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T-SLOST outcome anyone's guess

7/25/2012

By GORDON JACKSON
The Brunswick News

The vote to determine the fate of the Transportation Investment Act referendum in a special election is perhaps one of the more difficult ones to predict in recent memory.

Analysts and polls say the referendum will fail in some of the 12 transportation voting regions established by the state, but they can't accurately predict which ones.

Members of the two main political parties have expressed support and opposition to the tax, and socioeconomics isn't an accurate gauge of likely voting patterns, either, analysts say.

"I think there will be some regions that pass this and some that don't," said Doug Callaway, executive director of the Georgia Transportation Alliance, an organization that supports the 1 percent sales tax commonly referred to as T-SPLOST for Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.

Callaway has been canvassing the state to generate support for the tax that will fund long lists of projects in the transportation regions in which voters approve it. He has spoken at the invitation of many chambers of commerce across the state.

Callaway said he doesn't know of any chamber of commerce in the state that is opposed to the tax, though some in the northern part of the state have taken no position on it.

The tax has strong chamber of commerce support in the 10-county coastal region, which includes Glynn County, where local chambers of commerce have made multiple presentations to generate support.

Glynn County is grouped into that region with nine other counties - McIntosh, Camden, Chatham, Effingham, Bulloch, Bryan, Liberty, Long and Screven - for voting and projects. A simple majority of voters in all 10 coastal counties is needed to pass the tax for the entire region.

No county can opt out of paying the tax if it is approved in its region, even if its residents vote against it.

Wally Orrel, president of the Darien-McIntosh County Chamber of Commerce, says he was unaware of any chamber that was opposed to the tax in the coastal region.

While he says he normally opposes new taxes, he says he has been busy making presentations to explain the benefits of supporting the T-SPLOST.

In McIntosh County, Orrel says taxpayers will get back more in transportation projects than they pay in taxes, which is a strong selling point.

But there are some in McIntosh County who Orrel says will not vote for the tax, regardless.

"We're trying to get the facts out there," he said. "If you care about your future, it's worth the investment."

Christine Daniel, director of the Camden County Chamber of Commerce, says her office is also working to convince voters to support the tax.

"We have been doing presentations to elected officials, civic groups, whoever will listen," she said.

The response has been mostly positive, though Daniel says some people have said they won't vote for the tax. The presentations have been effective in helping the audience members understand what's at stake for regions that approve the tax and the consequences of rejecting it.

"It's helped convince some audience members to change their mind as a result," Daniel said. "Some people, you can't change their minds."

Callaway says regions that vote against the tax will learn about the consequences facing them when it comes to transportation projects. They will be unable to compete with regions that approve the tax to fund road improvements necessary to attract new businesses.

"We don't have enough money to do the basic work necessary," Callaway said. "The regions that pass this will have an advantage over other regions."

Some opponents argue Glynn County is a donor county that will pay more into the tax than it gets in return. Callaway contends the counties in the region that receive more than they pay into the tax will contribute to the economic well-being of Glynn County in other ways.

"No one stays, shops and works in one county only," he said. "Commerce does not stop at a county line."

Callaway says he encourages people to support the tax because other alternatives, such as toll roads and raising the gas tax as much as 25 cents a gallon to fund road projects, would be very unpopular.

"This is about right and wrong," he said. "For Georgia, this is the perfect thing to do."

Woody Woodside, president of the Brunswick-Golden Isles Chamber of Commerce, says his organization coordinated presentations throughout the county to explain the advantage of supporting the T-SPLOST.

Like other chamber presidents, Woodside said the local vote could go either way. "We hope it passes because it's an all in or all out deal," he said.

The tax is estimated to generate $3.15 million for Glynn County and $650,000 for Brunswick annually for 10 years.

An oversight committee will monitor that projects are completed on schedules and within budgets.

The complaints Woodside says he hears are that Glynn County is a donor county and some of the projects, such as new general aviation terminals and a fire station, are questionable transportation projects, even though they qualify under funding guidelines. A new terminal is on the projects list for McKinnon St. Simons Island Airport, and a new terminal for a non-commercial aviation and a new county fire station are planned for the Brunswick Golden Isles Airport.

Area chamber directors expressed concern about what happens if the majority of voters in the region reject the referendum, though there is little they can do other than continue to ask voters to support the tax.

"It's the only game in town, until next week, anyway," Woodside said. "It could be either way."

Orrel declined to predict the outcome in McIntosh County or the region, though he plans to vote for it.

"My optimistic self believes it has a chance of passing," he said. "If you care about your future, it's worth the investment."

Daniel says she will continue to work until the election to convince voters to support the tax. "I'm going to be overly optimistic and predict it will pass at the regional level," she said. "I'm going to think positive. That's all you can do."

* Two state House of Representatives candidates differ on the merits of the T-SPLOST, 3A

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