The Union Recorder

July 30, 2012

Some not so receptive to T-SPLOST potential

Kyle Collins
The Union-Recorder

MILLEDGEVILLE — As the 12 divided Georgia regions prepare for the July 31 general primary vote on the T-SPLOST referendum, some see the 1-cent regional sales tax as inconsistent with the state constitution and not in the best interest of Baldwin County.

If approved, the referendum authorized by the Transportation Investment Act of 2010, would raise more than $876 million in the 11-county Middle Georgia Region and create nearly 24,000 jobs in its 10-year life, according to estimates. While 75 percent of the tax funds would be allocated to five approved Baldwin projects, the other falls under discretionary use at the hands of county and city officials.

This local money is tagged only for transportation spending, but many local critics like Studio Designs Printing owner Travis Strickland don’t see this as a positive.

“You can’t blame them for wanting this local money. It gives them millions to make up for shortcomings,” Strickland said. “What county wouldn’t be behind it?”

Strickland and Milledgeville Area Tea Party Patriots Chairman Tom Main agree that the timing couldn’t be worse for the largest tax increase proposal in Georgia’s history. Both see the burden going on those with a fixed income like the poor and senior citizens.

Main and other Tea Party members voiced disapproval through a recent email.

“The timing is bad. At a time of uncertainty when the federal government cannot give the American people any indication of what their tax burden will be next year, the state of Georgia wants its citizens to vote themselves the largest tax increase in history,” Main said.

Though there is a 7.5-cent per gallon gas tax already in place, the money is shrinking and hasn’t been used properly, leading to the referendum as a bandage for poor spending habits in some eyes. The T-SPLOST omits fuel from the regional tax, which is backward according to Main.

“It taxes the wrong things,” Main said. “Instead of making the people who tear up our roads pay for the repairs and improvements by adding to the fuel tax, the state has decided to tax everything except fuel, like prescription drugs and some services.”

A 25-cent per gallon increase in the gas tax would be required to equal projected T-SPLOST funds, according to Connect Georgia.

The T-SPLOST divides counties into a regional commission; meaning Baldwin could strike down the referendum and still have to comply if the majority of voters in the 11-county say yes July 31.

Johnny and Janice Westmoreland, members of the local Tea Party Patriots, think this wrong because there is no opt out plan for counties that don’t want the new tax.

“This is a big problem because the vote will be based on population in each region, not the population of each county. The ‘L’ in T-SPLOST stands for local. This is untrue because it is regional,” Westmoreland said.

In Georgia Constitution Article IX, the Section II Home Rule for Counties and Municipalities Paragraph VII on community redevelopment states “No such law, or any amendment thereto, shall become effective unless approved in a referendum by a majority of the qualified voters voting thereon in the county or municipality directly affected by that local law.” Local opposition sees the approaching transportation referendum as unconstitutional and taxation without representation because regional votes are not allowed.

The referendum is based on fixed jobs and times. Many wonder what happens if the projected numbers fall short of estimates leaving the approved projects underfunded. Proponents of the tax, however, content that careful planning has gone into formulating the estimates for each project and that the numbers are on the conservative end. A representative for the Georgia Chamber of Commerce on the Connect Georgia campaign, Zach Johnson, had no answer for this possibility at a recent Rotary Club meeting.

If passed, the T-SPLOST includes a five-member citizen review panel for each region appointed by the Speaker of the House and lieutenant governor. These would be non-elected officials charged with oversight of each project’s progress and spending to ensure that funding is spent as it was appropriated.

As a business owner, Strickland doesn’t see the panel accurately representing Middle Georgia’s 11 regional counties and said there is no way to vote the five-members out if they fail at their oversight tasks.

Tom Glover, Cogentes business owner and a member of the Milledgeville-Baldwin County Chamber of Commerce, supports the T-SPLOST referendum but is interested to see the selected panel if the tax passes.

“We don’t know who the panel will be. I’ve heard they will even look at some of the citizens who are against it,” Glover said. “We don’t need to just put a bunch of bureaucrats to make the problem worse.”

Another issue for T-SPLOST detractors lies on the ballot itself. The Transportation Investment Act of 2010 had no mention of a “preamble” to the ballot question, yet Secretary of State Brian Kemp added the words “Provides for local transportation projects to create jobs, improve roads and safety with citizen oversight.”

With many citizens unaware of what the T-SPLOST is or does for their area, critics see the preamble as a biased statement influencing voters.

“It’s one last trick in the preamble. They got one final thing to sway voters. They (voters) probably won’t read the rest of it and know they are voting on a tax increase,” Strickland said.

As campaigns on both sides heat up during this final month stretch, Georgians must educate themselves on a historical T-SPLOST decision.

“Generally, I don’t like taxes. I feel like we pay more taxes than we need to pay. These things just aren’t getting magically funded from elsewhere,” Glover said. “I’d rather pay a 1-cent sales tax than lose the chance to get new business. I’d like to see the economic future of this community improve instead of sticking our heads in the sand and pretending things will get better.”