The basic reason for the upcoming referendum on the Transportation Improvement Act is that politicians are gutless.
Of course, in politics, one man’s “gutless” is another man’s “responsiveness to voters.” But it is fear of voters that often prevents politicians from doing the right thing, because they know the power of campaign demagoguery to derail their future in office.
That’s why, for example, the criminal justice reform legislation approved in Georgia this year is far less ambitious than its supporters initially planned. Because they take no action without first contemplating how a potential political opponent could caricature it to voters, lawmakers were extra-careful not to make any reforms that seem too “soft on crime.”
It’s the same with the state’s effort to put more money into transportation repairs and upgrades. As columnist Tom Crawford notes today, and as Georgia Public Policy Foundation analyst Baruch Feighenbaum and others have written, the mechanism for that already exists: increasing the state’s gasoline tax.
But because politicians are scared to death of being accused of raising taxes, they won’t touch the idea. Instead, they created the convoluted TIA and are presenting it to voters. That way, they hope to get more money for transportation, while letting voters handle the tax-hiking hot potato.
In doing so, they’ve also created a regional Frankenstein system that raises a tax unrelated or only marginally related to its use, and then shares that money inequitably among regions. Oh, and it gives each of the counties in those regions a slush fund (called “discretionary spending”) for local politicians to spread around.
If anyone wonders why asphalt-makers and gravel-miners are pushing this thing so hard, there’s your shovel-ready answer.
Even so, it’s been more than a little annoying to see knee-jerk judgments on both sides of this issue. Attacks on lawmakers for enabling the referendum in the first place have been downright childish. Sure, the vote is merely a way for politicians to sidestep their responsibilities. But if these critics believe giving citizens a direct say in their own taxation is bad, one must assume they prefer dictatorships. No, thanks.
On the flip side, it’s nearly as troubling to see the typical power-appeasers dutifully – and uncritically – flocking to support a “yes” vote on the referendum, seemingly without regard to the tremendous negative consequences possible from its passage.
For those who haven’t made up their minds, tonight’s town hall meeting sponsored by the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce is one place to start. It begins at 6 p.m. at the Jabez Sanford Hardin Performing Arts Center in the library in Evans.
I would suggest that anyone attending tonight’s session, or the one coming up in July, do so with both an open mind and healthy skepticism. Pay attention to the details of the presentation, what’s said and what isn’t. There’s no value to going in with your mind slammed shut either way, or to just clap or hiss when you hear something you like or dislike. You might as well stay home and watch reruns of “Jerry Springer” if that’s the best attitude you can bring to the table.
But by all means: Keep in mind that while tonight’s town hall is billed as a program “to educate voters,” it mostly is intended to influence voters to approve the T-SPLOST. It’s a sales pitch. Listen to it as you would sit through one of those seminars for a time-share: If you decide it’s a good deal, buy in with your vote. If you don’t, don’t.
After reading enough about it to make my head hurt, I highly doubt there’s one more thing they could tell me that would persuade me to vote in favor of paying more sales tax on every purchase.
But don’t take my word for it. Hear what the boosters and the detractors have to say, and make an informed judgment accordingly.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. Email barry.paschal@newstimes online.com, or call 706-863-6165, extension 106. Follow at twitter.com/barrypaschal.)