WHAT THE BALLOT SAYS
Provides for local transportation projects to create jobs and improve roads with citizen oversight.
"Shall XXX County's transportation system and the transportation network in this region and the state be improved by providing for a 1 percent special district transportation sales and use tax for the purpose of transportation projects and programs for a period of ten years?"
Northwest Georgia regional transportation projects proposed
County // Proposed cost // Total cost // Amount covered projects by TSPLOST
Catoosa // 7 // $95.3 million // $48.5 million
Chattooga // 9 // $11.3 million // $9.8 million
Dade // 1 // $25 million // $25 million
Gordon // 7 // $74.6 million // $59.8 million
Murray // 9 // $43 million // $30 million
Walker // 10 // $34.2 million // $34.2 million
Whitfield // 16 // $139.6 million // $120.4 million
A "yes" or "no" vote on the July 31 ballot could determine whether Georgia will add a penny to the sales tax in districts across the state, ushering in billions of dollars for road work in the next decade.
Advocates say the billion-dollar question will create jobs, reduce traffic congestion and improve roads.
North Georgia counties such as Dade and Walker welcome the extra money that would come from the transportation special purpose local option sales tax, or TSPLOST, to pave roads, fix bridges and construct million-dollar corridors and interstate on-ramps.
"It's the best thing that could ever happen as far as our roads and bridges go," said Dade County Commission Chairman Ted Rumley.
But bipartisan criticism is mounting across the state, focused on two key questions:
• Is the tax — which would rake in more than $18 billion over its 10-year life — the best way to jump-start a hurting economy?
• Will the tax — which doesn't exclude food and medicine — hurt low-income families and elderly people on fixed incomes?
Voters in every county will have their say at the polls. But even if voters in one county say "no" to the new tax, they could end up paying it anyway. Counties were grouped into 12 districts for transportation planning purposes by the Transportation Investment Act of 2010, so if most of the district votes "yes," TSPLOST passes.
If the sales tax is approved, some also worry that it will redistribute money from larger counties to low-income counties.
Some lawmakers who two years ago voted for the Transportation Investment Act, which created the sales tax referendum, now openly oppose the measure.
And the tax has become a volatile topic as the primary elections grow closer.
Georgia is rated 49th in transportation spending. Most county and city road projects are funded through motor fuel tax revenue. Officials say such revenues continue to decrease because of more fuel-efficient cars, so the transportation sales tax is needed to catch up with a growing population.
After the Transportation Act passed, each district formed a commission to hash out a list of transportation improvements in each county.
In the Northwest Georgia Regional District, which covers 15 counties, officials project the sales tax will bring in about $1.4 billion, with 75 percent going to the proposed projects and 25 percent to counties and cities for other transportation-related work.
The projects include repairing bridges in Walker County, building a new ramp to Interstate 59 in Dade County and building a $50 million corridor from East Brainerd to Ringgold on Ooltewah-Ringgold Road.
With the current money from the gas tax, Walker County can pave only seven to eight miles of road a year, and a small town like Chickamauga only can afford 500 feet a year, said County Coordinator David Ashburn. But with the local share of TSPLOST, the county potentially could repave all its roads in the next 10 years, he said.
Critics don't argue that the state needs more money for roads, but some point out that many projects are only partially funded through the new sales tax and will create a greater financial burden in the long run.
"We're not anti-tax. Our point is, let's be fiscally responsible," said Claire Bartlett, spokeswoman for the Transportation Leadership Coalition, a group formed to fight the sales tax.
The Ooltewah-Ringgold Road corridor in Catoosa County is budgeted at $50 million, but only $10 million is projected to come from the sales tax, records show.
Catoosa County Commission Chairman Keith Greene said county officials haven't discussed the details on roads that aren't completely funded through the sales tax because it's too early in the game.
Others argue that the Transportation Act forces counties to promote the tax or be penalized.
Currently, counties and cities pay 10 percent of the cost of state projects funded through the state's Local Maintenance Improvement Grants. But the Transportation Act stipulates that local governments that didn't submit a project list must pay 50 percent of their projects' cost. If the TSPLOST is voted down in a district, the counties must pay 30 percent of the cost.
It's like the state said, "Here's a gun to your head, come up with the list," said Mike Babb, Whitfield County Commission chairman.
Babb, who is also chairman of the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission, once promoted the tax in forums but now opposes it. He questions whether the tax will help local economies in the long run.
HELP OR HURT
Both sides agree the economy is driving much of the debate. Those in favor of the tax say it will help the economy; those opposed challenge such claims.
Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, said criticism is based on misinformation.
"We are going to lose economic development opportunities and investments in our state without improvements to our existing infrastructure," he wrote in an email.
Mullis didn't respond to calls and emails requesting an interview on the sales tax, which he sponsored in the Senate.
Public announcements insist that the projects funded by the tax will create thousands of jobs -- more than 40,000 for the Northwest Georgia region.
Dalton Mayor David Pennington, an outspoken opponent of raising taxes, argues that the transportation tax will only hurt local business owners competing with those in Tennessee, which has a higher sales tax but no income tax.
"Those pennies make a difference when it comes to retail," he said.
Most Georgia counties are up to a 7-cent sales tax, but Whitfield County is down to a nickel after local SPLOSTs ran out or were voted down. Pennington claimed that, during the first five months of this year, Dalton's sales tax revenue increased 9.3 percent, double the state average.
But other local officials believe the extra money coming from 25 percent of the TSPLOST revenue — several hundred thousand dollars a year — could help lower taxes in the long run.
Officials may be able to reduce local transportation budgets and put that extra money toward other funds such as education and potentially lower property taxes, Rumley said.
But Babb disagreed, questioning whether the transportation tax will take away from other special purpose taxes needed for specific local projects, such as building more schools.
"There's only going to be so many pennies that the citizens are going to be willing to pass to tax themselves," Babb said.
The coalition against the sales tax also criticizes the lack of an exemption for food and medicine, which doesn't follow the state sales tax, said Bartlett.
Regardless of whether the sales tax helps or hurts the economy, one Rossville resident questions whether the preamble on the ballot that says the tax will create jobs is misleading.
"It is misleading and totally slanted to get the 'yes' votes," said Charles Wilson.
Local tea party groups have campaigned heavily against the sales tax at candidate forums, with members wearing buttons that say "No" and calling it the largest tax increase in Georgia history.
ON THE SPOT
Some candidates have been put on the spot and asked how they will vote on the referendum.
In a recent Whitfield County candidate forum, Rep. Jay Neal, R-LaFayette, was asked about his thoughts. He said he hadn't made up his mind.
Neal, who voted in favor of the final Transportation Act that passed the House of Representatives in 2010, said in a later interview he is leaning against it, but he couldn't give a reason for his decision. He said he looked at the bill as a partial compromise when it was in the Georgia Assembly.
"You rarely get everything you want in a bill," he said.
Senate GOP leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, openly has opposed the bill and was quoted by The Associated Press as saying he doesn't believe the money is going to relieve traffic congestion in Atlanta.
Whitfield County Tea Party member Ed Painter said lawmakers are feeling the heat from critics during election season, and legislators should have addressed the transportation problem head-on, without passing the responsibility on to voters. Legislators used "extortion and bribery to force us to vote on a referendum," Painter said.
Local leaders like Babb wonder what will happen if only a handful of districts pass the sales tax and how future transportation projects will be affected.
Georgia Department of Transportation officials say if the referendum doesn't pass, there is no other plan on the table that delivers the same projects.
"There is no free plan B," GDOT spokesman Mohamed Arafa said in an email. "[There] will most likely be toll roads, the very thing people are complaining about now in metro Atlanta. Do we really want this option up here in Northwest Georgia?"
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...