T-SPLOST Push Back: Self-Inflicted Tax Approach a Miscalculation

Detractors all have their individual reasons, but the disparate band of naysayer voters all have one common aim — to bend their feckless leaders to their will.

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. 

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Mailey McLaughlin, "The Pooch Professor" July 30, 2012 at 01:59 AM
Here's what I wish would be on the ballot on Tuesday, right below the TSPLOST: "If you voted 'no,' please choose the answer from this list that most closely explains why you voted no." Then have a list including: No new taxes! Ever! It won't help my commute The project list stinks I don't trust the government to use the money properly It won't ever end (the tax) What happens in 10 years? Too much rail Not enough rail Too much on roads Not enough on roads.... And so on. It's not going to pass. And leaders need a true reason WHY, so they can come up with better ideas.
Don Broussard July 30, 2012 at 01:19 PM
Doolittle's essay is one of the most insightful on T-Splost yet on the shortcomings of the referendum and its project list. Our region really does need more investment in transportation. But the sales tax would apply to every gallon of milk you buy at the grocery — but not to a gallon of diesel fuel bought by trucking companies that use (and clog) our highways. This tax literally gives the trucking industry a free ride on Georgia highways. To support Tom's point about the lack of regional projects, look at the $25 million project to "improve" (that means widen) North Druid Hills Road by adding a median. This project clearly meets the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" test. (Needed improvements at NoDH – Briarcliff intersection are already underway). Example two: the light rail line to Clifton Corridor / Emory. Its $700 million price tag would get light rail only as far as Emory University, a religious-affiliated institution that pays no property taxes and no sales taxes. The line would not extend to North DeKalb Medical Center which is the objective in MARTA's plan. Emory and the CDC (again, a federal facility and therefore exempt from local taxes) benefit directly from this line but pay NOTHING. Plus, according to the project fact sheet, construction would not even begin until 2020! For Clifton Corridor workers who commute from Stone Mountain / east Gwinnett and southeast DeKalb, this rail line from Lindbergh does nothing to help them. I cannot vote for this.
Aja Brooks July 30, 2012 at 03:30 PM
We can't tax truckers out of business, because of inflation and high gas prices: do you want more people to lose their jobs or not get what they want when they go to the store?
Don Broussard July 31, 2012 at 04:51 PM
@Aja, I agree with you (I had two uncles who were long haul truck drivers) but adding 3 to 5 cents per gallon will not put them out of business. Truckers and freight companies will pass on the tax to customers (us). Georgia has one of the lowest motor fuel tax rates in the country. In fact, Gov. Deal on June 28 stopped an automatic 1 cent increase that was to take effect. That makes no sense unless it was a political payoff to special interests. For transportation improvements, raise the motor fuel tax, not a sales tax.
Tom Doolittle July 31, 2012 at 08:40 PM
Hi Don: You're correct about raising the gas tax. More than that will be needed if transit is to be added to congestion relief. I'd throw some gambling revenue in there. If you had CIDs that were end-to-end, you could justify "taking" their revenue and using that for Federal match the same way they do it today for the $ they use internally...but you'd need them en-to-end to add up to something "systemic" for transit. Building the outer ring with tolls would be a great trade-off for the amount of I-285 traffic taken away. I can think of a half-dozen finance plans where each one has a specific application.The bottom line is that the Legislature should do all of these things, stop incumbering Joe and Josephine six-pack with referendums and ordinary sales taxes. An example of how creative the legislature can be when they want to: have you notice the pump in the news about the multi-modal terminal? Not a single mention of how that is planned to be financed--unbelievable since the articles were right in the middle of the SPLOST fight. So how you ask? It's a private development that will be levered with bonds. Where is that kind of thinking on "Untying Atlanta"?


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