Georgia Voters Defeat Transportation Sales Tax

T-SPLOST or ‘Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax’ is a 10-year one-cent sales tax that will go into effect only in the three transportation regions where Georgians voted in favor.

By Terri Hall l August 9, 2012

Georgia voters overwhelmingly defeated a one-cent sales tax increase to pay for transportation projects innine of 12 transportation regions. The tax hike narrowly prevailed in just three regions of the Peach State. Most politicians, including Governor Nathan Deal, were for the tax – until they saw how soundly it was rejected, and then guys like Deal are now vowing to pay for transportation projects by living within their means instead of coming to voters again in a repeat election like the tax’s biggest cheerleader pro-transit Altanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

Statewide, voters defeated this unusual ballot referendum 61% to 39%, with the Atlanta region voting against the ‘Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax’ (T-SPLOST) nearly 2-to-1. Tea Party groups opposed the measure, as did the Sierra Club and the NAACP due to, in their view, inadequate spending proposals for transit, highly popular in urban Atlanta.  Largely, it was the Georgia political and business establishment that supported the referendum led by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

Anchored by Columbus, Georgia on the Alabama state line and Augusta, Georgia on the South Carolina state line, this mostly rural transportation region encompasses 17 counties. This area of Georgia cutting a swath across the middle of the state will be rewarded, however, with the construction of an intermodal ‘inland port’ with freight rail to the Port of Savannah, which is preparing for the enlargement of the Panama Canal in 2014.

This unusual ‘Special Local Option’ aspect of T-SPLOST permits Georgia’s transportation regions to vote in favor of the referendum and move forward with the one-cent sales tax increase to finance their transportation projects; whereas, other regions across the state having rejected the measure will not impose the new tax.  This is more akin to a parliamentary or proportional European-type scheme than anything American voters are used to seeing on their Election Day ballots.  There is already talk ofrepealing the T-SPLOST law passed by the legislature in 2010, before a second referendum can be permitted in just two years.  The so-called Transportation Act of 2010 has been strongly opposed by the Tea Party, especially out of Valdosta, Georgia.

As states face transportation funding shortfalls, mostly due to the fact that the pay at the pump user fee known as the gas tax has not been raised for 20 years, they’re turning to other tax increases instead to pay for needed projects. Some of the challenges faced by the Georgia sales tax hike have to do with a general distrust in government and that government is going to do what it says it’s going to do with the money. Voters have been betrayed so many times by bond and tax initiatives, where politicians promise it’s going to fund one thing and then it gets raided for another (usually for controversial projects that lack public support), that even if the proposal had merit, few believe it.

There’s also the sentiment that people feel they’re “taxed enough already.” Hence, the emergence of the TEA Party movement, that flexed its muscle to defeat this Georgia sales tax. Tea Party leader Debbie Dooley, who organized the opposition, wanted to send a message to politicians: “We the people, you have to earn our trust before asking for more money.”

The list of projects also had a mix of road and transit/rail projects, which divided voters into road versus transit positions. Those in the northern suburbs that wanted the money to go to nothing but roads, rejected the $3 billion in proposed transit projects they see as a waste of money on an already inefficient transit system that doesn’t appreciably relieve road congestion. In a poll conducted by the Atlanta Journal Constitution last year, it noted nearly half of residents believe new mass transit brings crime with it. In contrast, residents in urban metro Atlanta not only wanted the transit and rail projects, they wanted even more investment than the proposal sought and wanted less emphasis on roads.

As is often the case, the sales tax proposal came with gotcha provisions and incentives to draw support. The vote went before 12 transportation regions, and those that voted down the sales tax hike will be penalized by having to come up with 30% in local matching funds for maintenance versus only 10% in the three regions that voted for the tax. In all but Metro Atlanta, the sales tax proposal allows local cities and counties to use up to 25% of the funds on local projects of their choice (versus only 15% in Atlanta) – which was by design included as an extra incentive to gain support for the tax hike in areas outside Atlanta. It worked, at least in part.

Inland port drives approval in Columbus

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce may have lost the state-wide transportation sales tax battle but they haven’t lost the larger globalization war that they are waging incrementally all across the nation. Across the midsection of Georgia, however, in three regions, from Columbus in the west to Augusta in the east, voters narrowly approved the sales tax hike. One of the key factors to passage in Columbus was the inclusion of an ‘inland port’ and a road project feeding into it. The sales tax will pay to establish a distribution center in Cordele, where cargo brought in by rail from ports in Savannah and Brunswick will be off-loaded onto trucks, and millions will be spent to upgrade US Hwy 280 that feeds into the inland port. The Chambers of Commerce in these areas pushed heavily for passage, primarily to improve routes key to Columbus and Augusta’s commerce and manufacturers. In other words, it wasn’t about moving people, but about moving trade goods from China.

Unfortunately, big business and the politicians they support at all levels of government haven’t informed the electorate, yet, about their greater vision of global trade, when they head to the polls to vote for seemingly clear cut and innocuous referendums.   The signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement didn’t give the elite of this country carte blanche to transform the United States of America into a North American Union akin to the socialist European Union.

Less tax more tolls?

Some will argue this rejection of a sales tax increase in Georgia will necessitate even more reliance on the most expensive option to expand roads – tolls, which do NOT come before the voters. Failing to get the message that voters don’t want increased taxes could be hazardous to politicos’ re-election efforts. With Atlanta’s High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes on I-85 a bust and another HOT lane project in the works for I-75, commuters are voting with their pocket books and shying away from the punitive toll taxes few can afford. Clearly, motorists want their roads fixed and are weary of the congestion, but when faced with their own personal economic constraints, they’re choosing to sit in traffic rather than pay more.

So the message is clear: government needs to prioritize, to stop raiding road taxes for non-road purposes, and live within its means like taxpayers do. At least so far, Deal gets it. He said he’ll try to do more with the scarce money they already have and will prioritize projects based on needs, not wants. Here, here.  But it’s about time they were more honest with the voters about their true long term intentions, when it comes to transportation.

Terri Hall is the founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), which defends against eminent domain abuse and promotes non-toll transportation solutions. She’s a home school mother of eight turned citizen activist. Ms. Hall is also a contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.