If a region passed the 10-year TSPLOST, it got a better rate in appying for funds under the $110 million program designed to help county-level governments repair or repave local roads. And that would have worked fine, if only the regions had taken a bite of the carrot. Nine of the 12 — including Region 10 in Southwest Georgia that includes the five-county metro Albany area — rejected the additional 1 percent sales tax.
So, now we have a situation in which the three regions that did pass the tax will have to match only 10 percent of the cost of a project approved for the fund, while our region and the eight others that rejected TSPLOST will have to pony up 30 percent of the cost of a project. And, not surprisingly, local governments in the higher-matching-funds bracket are crying out for relief from the penalty.
That brings up a basic question, one of fairness. The reduced rate was part of what each region voted on. If the General Assembly in 2013 decides to drop the penalty, then the voters in the regions in which the tax passed will have been deceived. To use a sports analogy, you can’t change the rules after the game has been played. An advantage in the matching fund rate was one of the things voters considered — or should have considered — when they cast their ballots.
As state Rep. Jay Powell (R-Camilla), noted at a Georgia Press Association roundtable in Bainbridge last week, just removing the penalty would certainly create distrust in the state government, especially in the three regions where the tax passed. The only approach Powell said he could see for removing the matching funds penalty would be for the Legislature to repeal the TSPLOSTs that were approved.
And that repeal, it seems to us, is the most logical approach, unless the Legislature leaves the situation where it lies. Taking no action, however, seems unlikely given that three-quarters of the state would be subject to the penalty, one that officials in many counties, which are already scrimping to get by, feel they can’t afford.
Unless we miss our guess, constituents and local-level officials will be hammering their respective legislators to fix this problem. Given the fact that 75 percent of the state will be pushing for a solution, something should happen under the Gold Dome, where the side with the most votes wins.
But repealing the T-SPLOSTs simply takes the state back to where it started on the issue of funding transportation improvements. The Legislature has shown no signs of having a notion to raise taxes, at the gas pump or otherwise. Meanwhile, the fuel pump tax, which is based on gallons sold and not the cost of a gallon, isn’t keeping up with demand because vehicles are more efficient, resulting in the same miles and wear and tear on roadways but are using fewer gallons of fuel — and generating less in gas tax revenues.
While Gov. Nathan Deal hasn’t committed to any changes, according to media reports, it seems that changes are inevitable. Sometime after the Legislature convenes in January, we very likely will find that a great deal of effort and money was spent driving the state right back to square one on this transportation issue.