Moderated by Rick Badie
This region needs significant inroads to curb congestion, and a proposed transportation sales tax that would address the issue has garnered critics and supporters. Today, a former state representative writes that the General Assembly shirked its duties by giving the green light to a referendum that turns the state into 12 Georgias. Meanwhile, a congestion relief advocate praises the Legislature’s approach and tackles what he calls the half-truths and misrepresentations that circulate about the tax.
Legislature shirks duty on tax
By Wyc Orr
Much has been written and said about the upcoming T-SPLOST vote in Georgia on Tuesday. Voters in each of 12 regions across Georgia will vote on an additional 1 percent sales tax to be collected and to fund transportation improvements in that region only.
Most commentary has focused on the tax itself and on the transportation projects to be constructed in each region if voters approve the tax.
But largely ignored has been a more fundamental issue, one more important to the state’s future than even the transportation tax issue: What precedent will be set by balkanizing Georgia into 12 separate regions?
The ghost of Georgia’s past “two Georgias” imbroglio of two decades ago, debating whether urban and rural Georgians live in two different worlds, has reappeared as an even greater specter of divisiveness — 12 Georgias.
This “government by referendum” may seem on its face to be commendable — decentralizing government, allowing “the people” themselves to decide at the local level whether they will be taxed. But on closer inspection, it is anything but desirable. It is the antithesis of a democratic republic, a legislative evasion of responsibility.
Georgia’s Constitution plainly gives the Legislature not only the power, but implicitly the duty, to “make all laws … which it shall deem necessary and proper for the welfare of the state.”
T-SPLOST is the General Assembly’s shirking of that duty, its abdication of the constitutional responsibility to decide such issues on a comprehensive statewide basis.
Georgia is not among the “referendum states,” the 24 or so states that provide for statewide referendums in various circumstances. But if approved by voters, T-SPLOST will be a step in that direction, more in keeping with the California-style initiative and referendum system that steered that state toward what The Economist magazine described as “the ungovernable state.”
Does Georgia want to take even a first step down that road?
In today’s Internet-driven age, steps all too often turn into stampedes. Irrationality, too easily, can become public policy.
And T-SPLOST threatens an even more divisive dynamic than other states’ initiative and referendum systems. A single statewide referendum is one thing, but regional plebiscites are quite another. Twelve separate regional referendums promote separatism rather than solidarity, more like a Swiss-style canton system of semi-independent sovereigns.
And T-SPLOST is bad policy for a more immediate reason. Few if any functions of state government more clearly require coordination than transportation.
What happens, for example, if one region widens and improves its highways, but a contiguous region does not? If an expanded highway stops at a county line and funnels traffic onto the same old two-lane bottleneck, will motorists use the improved highway? Will the tax money expended be largely wasted?
Avoiding such waste is no doubt why Georgia a long time ago created a state Department of Transportation to develop a “comprehensive, state-wide, 20-year transportation plan.” T-SPLOST’s regional approach seriously detracts from such statewide comprehensiveness and coordination.
Uniform voter rejection of T-SPLOST will not delay transportation improvements in Georgia. Rather, it will send this planning duty back to where it belongs — the General Assembly — as its first item of business at the 2013 session, which begins in January, the same month the T-SPLOST tax would otherwise begin.
Voters will have sent a message to their legislators: “Do your job. Plan for Georgia — all of Georgia, as one state.”
Wyc Orr, a former state representative, is a Gainesville attorney.
Foes twist facts on T-SPLOST
By Jim Durrett
After years of attempts to work with the Atlanta region’s civic and business leadership to craft a solution to our transportation funding dilemma, the Legislature finally gave us an opportunity to do something to help ourselves address our problems: a 10-year regional T-SPLOST to fund specific projects.
Our region accepted the challenge and through its elected officials and transportation professionals, and with unprecedented public input, developed a consensus project list to start creating a transportation system that we need to prosper in the decades ahead. It was a remarkable and historic achievement: coming together as a region to address a regional problem.
We would put our own skin in the game by taxing ourselves, and the region, not the state, would decide what we would work on first. This was a fortunate turn of events because the federal government increasingly favors states and regions that step up to the plate with their own resources when prioritizing where it spends the money we send it.
I expected some people to take issue with some of the projects selected, and I expected some people to be opposed to paying a tax. But I have been astounded by the misinformation and outright falsehoods that have been spread by opponents of the upcoming regional transportation referendum. Baseless and malicious accusations, when so much is at stake, need to be exposed.
A brief sampling of what I have heard and read from opponents of the referendum:
There is a “rider” attached to the legislation that addresses abortion rights. (This is a bald-faced lie. Period.)
The Atlanta Regional Commission refuses to release the basis for its claims of congestion and economic benefits. (This is completely untrue. Go online and see.)
The T-SPLOST brazenly commits $600 million to bail out the existing MARTA system, contrary to the intention of the Legislature. (The Legislature prohibited T-SPLOST funds from being spent on the operations and maintenance of existing MARTA service, which could be called a bailout. None will be spent for that purpose.)
They say the tax will end, but no tax ever has. (It is written in the state law that this tax must end within 10 years. Then, we the people will have another decision to make, yet to be determined.)
I have no problem with differences of opinion. It is healthy, one of the spices of life. But when lies are created and spread to shape opinion, I have a big problem with that. And when factoids are cherry-picked from one context and inserted into another to “prove” a point, I have a problem with that, too.
For instance, anti-transit opponents repeatedly claim MARTA loses $500 million per year. If you read a MARTA annual report and don’t understand what depreciation expense is, or don’t understand that MARTA earns revenue in addition to fares, you can draw an incorrect conclusion and spread it, incorrectly, as fact. Here is a real fact: MARTA had an operating loss of $30.7 million in the last fiscal year, 6 percent of which has been claimed. And MARTA is working hard to find solutions to the funding/expense mismatch.
Local governments will be required to provide a 30 percent match for any local grants by the Department of Transportation if the referendum fails. If we approve the referendum, the local match will be 10 percent instead of 30 percent. In other words, vote the referendum down and less will be done than is even done today to address our transportation needs.
Now is the time to build something together instead of tearing one another down.
Jim Durrett is executive director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District and serves on MARTA’s board of directors.