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Tax bill offers flexibility

By Kyle Wingfield, AJC, February 16, 2014

Everyone seems to agree we need more transportation infrastructure. Most people acknowledge that will cost money.

No one wants to raise taxes.

Passing off new “revenue” as something other than a tax is old hat for our legislators. But there is one case in which they could pass a bill that allows for new taxes, and we really shouldn’t call it a tax increase.

I’m talking about HB 195, which would allow counties and cities to join together to levy a transportation sales tax, commonly known as a T-SPLOST.

Why wouldn’t it be a tax increase? Because it doesn’t mandate any new taxes.

Counties already can levy a T-SPLOST under the Transportation Investment Act of 2010. Although nine of the state’s 12 regions voted down the tax in summer 2012, any of them could schedule another referendum down the road.

In fact, that 2010 law required each of the 12 regions to construct a project list and hold a vote. Lawmakers didn’t mandate the passage of the new tax — or enact it themselves — but they did everything short of that.

By contrast, HB 195 would not require anyone anywhere to vote on anything. But should counties or cities want to hold a referendum on the existing tax, it gives them more options.

Counties and cities would have more flexibility in partnering with each other. The 2010 law established 12 regions and allowed for no subdivisions or redrawing the lines. HB 195 allows as few as two to team up, with no arbitrary regional boundaries to keep them apart.

They would have more flexibility to decide how long to keep the tax. The 2010 law would allow only 10-year taxes; HB 195 allows for as few as three years.

They would also have more flexibility to decide how much tax to levy. The 2010 law only provided for a 1 percent tax; HB 195 allows for a tax of less than a penny on the dollar.

Taken together, these provisions also allow for multiple fractional taxes at the same time. Atlanta could opt to work with DeKalb and Clayton to expand MARTA, and Douglas to fix the western interchange of I-20 and 285. But DeKalb voters couldn’t scuttle the interchange, and people in Douglas couldn’t block the MARTA projects.

Two of the biggest reasons the T-SPLOST failed in metro Atlanta were a lack of trust in leaders across the region, and discomfort with the idea all 10 counties were truly part of one cohesive region in the first place.

Allowing more flexibility in future referendums should help on both fronts. Having fewer jurisdictions in a given region should give people more confidence that their own elected officials have a strong voice, and that their own interests are being served. And not forcing urban, suburban and, in some cases, exurban voters to consider a single project list should make for fewer grievances about the projects on the list.

Certain elected officials are more likely than others to be nervous about being accused in this election year of supporting a tax increase, and some of their opponents are more likely than others to level the accusations.

The fact is, this bill gives more control to local officials to decide for themselves whether their transportation needs merit a tax increase, and how to structure it. It makes current law better, not worse. It’s a step in the right direction.

Kyle Wingfield, an Opinion columnist, writes for The Atlanta

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