The Georgia Bellwether
On July 31st, Georgia voters will decide on a 1% sales tax increase – whether to fund a list of pre-approved transportation projects. This money will be in addition to the over $1B annual G-DOT budget. The politicians and special interests who will benefit from this new tax are using every means available – legal, ethical, or constitutional – or not – to see that it is passed.
Here’s what is occurring.
A NEW FORM OF REGIONALIZED GOVERNMENT
In 2010, the Georgia legislature passed the Transportation Investment Act (TIA). TIA established 12 transportation districts throughout Georgia that follow state designated Regional Commission (RC) boundaries. TIA established Regional Transportation Roundtables (RTRs) consisting of elected officials from the counties and cities within each region. For the 10-county Atlanta metro area, these elected officials include the Chair/CEO of each county commission and 1 mayor of a city from each county, selected by the other mayors.
Each RTR approved a financially constrained so-called “Investment” List of transportation projects for their district, selected from a list of example projects provided by the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) Director of Planning. The Unconstrained Example Investment List was developed with input from local governments, Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs), transit operators and other transportation stakeholder agencies, following criteria established by the Roundtable. The Final “Investment” List was approved by the full Roundtable on October 15, 2011, based on initial recommendations made by the RTR Executive Committee.
On July 31st voters in each of the 12 regions across Georgia will have the opportunity to vote “yes” or “no” on the additional 1% sales tax to fund transportation projects in their REGION: the T-SPLOST (Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax).
No counties or municipalities are permitted to be exempt from the tax, if approved by a majority of voters across the entire REGION.
THE TRANSPORTATION BOONDOGGLE
Georgia voters are being told by T-SPLOST supporters that this tax is absolutely necessary to fund infrastructure projects to reduce traffic congestion and bring jobs. These claims are unfounded.
Twenty-two of the 157 projects approved for the Atlanta region are for mass transit. These projects will cost us taxpayers $3.16 billion. Of these, at least 11 projects are for MARTA (metro Atlanta light rail). Less than 5% of metro commuters use MARTA. Unlike nearly every driver who pays 100% of their transportation expense, MARTA passengers in FY 2011 paid less than 1/3 (27%) of the line’s operating expenses. Despite years of cost and service cutting and recent fare increases – as well as numerically declining ridership – MARTA is expected to continue losing over $500M every year as it has for the past few years. Unfunded maintenance on MARTA is currently reported at $2.3B.
In Gwinnett County (north metro), 22 projects are approved at a cost of $900M; 2 are for mass transit. One is a $40M check to the county bus system. The other is $95M for a study of rail along the I-85 corridor for which construction would not START until AFTER 2040. Three I-85 overpass/interchanges would cost $92.5 million. The remaining 75% of revenues are for road widening or bridge enhancements at a few selected spots.
The tax would – in addition to these projects – give 15% of all revenues collected across the 10-county metro Atlanta region to county and municipal governments for as yet unidentified projects (“eligible transportation projects at their discretion”), essentially amounting to a political slush fund worth well over $1B.
Obviously these expenditures would do little for business development or job creation. Supporters have failed to prove any real dollar benefit from commuter savings or new jobs. On April 16, 2012 the Atlanta Journal Constitution released Politifact’s Truth-O-Meter found Atlanta Regional Commission’s claim of T-SPLOST creating or supporting an additional 200,000 jobs mostly false. Tax and spend initiatives, also known as stimulus packages, have failed to deliver promised results at the federal level – a fact that has apparently been lost at the state and local levels in Georgia.
TAXES OR ELSE
Georgia voters are being told that there will either be a tax or there will be NO traffic relief; in effect, that there is no “Plan B”. In fact, legislators did not consider any alternatives. A vote against the tax to fund these projects is a vote to do nothing at all.
Many have proposed a wide array of alternatives, including initiatives and projects that would benefit the 95% of commuters who will NOT benefit from MARTA or any other transit subsidies. These proposals were not and will not be considered.
A FEDERAL CASE
Funding for the project list for the 10-county Atlanta metro area includes over $61.5M to be supplied by our deficit-bound federal government. According to the Department of Labor, this will incur Davis-Bacon provisions for labor wages and benefits (http://www.dol.gov/whd/govcontracts/dbra.htm), helping to ensure the maximum cost to taxpayers.
The State and County Chambers of Commerce are heavy supporters of the new tax. So are the Community Improvement Districts (CIDs). Many within the leadership of these Chambers are leaders in companies or organizations who will directly benefit from the new tax. Chambers are actively lobbying their member companies to have employees vote for this tax. Many Chambers, including the one in Gwinnett, are reported to receive money from local hotel/motel taxes as well as the County Commission, another taxpayer funded bureaucracy. Taxes are being used to promote the imposition of more taxes.
Main stream media has repeatedly expressed its support of this tax by its positive coverage of tax supporters and propagation of their claims. The publisher of the Gwinnett Daily Post (and recently also named the publisher of two other local papers by the parent company of all) is Vice Chair for Media Relations of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce. Just recently has the tax’s opponents been given some coverage, often in the form of portraying only the existence of yet another political argument or contest which stands to deadlock progress. As with most recent political contests, people vote based on how other people say they’ll vote, not on facts or issues. This fact is not lost on the media.
On the “transformmetroatlanta” dot com website, the Metro Atlanta Voter Educaton Network (MAVEN – pun intended) calls itself a broad coalition of civic groups and citizens which has applied to become a non-profit for tax purposes. Donations are accepted and volunteers are being sought. Although MAVEN purports to be about educating voters, their website uses words such as “transportation crisis” and “suffocating commuters” to make its case for approving the tax. Their approved speakers bureau reads like a who’s-who list of Chamber, media, commercial development, and urban redevelopment/mobility projects (Atlanta Beltline) representatives – and clean air/sustainable development enthusiasts – as well as selected realtors, consulting engineers and lawyers … and of course people from MAVEN itself – all those who would be expected to benefit from tax passage.
A SPECIAL ELECTION
By holding a vote in the summer at the State primary elections (our presidential primary was March 6th), not in November at the general election, voter turnout can be expected to be even lower than the usual 30-35 percent thereby increasing the impact of those voters who stand to benefit financially and politically from the new tax – and who absolutely will vote for it.
ONE PERCENT IS NOT A PENNY
This so-called “penny” tax would apply a 1% tax to virtually everything purchased, including food and prescription drugs, and in most counties would raise sales taxes from 6% to 7%, a 17% increase – the largest in our history. Sales tax rates will then exceed the 6% income tax people must pay to earn the money to pay the sales tax.
The Atlanta Regional Roundtable decided to use the “base case” forecast for constraining the Final “Investment” List. In “year of collection” (YOC) dollars (i.e., inflated as necessary to reflect actual collections over the ten year time frame), that forecast was $8,468,028,100. While this tax is being called a “cash infusion” for “investment”, it will come out of people’s pockets. This tax is projected to cost the average family of 4 about $8,000 over the first 10 years. As a consumption tax, it will hit low and fixed income families hardest, immeasurably increasing dependence on government subsidies such as food stamps and other entitlements.
TEN YEARS IS ACTUALLY FOREVER
T-SPLOST supporters claim that the tax will only be approved for ten years (2012-2022). That is correct. In 2012. What they don’t mention is that many of the projects will only be STARTED during this period. Completion of them will require additional money, which would most likely have to come from future tax extensions. A few projects will not even be completed until after 2040 – creating the need to make this tax, like the gasoline road tax, PERMANENT.
POLITICAL FAVORS FOR FAVORS
Governor Deal won election – in part – on a no-new-tax platform. He quickly points out that the TIA was enacted before his election (and for which he is not responsible) and because the voters will decide whether to approve the tax. In fact, he and his Lieutenant Governor, actively support this new tax. Recently the pair spoke to reporters in downtown Atlanta before attending a closed fund raiser for local business heads who favor T-SPLOST. It has recently been made public that Deal has committed to campaign for any elected official who publicly supports the new tax.
By establishing a regional government/taxing authority, and by passing the buck legislatively to the voters, every politician can get the money without taking any responsibility for having raised taxes.
ELECTIONEERING ON THE BALLOT ITSELF
The ballot on the T-SPLOST has been shown to contain the following language:
“Provides for local transportation projects to create jobs and reduce traffic congestion with citizen oversight. Shall (your) county’s transportation system and the transportation network in this region and the state be improved by providing for a 1 percent special district transportation sales and use tax for the purpose of transportation projects and programs for a period of ten years? Yes or No.”
A POLITICIAN’S DREAM = A TAXPAYER’S NIGHTMARE
Taxes are “cash infusions”. Tax expenditures are “values” and “investments”. Pennies don’t count. “Found money is free” . And stimulus money administered by centralized planners to fulfill their agenda “always works”.