Few things are as touchy as the subject of taxation. The consensus is that workers and property owners are overtaxed already, along with the perception that the government officials who are spending the money often aren't doing it wisely.
Given that, the idea of imposing a brand new tax isn't all that appealing to most people.
Yet, that is what Georgia voters are being asked to do on Tuesday -- vote to increase the sales tax imposed in their respective regions by 1 percent. For most areas of the state, this would increase the sales tax on items you buy from 7 percent to 8 percent.
The state has been divided into a dozen regions for this vote on a special-purpose local-option sales tax for transportation, better known by the acronym T-SPLOST. For a region that passes the tax, 75 percent of the revenues generated will be used to fund a list of transportation projects within that region that were decided on by representatives of the cities and counties within the region. The remaining 25 percent of the funds generated over the 10-year life of the tax would go to the various cities and counties within the region based on a ratio of population and road miles for local projects.
In the 14-county Southwest Georgia Region 10 that includes the five-county Albany Metropolitan Statistical Area, the T-SPLOST is projected to generate more than $530 million for projects that include the four-laning on Georgia Highway 133, which would give Albany and Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany a direct four-lane connector to I-75 in Valdosta; an extension of Westover Boulevard into Lee County; a bridge and connector over the Flint River at Clark Avenue, and other projects.
Proponents of the tax point to Georgia's abysmal spending record on transportation. Georgia Department of Transportation officials for years have said that there are billions of dollars more in needed projects than there is in funding. Georgia is the nation's third fast-growing state, but on per capita spending for transportation, it ranks No. 49. Sales tax on gas bought at the pump, meanwhile, is set on a per-gallon basis, not per dollar spent. Even though it costs more to fill up the automobile these days, the cutback in overall fuel consumption by motorists hit by the economy is causing those revenues to decrease.
A region that passes T-SPLOST gets favorable terms on future state-funded transportation projects, having to match only 10 percent of a project's cost rather than the 30 percent that regions that reject the tax will have to match.
Proponents also push T-SPLOST as a jobs creator, citing Federal Highway Administration numbers that say every $1 billion in highway construction creates 27,823 jobs and generates $2.5 billion in direct and indirect economic activity. For our Region 10, the projection is that T-SPLOST would create 14,320 jobs.
Opponents argue that wasteful spending is the cause for a lack of progress for Georgia transportation and that any tax levied to support those projects should come from the fuel tax. They doubt whether the jobs that proponents say will be created will come into existence, and that those that are created won't necessarily go to local workers.
The five-member regional commission that would be appointed by the lieutenant governor and House speaker to oversee the progress on the T-SPLOST projects, opponents say, takes away local control of tax revenues generated.
And they note that once a tax is voted in, it becomes a permanent fixture.
Both sides make good points in their respective arguments.
Why this road map for transportation improvements was created is simple, if unsatisfying. Georgia's Legislature and governor have bound themselves by pledging to never raise taxes -- including those at the gas pump, which is where transportation should be funded -- and are holding to regardless of the merit. By pushing the decision to voters in regions, state elected officials can avoid the stigma of raising taxes. And if a region rejects the new tax, state officials can point out that the region's voters were the ones who decided transportation issues weren't all that important to them. More importantly, particularly with the matching funds penalty for regions that don't pass T-SPLOST, state leadership is saying this is the way transportation projects will be funded in the foreseeable future.
We don't look at this as a jobs vote. We look at this as a funding mechanism -- albeit an imperfect one -- for infrastructure projects that are needed to help our region be competitive. There is a reason why population centers have developed near bays, waterways, railroads and, in later years, at places with good highway systems and airports -- transportation. People want to be able to get from place to place with ease, and businesses need the infrastructure to get goods to their stores and their products to markets at the lowest possible costs.
Our region is already at a big disadvantage compared to others in the state. Decades ago, we missed out on Interstate 75, which has had a profound effect on cities like Macon and Valdosta, and the Georgia Department of Transportation has said that Albany getting an interstate connector now is not feasible. For us, this is an opportunity to improve our infrastructure and to benefit from lower matching funds on future projects. Passing T-SPLOST is a chance to help ourselves.