T-SPLOST: The Campaign began this past week as proponents of the 10-year, $7.2 billion sales tax unveiled advertisements to run on television and radio. Their message: Your commute keeps you away from your family; tax yourself to spend more time at home.
(Officially, the group behind the ads “is engaged in educational activities and will not advocate for or against passage of the sales tax referendum.” But I defy you to find a T-SPLOST opponent among the 50 people it suggests as “educational” speakers about the issue.)
Their theme about family time is smart enough. But the ads cite a curious statistic: Metro Atlantans’ average commute is “over an hour a day,” which might not sound so bad to someone who now drives inside the Perimeter from Acworth or Buford, or from Marietta to Snellville. What’s more, it’s passing strange to campaign on improving a commute of 30 minutes each way when the metric used to evaluate the projects on the T-SPLOST list concerned trips of no more than 45 minutes.
In any event, the campaign just might be upstaged before the July 31 referendum by a new act — T-SPLOST: The Lawsuit.
After hearing rumors of such a lawsuit, I spoke recently with an attorney consulting with tax opponents. While offering no promises of a legal action, the attorney said discussions are “in the works, moving in the direction of filing a lawsuit.”
The legal premise is that the Georgia Constitution allows only local jurisdictions to form “special districts” that can levy taxes and provide government services in more than one county, not the Legislature. State legislators, of course, are the ones who in 2010 adopted the Transportation Investment Act, creating 12 regions across the state for the purposes of a T-SPLOST, including the 10-county metro Atlanta region.
As an example, the attorney pointed to Community Improvement Districts. The argument is that there are two CIDs for the Perimeter area, one in DeKalb and one in Fulton, because of the restriction on multicounty CIDs.
Is there a case here?
Attorneys who are either neutral or supportive of the tax tell me the odds of success for such a lawsuit are 50-50. That’s because, while one might also argue the Constitution allows legislators to create multicounty “special districts,” they have never tried to do so.
Indeed, multiple observers close to the process — both pro- and anti-T-SPLOST — say discussions in 2009 about a region-based tax plan always began with the assumption a constitutional amendment would be needed to allow legislators to create the regions. By the next year, that assumption had disappeared. The TIA became law, setting up this year’s referendum.
If a lawsuit is filed, and depending on how quickly the courts work to resolve it, implementation of the tax could be delayed by a year or two.
A bill filed this year by members of the Cobb and Fayette delegations, HR 1350, would spend that time delaying a T-SPLOST vote. Instead, voters this fall would consider a constitutional amendment allowing the Legislature to create multicounty special districts. If it passed, the referendum would be held in the future.
That bill appears to be blocked, so T-SPLOST backers may simply have to hope for a win in court. And that’s something no amount of advertising, good or bad, can guarantee.
– By Kyle Wingfield