No good option for voters

No good option for voters

July 15th, 2012 in Opinion Free Press

With early voting well under way in Georgia, Peach State residents are finding themselves between the devil and the deep blue sea. They must choose whether to accept a pricey sales tax hike to fund transportation projects or face higher local taxes if they vote "no."

The transportation special purpose local option sales tax ballot question allows Georgians to decide if they want to increase funding for road maintenance and other transportation projects by levying an additional 1 percent sales tax. But it's far from being that straightforward.

The T-SPLOST scheme creates 12 regional governments throughout the state - think of them as "super counties" - that will be voting on the tax independently.

Region 1, for example, comprises a 16-county block of Northwest Georgia, including Dade, Walker, Catoosa, Whitfield and Murray counties. If a majority of the voters in the 16 counties approves T-SPLOST, then the rules of T-SPLOST will apply to every county and city in the region, with no opportunity for governments to opt out.

Any region that passes the tax would then have its transportation funds managed by a bulky new bureaucracy that spends 75 percent of taxpayers' dollars on regional transportation projects of its choosing and returns the remaining 25 percent to the counties, cities and towns where the money was collected to fund the local road maintenance.

If passed in all 12 regions, the 1 percent sales tax increase would collect well over $1 billion per year, making it the largest tax increase in Peach State history, according to the fact-checkers at PolitiFact.

So why would anyone vote for higher taxes and the creation of a new level of unaccountable, unelected government to spend millions of tax dollars?

It turns out the way the ballot measure was written, Georgia residents are in a no-win situation.

Currently, the state pays 90 percent of the cost of local road maintenance. For localities in regions that vote to accept T-SPLOST, that arrangement will remain in place. In regions that don't approve the tax, however, the state would reduce its portion of the cost of local road maintenance to 70 percent - the local government would be responsible for the remaining 30 percent - likely forcing an increase in local sales, property or other taxes to fund road repairs.

Georgia ranks 49th in transportation spending per capita, according to a report released by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. This lean spending is not a failure, especially given the reasonably adequate condition of Georgia's roads in general. Instead, it's a reflection of wise spending, responsible oversight and a lack of waste.

The advocates of T-SPLOST, however, claim that without additional transportation spending, the state's roads will fall into disrepair and "necessary" mass transit projects will go unfinished. If additional funding for infrastructure is a primary concern then, certainly, some of the hundreds of millions of dollars of wasteful, inefficient and duplicative spending crammed into the state's $19.2 billion budget could be redirected toward road maintenance.

After all, increasing taxes to fund roads means that every other dollar spent by the state is spent on something more important. If that weren't true, a tax increase wouldn't be necessary since cuts would be made to less important programs to ensure additional dollars found their way toward transportation projects.

Lawmakers didn't see it this way, however, and now Georgians are facing the possibility of a potential $1 billion per year tax increase.

If Georgia policymakers are so hellbent on increasing taxes for transportation, there are more reasonable ways to do so than by giving voters an ultimatum between a burdensome tax hike or having to face local tax increases to replace reduced state road funding.

For example, a 1 cent per gallon gas tax increase would cull roughly the same amount of revenue from the pockets of taxpayers as the amount projected to result from universal acceptance of T-SPLOST, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. The gas tax also has the benefit of being paid by the people actually using the roads that the money will go to maintain.

Unfortunately, the opportunity for rational discussions about the true necessity for additional road funding, or the benefits of a simple gas tax increase over creating a monstrous new bureaucracy, appears to be over. Georgians now have an unenviable decision to make: Either accept a steep sales tax increase and create a new unelected, unaccountable regional government, or face the prospect of local tax increases to offset reduced state assistance for road maintenance projects.

Between the two terrible choices, Georgia voters would be wise take the local option and vote against T-SPLOST. There's something to be said for having control over your own transportation projects, rather than having a regional bureaucracy decide whether the bridge over which you drive every day is worthy of repair. Plus, if your city mayor or county commissioner makes a poor decision, you can send him packing. If the unelected regional bureaucracy does something foolish, there is no recourse.

Former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill once famously said, "All politics are local." Georgians would be wise to vote to keep transportation decisions local, as well.