Next Tuesday, Fulton and DeKalb voters may decide the fate of next year’s T-SPLOST referendum.
They’ll do so by voting to keep or eliminate a 1 percent sales tax for education. If they pass it, the counties expected to provide the bulk of “yes” votes next year for the transportation sales tax might not provide quite as many of them. Cherokee, Gwinnett and Henry are also considering other SPLOSTs, or special-purpose local-option sales taxes, and Cobb voters narrowly approved an extension of their tax earlier this year. But Fulton and DeKalb are more crucial to T-SPLOST supporters’ hopes.
Drop the penny for education, and adding a penny back for transportation may have a fighting chance. Keep it — and the penny for sewer infrastructure in Atlanta, to be reconsidered in March — and the sales tax rate will reach 9 percent in Atlanta and 8 percent in Fulton and DeKalb outside the capital city.
That prospect might explain why elected officials chose to lard up the T-SPLOST project list with expensive transit items for those two counties. The Beltline, the Clifton Corridor, a MARTA extension of some sort along I-20 east, and even the initial phase of the Cobb/U.S. 41 rail line — which would probably connect Atlantic Station to the MARTA backbone, and all but one mile of which would lie in Fulton — ensure that the T-SPLOST list is Fulton- and DeKalb-heavy. It better be, if residents of those counties are going to raise their sales taxes to levels that rival Florida and Tennessee — states without income taxes.
If I were going to bet, I’d say next week’s SPLOSTs pass and the transportation tax fails. Consumers have been paying an extra 1 percent for education construction for years, and they’re used to seeing the results in the form of new school buildings. To the degree that they weigh educational needs vs. transportation needs, they may be less likely to favor the latter since much of the proceeds would be spent well beyond the route of their daily commute. I’m not sure how many voters will anticipate next year’s vote and make a direct comparison, but I’d argue all such taxes should appear on the ballot together so that the direct comparison and the implications are evident.
Few T-SPLOST supporters have been as forthright as Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who has come out and said the education SPLOST should be voted down to make way for the transportation tax. Most of them seem to be content to lie low and hope for the best, whether or not that also includes an education tax extension.
Hope, however, is usually not much of a plan.
– By Kyle Wingfield