Whether the TSPLOST referendum is successful or not, regional leadership will have learned several things about the electorate come July 31. The most obvious would appear to be an aversion to new taxes in a bad economy. That’s somewhat true however most counties have recently re-upped SPLOSTs of their own without much fuss, except for Cobb. DeKalb payers know they have our 35 year old “MARTA penny” and we have a water rate increase of 33% over the next three years—but we have publically complained more about recent attempts at raising millage. No, I think the problem SPLOST backers are having with voters is more fundamental. This kind of eclectic opposition can only come from something fundamental—a cognitive dissonance with the public that the status quo has never understood.
The poorly funded “no” campaign (outspent 150:1 by the business community) may never have actually been needed because anyone paying attention can see it makes no sense, as intimated by AJC columnist Kyle Wingfield this week. It’s painful reading the convoluted justifications for this type of tax. Is it congestion relief or connecting an efficient system for the future? What the heck is the term “think regionally” beyond a buzz word to a typical commuter? Why do I need a specific project list of screwy little projects if the projects are supposed to be of “regional significance” (just say “I-285, I-75, I-85”, that’s easy enough)? Or is it all about economic development? Build it and they will come” may have been worth a shot in last century’s era of “free” dough, but it is almost impossible now that we’re squeezed with no end in sight—and “MAYBE we can build it and MAYBE they will come” is totally out of the question (we don’t know how far the sales tax revenues will go and we’re not sure about the Olympic sized dividend being promised).
This isn’t just a tax issue—project priorities are downright inexplicable (unless you understand how power bases work). The Brain Train would have been much more cost effective than the Emory light rail line from a completion time frame and cost standpoint—and it CAN be finished within TSPLOSTs round of funding. It’s no accident that DeKalb is regionally significant—it’s close to the center of the region, so you simply get more for your transportation buck here. For instance I-285 isn’t a DeKalb road—it’s a REGIONAL road. However, in what just happens to be situated in DeKalb and Clayton, the entire (most of) east side of I-285 is not solved—or even attempted—by TSPLOST. That stretch is just as badly congested as the Top End—in fact, GA 400 to I-20 (rather than stopping at I-85) should be TSPLOSTs #1 highway project. Contemplate that for a second. Almost half of the Perimeter has been left off the TSPLOST project list. That should be enough for 150,000 no votes in DeKalb and Clayton.
The TSPLOST fails I-285 because the “regional approach” does not equate to “projects of regional significance”. Rather than see I-285 as REGIONALLY significant, east side I-285 was left out because one county has already “gotten” too much and far-flung counties required a share of the regional pie, regardless of traffic volume relieved. Also, given DOTs increasing planning for transit, they have advocated for a separate dedicated funding source for group commuting for a decade. Professionals know that transit planning doesn’t mesh with relieving road congestion, either in effect or financing. DOT’s support for TSPLOST is tepid at best.
Let’s look at the penny tax itself. The extra penny is relative chump change to many households. It amounts to about $150 a year for the average household according to the ARC—equivalent to a family’s ten (now controversial) chicken sandwich meal deals. What matters is what the vote represents. The Legislature did have alternative forms of funding available to them that would not require a referendum. However those other finance mechanisms are perceived as putting their positions in jeopardy. The miscalculation is that TSPLOST may not save them anyway—particularly if it wins.
Ironically, what is solely a transportation initiative has become an education about the implications of referendums in general, particularly tax referendums “set up” by those requiring changes in the state constitution. If the referendum fails, it will run counter to recent SPLOST votes in almost all counties, so will either indicate we don’t “think regionally” or put another way, we don’t want our finances controlled beyond our legitimate jurisdictional borders (the constitutionality of a regional tax without a regional finance authority may be challenged yet). A now more educated electorate will be much more careful with government by referendum in the future (and $multi-million advocacy campaigns) in the future, much to the dismay of any lawmaker looking to hide out.
At the street level, the vote ends up being for all of the “everybody’s” who have been beaten at a zoning hearing, marginalized minorities in diaspora from the inner city, leafy activist dreamers (with no cash) disappointed while tilting at windmills--all “little guys” who are patted on the head and sent packing by their so-called representatives. For them, the momentum against TSPLOST represents wind in the sails of folks who never thought their vote against the status quo would count. It’s the go-signal to pile on. It’s just too darn easy to say no….and people can throw a dart at a board with a blindfold and find a reason.
Detractors all have their individual reasons, but the disparate band of naysayers all have one common aim—to bend their feckless leaders to their will.