times, it appears the only ones speaking up for the tax are the political consultants and PR flacks who are getting paid to do so.

When you are proposing one of the biggest tax increases in Georgia history, a new tax that will generate $18 billion over the next decade, you need a lot of public enthusiasm to overcome the natural resistance people have to paying higher taxes. At this point, I don’t see that kind of support.

One of the major reasons cited for the hostility toward T-SPLOST is that voters simply do not trust elected officials to spend the money on the list of transportation projects that was worked out in advance. They especially don’t trust their representatives to stop charging the sales tax when the 10-year period of T-SPLOST authorization expires.

I am sympathetic to those feelings, because I remember all too well the events of Sept. 24, 2010. That was when then-Gov. Sonny Perdue quietly arranged for a meeting of the State Road and Tollway Authority to consider the tolls being charged for access to Ga. 400.

State officials had promised 20 years earlier that the tolls would be terminated after the bonds issued to build Georgia 400 had been paid off. That expiration date was approaching, but Perdue took it upon himself to decide that the tolls would be extended for another 10 years so that the state could float new bonds to finance additional projects in the Ga. 400 corridor.

Without holding public hearings or consulting with the taxpayers who lived in the toll road area, Perdue held a quick meeting of the Tollway Authority in his office and rammed through a 10-year extension of the tolls.

When a newspaper reporter asked him about the fact that promises made more than 20 years ago had been broken, Perdue laughed in her face. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more brazen display of arrogance by an elected official in all the years I’ve written about Georgia politics.

If voters are suspicious that T-SPLOST money won’t be honestly spent, they have good reason to feel that way.

There are several weeks to go before we reach July 31. It could well be that a majority of the voters in Atlanta and elsewhere will decide to pass the transportation tax. If they do, that’s fine. If they don’t, I’ll understand why.

Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report at gareport.com whose column appears Wednesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.

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