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Our Views: A matter of trust
Sales tax failed because elected leaders have not addressed confidence gap
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.

Tuesday’s primary vote rejecting the transportation sales tax in the Georgia Mountains Region and eight of the 12 other areas in the state begs many questions.

We endorsed the tax as the best way to handle the kind of economic growth the area will encounter for years to come. But the arguments against it were compelling and likely swayed many voters, by a 3-to-1 margin that left no doubt.

The tax vote faced an uphill climb despite the efforts of business and political leaders statewide. Opponents resisted for many reasons: a weak economy making everyone skittish about higher taxes; concern over whether projects would ease traffic; worries over whether the tax would end in 10 years or continue into perpetuity; and uncertainty over the citizens’ review panels chosen to guide the projects.

But in the end, we may be able to summarize the T-SPLOST defeat thusly: Voters no longer trust their elected leaders.

That sounds harsh, and it doesn’t apply to all. Individually, many voters still support their elected officials. Most public servants are honest, hard-working people who want to make a difference.

But, fair or not, the excessive behavior of a handful of politicians, combined with the failure of some government bodies to lead effectively as a whole, has raised distrust in government to an all-time high.

Attribute some of this to the lingering influence of the tea party. This is not to say that all who voted against the sales tax are tea partyers; those who wear that badge proudly remain rather few in number. But they have tapped into a sentiment that goes beyond their label, the belief that government has not been responsive to the people it serves. This reaches beyond party lines with a shakeup that is only beginning.

But the state’s Republican leaders took a conservative approach by splitting the roads sales tax into 12 different regions so Georgians wouldn’t feel the state was implementing a top-down approach.

Gov. Nathan Deal obviously understood that voter mistrust of government was an issue. He tried to rebuild some credibility by announcing he would follow through on a campaign promise and close the Ga. 400 toll booths by the end of next year, some seven years ahead of schedule. Deal’s predecessor, Sonny Purdue, had refused to end the tolls as scheduled in 2011.

Credibility likely became more strained when some officials, sensing the pending T-SPLOST defeated, decided to jump on the popular bandwagon and work against the transportation tax. While Deal was consistent in his support, a number of elected officials suddenly were against it as it became obvious the plan was in trouble.

High profile politicians like Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, who had not used his legislative power to stop the proposal as it made its way through the state legislature, and had in fact voted in favor of holding the referendum, suddenly felt the need to campaign against the tax as the election neared.

It likely didn’t help that voters in this region were bombarded with media messages from Atlanta. Though in a different region with different projects, the message was the same: Vote for progress and development or turn back the clock. Though that message has merit, it likely had the opposite effect than intended. The more publicity the measure got, the more opposition hardened.

It’s not just that people resist new taxes for monetary reasons. Many believe that the only way to stop the runaway growth of government expansion is to choke off its funding. Thus, they are reluctant to give even one penny more.

As stated before, this attitude makes sense at the federal level, where Congress and presidents have run up trillion-dollar deficits on massive entitlements, overseas entanglements and do-nothing programs. But at the state and local level, governments have cut budgets drastically to deal with shrinking revenue flows. Some can’t cut much more without affecting vital services such as schools, public safety and yes, transportation. Yet they suffer the same overarching desire to keep government spending as limited as possible.

With T-SPLOST, legislators may have put the cart before the horse. Before they can convince the public to willingly pay more in taxes, they need to show good faith to regain voters’ confidence.

Here’s one way: Follow the wishes of Georgians in both parties and vote to limit lobbyists’ gifts to legislators. Voters chose overwhelmingly to do so in nonbinding poll questions on both ballots. The fact that lawmakers get free meals, trips and tickets to ballgames that the rest of us must pay for sticks in the throats of most folks.

Many legislators don’t see how that practice bothers people. Some have been in office so long they have become insulated from the people they serve. That gulf has gotten deeper and wider, and helped spawn the tea party and other anti-tax backers. And it explains why they struggle to connect with voters even when there is a valid need for more revenue.

The trust gap is the most pressing problem government faces at every level. We need our elected leaders to again understand our concerns, problems and struggles. Only then will voters feel comfortable giving them more of their money.

The transportation sales tax was a good idea, and its implementation would have benefited our region. But clearly voters weren’t ready for it. Lawmakers now must develop a downsized plan funded by existing revenue.

And before they go back to the people asking for more money, they need to make sure they have done everything possible to regain the trust of those they serve.

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