When local elected officials met with Columbia County lawmakers before the start of this year’s legislative session, they asked members of the delegation to be wary of attempts to change the rules on the Transportation Improvement Act.
Now it’s obvious they were right to be worried.
Senate Bill 73, filed by Republican state Sen. John Albers of Roswell, carries the misleading name “Anti T-SPLOST Penalty Act.” What the bill actually would do is doubly penalize the three districts around Georgia whose voters agreed to raise their sales tax to fund transportation projects.
Here’s the way it worked: When lawmakers proposed the massive Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax referendum for this past November, they knew in a struggling economy that it would be a tough sell to persuade voters to increase their sales tax by 15 percent – the amount represented by the additional penny per dollar on each purchase.
The lure of massive transportation improvements funded by the extra cash wasn’t quite enough, they surmised, so they built in an additional incentive: The districts that agreed to tax themselves more would only have to pay 10 percent in local matching funds for state Department of Transportation projects, while areas that rejected the tax would have to come up with 30 percent.
Though we urged rejection of the referendum – and Columbia County voters agreed – the T-SPLOST passed in the Augusta district and in two others across the state. That’s why our sales tax rose to 8 cents on Jan. 1, and that’s why our community expects a boost in road-construction projects during the next decade.
But voters in the remaining nine districts rejected it – and that’s the basis for SB 73. Those voters didn’t want to pay the additional sales tax, and now they’re trying to get a better deal on DOT funding, too.
There’s a word for that: cheating.
“We don’t think it’s fair,” says Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross. “If you go into something with one set of rules, I don’t think you can change it.”
The Georgia Chamber of Commerce also opposes the bill.
“While we absolutely need to identify additional opportunities to address our state’s transportation needs, it should not be done in a way that backtracks on the commitment made to voters in those regions that passed the referendum last year,” says Chamber president and CEO Chris Clark.
Cross makes a good point that even if the bill were to become law, there would still be little benefit for those who want the rules changed in the middle of the game. The DOT has little money to spend, and thus little money to match – especially in communities that didn’t pass T-SPLOST.
As mentioned earlier, we opposed passage of T-SPLOST but got it anyway. Those other communities made the right call in turning down more taxes on themselves – but they’ve got to live with the consequences, just like we do.