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T-SPLOST vote changed terms of debate

Posted: August 15, 2012 - 12:04am

It didn’t receive much attention in the state’s media outlets, but it’s worth noting that the transportation sales tax campaign saw a major change in the framing of the most basic political question of all: Should taxes ever be increased?

There was once a time when people could agree that, while taxes were an unpopular thing, you sometimes had to raise them to pay for services that a state or community needs.

One of the signature achievements of Herman Talmadge’s years as governor during the 1950s was the enactment of a 3 percent sales tax that paid for the construction of schools across the state.

During the late 1980s under Gov. Joe Frank Harris, a majority of the Legislature agreed that more revenue was needed to provide the services the state should have, so they increased the sales tax by another penny to 4 percent. Many cities and counties have since added another 3 percent sales tax on top of that for local needs.

In more recent years, politicians have taken the hard-line position that taxes must never be raised for any reason, under any circumstances. This stance was influenced by the “no new taxes” pledge that Grover Norquist and his anti-tax colleagues in Washington persuaded many candidates to sign.

However, during the campaign for the Transportation Investment Act, usually referred to as T-SPLOST, that position started to shift as some of the state’s political leaders admitted publicly what they knew privately: if you want to build new highways and upgrade the infrastructure, you have to raise taxes to pay for it.

Gov. Nathan Deal and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle made numerous public statements urging voters to pass what would have been the largest tax increase in the state’s history.

“I’m about Georgia, I love this state, and I think this is a very historic moment, no different than the big bold steps we’ve taken with the ports and the airport and even MARTA,” Cagle told a reporter at a fundraiser.

On the day before the referendums, Deal said it was important to approve T-SPLOST because “our state cannot grow without the appropriate infrastructure.”

When you add to those statements the fact that a large number of conservative legislators voted for the bill that authorized the referendums on the largest tax increase in state history, it amounts to a significant, if largely unreported, shift in political thinking.

The T-SPLOST campaign also smoked out another myth that has dominated political discussion for the past generation.

In every election cycle, you will hear candidates proclaim that we should cut the state budget to juice up the economy because, in their words, “government spending never created a single job.”

That is absurd, of course. When the Georgia Department of Transportation spends roughly $1 billion a year in motor fuel tax revenues on construction projects, the work is handled by private contractors who employ people to design, repair and build those highways. Government dollars are spent and private-sector jobs are created.

The linkage between government spending and jobs creation was a major selling point used by Deal, Cagle, and the business leaders who promoted the T-SPLOST issue. They estimated that the construction projects funded by the transportation tax would have created 80,000 new jobs in Metro Atlanta and smaller amounts of jobs in the other regions.

“It’s a jobs of tomorrow issue,” Deal said at one media event. Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a staunch conservative, even added language to the wording of the T-SPLOST ballot that said the tax “provides for local transportation projects to create jobs.”

The T-SPLOST, as we know, was approved by the voters in three regions – those centered around Augusta, Columbus and Dublin – and soundly defeated in the other nine regions.

Even among opponents of the tax, however, I often heard the acknowledgement that something should be done about our jam-packed roads and highways.

They criticized the T-SPLOST tax mechanism and had valid reasons for doing so, but they did not rule out the idea of finding a more equitable way to assess the tax and select the projects.

Georgia will be dealing with transportation issues for many years to come. Now that we see the terms of the debate are changing, perhaps there can be a more realistic and honest discussion of what needs to be done.

(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com.)

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