If what appears to be a steadily rising tide of grumbling is any indication, the upcoming TSPLOST referendum in July seems destined to go down in flames.
I’ve been somewhat on the fence about the regional Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, largely because there hasn’t yet been a reason to make a personal decision. It doesn’t come up for a vote until July 31, after all.
In mulling over the concept, I like the fact that it’s a sales tax. I much prefer using sales taxes as a funding mechanism, because they’re essentially voluntary. If you don’t want to pay the tax, don’t buy stuff.
In addition, it’s pretty obvious that Georgia has a tremendous backlog of transportation needs – much of it, unfortunately, the result of past state Department of Transportation malfeasance. Those pent-up needs will become an even more critical issue once the Panama Canal widening is complete, the port of Savannah is deepened, and all that additional freight will need to move to and from the port.
Heck, for that matter, we’d better see about getting a better path to and from Savannah for all those Caterpillar tractors that will be produced by that just-announced factory near Athens.
However: Converting to a sales tax as such a major source of road funding is fundamentally flawed, because it pays for transportation with money taken from purchases that mostly are unrelated. Currently, Georgia transportation funding comes from a fuel tax (and most of it still would), which is about as close to a user fee as you can get without charging a road toll. If there’s not enough money, that just means we need to do a better job of setting spending priorities.
I’m also uncomfortable with the quasi-governmental mechanism set up to create the list of projects funded by TSPLOST, and which would then oversee its spending (at least, to a degree). Columbia County is part of a 13-county region, along with Richmond County and smaller surrounding counties. Theoretically, money raised in those 13 counties would go to projects in those counties. When the committee put the lists of projects together, every county had to give and take, though some are giving more and taking less, and vice-versa.
Everyone can see which projects are planned for their county, and that might or might not sway their vote. But in the devil-in-the-details department, the process also allows each county a sizeable kitty of “discretionary” money.
I don’t have any major beef with the use of discretionary spending by commissioners, but I’m troubled by what appears to be a growing frill-building tendency. “Discretionary” too easily translates into “wants” rather than “needs,” and if we “need” this thing, that’s where the money should be targeted – transparently, so voters know what they’re getting.
There’s much more on all this, of course. Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross, who heads the regional TSPLOST committee, provided a detailed pro-and-con description of the proposal in the February water bills, but let’s be honest: Most people throw them away. And Al Gray, a well-known local fiscal critic, delivered a good, if a little hyperbolic, presentation opposing the TSPLOST in Lincolnton last week; if coaxed, he might also give it here.
Yet no matter my view or anyone else’s, from the pro-TSPLOST view of the state Chamber or the anti-TSPLOST campaigning from Tea Partiers, ultimately the fate of TSPLOST is in the hands of voters. People like Gray and others who want to string up state lawmakers who cooked up the proposal are off-base. I’m certainly not going to jump on a bandwagon of lambasting public officials who allow voters to have a direct voice in their own taxation. To do so is the equivalent of calling voters stupid, and as I long ago learned, you aren’t going to get anyone to agree with you by denigrating their intelligence.
Ultimately, and no matter what promises are made about how the money will be spent, passage or failure of TSPLOST is going to come down to whether voters are willing to pay an additional 1 percent on every purchase they make. In any year, but especially this year in such a depressed economy, I just don’t see that happening.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 706-863-6165, extension 106. Follow at twitter.com/barrypaschal.)