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Is the fix in for T-SPLOST?
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OVER THE YEARS Chatham County voters have developed a reputation for apathy in keeping with our general laid-back attitude. But there's one thing we're not apathetic about at all:

For some reason voters here will happily crawl over broken glass to vote new taxes on themselves.

I've never seen anything like it. Must be something in the water.

We already pay several concurrent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Taxes, popularly known by advocates as "penny taxes" though they generally add up to quite a bit more than pennies over the course of a year.

If the newest penny tax, T-SPLOST, is approved by voters throughout the coastal region (more on that later) on July 31 (more on that later too), Savannah's sales tax burden will be eight percent -- nearly the same as the municipal sales tax in New York City.

Do I have your attention now?

The T stands for Transportation, of course, and refers to the $500 million laundry list of public works projects in Chatham County which would likely be funded, assuming the measure passes as such measures historically do here.

(But if it shouldn't pass this month, the authors of the T-SPLOST legislation thoughtfully provided the opportunity for a second vote two years from now!)

The chance to get all that "free" money -- and the seductive prospect of politicians not having to take responsibility for raising taxes, since you will have voted for it, not them -- means that the special interests who will benefit from T-SPLOST don't leave anything to chance.

By some counts, about $10 million has been spent throughout Georgia on pro-T-SPLOST marketing by entities such as the Chamber of Commerce and the state's powerful road-building lobby. You're getting things in the mail pushing you to vote for it, and you're seeing CAT buses covered with advertising for it.

Must be a pretty big deal if the nation's 100th-or-so largest market is about to have roughly the same tax rate as the nation's number-one market. Right?

Then why does such an important vote take place in the middle of summer, when so many voters are out of town, rather than during the high-turnout presidential election this November?

"Supporters spend a lot of money on consultants to tell them when to hold the election so that the tax will pass," says Jeffrey Rayno, former Chatham County commissioner.

"They always put these things on a day when they'll be guaranteed the least amount of voters, because that makes it easier to get their supporters to outnumber the people who are against the tax."

So, the tax has its own lobbying arm and website (complete with section called "How Can I Help Explain the Importance of T-SPLOST to My Friends and Family"), and the timing of the vote is calculated to help its passage.

Not exactly a fair fight. But that's the norm with SPLOST measures.

One major -- and majorly problematic -- difference between this SPLOST and prior ones is that this big pot of money will be administered not by elected officials, but by an appointed regional board, after it passes through the Georgia Department of Transportation.

Only 25 percent of the money collected here is guaranteed to be spent on purely local projects. The other 75 percent is allocated on the basis of which projects benefit our 10-county coastal region. Ten!

"There's bound to be political favoritism," predicts Rayno. "You'll inevitably get someone on the board with no qualifications who will be expected to rubber stamp things, and we won't have any control over what they do."

Indeed, court challenges are already being prepared, alleging that the far-flung regional architecture of T-SPLOST -- metro Atlanta is its own region -- violates the concept of home rule and is essentially taxation without representation.

"It's a form of blackmail. If it's voted down in Chatham County but the other counties in the coastal region pass it, it puts us in this whole regional deal anyway," says Rayno, who's also head of the local chapter of the Constitution Party, actually the third largest political party in the U.S. ("much to the chagrin of the Libertarians," he jokes.)

The number ten also figures in the life of the tax. Six years is the current lifespan of local SPLOST measures, but T-SPLOST would last an entire decade.

"A ten-year tax is just too long a time. The time frame should be shorter and more focused," says Rayno. "And you'll notice all the projects are in ‘phases,' which means when the ten years is up they'll say ‘hey we only got the road halfway built, you can't stop the tax now.'"

Georgia's very low gasoline tax is often cited as the reason a new transportation tax is needed. T-SPLOST supporters say to fund proposed projects through the gas tax alone would require an untenable increase of about 25 cents per gallon.

Rayno's quick answer. "Then prioritize the list of projects to a manageable level."

Historically some of the thorniest issues with SPLOST measures have to do with the sheer size and scope -- and thus the increased likelihood that taxpayer money will be irresponsibly spent.

"There's a real history of not taking care of the money. The politicians don't oversee things well, so you end up getting all kinds of change orders. They go with the low bidder, who immediately starts adding on more cost," Rayno says.

"There's also a real failure to explain how we accomplished things before SPLOST taxes. For example, there's now a fine road system between Savannah and Augusta which was built without a penny of SPLOST money."

One thing I can say for T-SPLOST: It's bringing Savannah together. It's a truly bipartisan phenomenon.

Needless to say, the local Democratic establishment supports T-SPLOST, as they typically do any new tax. But the Savannah Morning News has also endorsed it.

High-profile local Republican (and president of an engineering firm) Eric Johnson supports it.

And the bright red pickups of road contractor R. B. Baker are rolling around town sporting shiny new pro-tax bumper stickers.

Many of my friends with no financial interest in the vote wholeheartedly support T-SPLOST for its ability to fund projects, such as demolishing the I-16 onramp at MLK Blvd., that would be unlikely to find funding otherwise.

(For a supportive take on another penny tax, E-SPLOST, see Jessica Leigh Lebos's column.)

But here's a thought exercise for you as the July 31 vote approaches:

T-SPLOST supporters keep repeating the mantra "There's no Plan B" if the vote fails.

But if the proposed projects are so important -- why the hell isn't there a Plan B?

If the transportation projects are so intrinsically vital to our community's future, why are politicians so eager to pass the buck to you to make the decision to fund those projects?

It's "only a penny," but those pennies will add up over ten years. Just because a tax can fund things that might not otherwise happen, doesn't necessarily mean they always should fund them.

"There are things we want, and things we need," concludes Rayno.

"Rebuilding bridges that are crumbling and maybe causing people to die is a need. Most of these other projects they're promising are simply wants."

The vote's up to you, but someone sure wanted to stack the deck strongly in T-SPLOST's favor. That should at least give you pause.