Communities in Georgia that rejected raising the sales tax to pay for transportation projects could face higher costs when it comes time to resurface or repair local roads.
State lawmakers voted in 2010 to authorize the referendum and backed a provision enticing voters into approving it. Under that provision, regional districts that approved the tax increase must use their own funds to pay for 10 percent of any projects covered by the state-run Local Maintenance and Improvement Grant fund, a $110 million program that helps county governments repave or overhaul local roads. However, regions that rejected the sales tax increase must pay 30 percent of the cost when using the program, a provision that critics decry as a penalty.
The situation creates a dilemma for policymakers, some of whom have promised it will be repealed. Enforcing the so-called penalty could prove risky because raising the sales tax was unpopular with so many voters.
Under the plan, Georgia was divided into a dozen zones whose voters decided separately whether to raise the sales tax in their own districts. It passed in three districts sitting in an arc bending from Augusta in the east to Columbus in the west. In places where it passed, the referendum never got more than 54 percent of the vote.
Fayette County Commissioner Steve Brown said he wants lawmakers to remove the penalty when they gather for their annual legislative session in January. Brown said his county is so financially strapped that it laid off employees so it could afford bulletproof vests for sheriff's deputies.
"That's the insanity of this penalty," said Brown, who predicts local governments will stop or delay roadwork rather than pay more. "It's kicking the guy while he's down."
Of course, regions that approved a sales tax increase want to keep the benefit. For example, voters in eastern Georgia agreed to raise the tax so they could finish a parkway connecting Columbia County to businesses and employers in downtown Augusta and other roads to alleviate congestion around Fort Gordon.
"It was part of the legislation to be that way, and we think the government should honor it," said Ron Cross, chairman of the Columbia County Commission.
Todd Long, the deputy commissioner of Georgia's Department of Transportation, said his department is discussing how to implement the new rules with Gov. Nathan Deal's office and state lawmakers.
"Gov. Deal wants a fair process that addresses the needs of all corners of Georgia, but no matter what direction we go, the state must maintain trust with the three regions that passed" the transportation referendum, Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said.
Other politicians, particularly those taking heat from voters, have said the penalty will go. State Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, told voters this month that legislative leaders have discussed ditching it. Collins is the Republican nominee heavily favored to win a newly created congressional seat in North Georgia.
"It's going to be repealed," Collins told the crowd.