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Senator questions sales tax validity

5/17/2012

By NIKKI WILEY
The Brunswick News

A state legislator who represents southeast Georgia is encouraging voters to carefully review the Transportation Investment Act, a 1 percent sales tax that will be voted on this summer, because he says it may not be constitutional.

Sen. William Ligon, R-Waverly, a lawyer, is concerned that the state constitution does not provide specific authority for regional taxing and says that might make the tax for infrastructure improvements unconstitutional.

If passed, the Transportation Investment Act, voters will decide statewide by regions July 31 will impose a 10-year sales tax to fund 75 infrastructure projects in the 10-county region stretching from Camden to Screven County. Thirteen of the projects are in Glynn County.

Most of the revenue, 75 percent, would fund already designated projects. The remaining 25 percent would be given to local governments to spend on discretionary projects.

Even if Glynn County voters reject the tax, consumers will have to pay it if a majority of voters in other counties in the region approve it.

Ligon's questions regarding the tax's constitutionality surround the fact that the bill that would create it was not adopted by the Legislature and sent to voters as an amendment to the state constitution, he said.

If its funds are used for state purposes, it could violate a provision of the state constitution that prohibits a tax from being earmarked for a specific purpose unless authorized by the constitution. Ligon believes it is questionable if the constitution allows for taxing power over a special district, such as the transportation regions.

"There's just a lot of unanswered questions on (its constitutionality) and ultimately the (Georgia) Supreme Court may have to decide that issue," Ligon said.

Rather than funding regional infrastructure projects with the tax, Ligon said he supports a measure introduced in the General Assembly during the previous session, but which was never voted on.

Co-sponsored by Rep. Alex Atwood, R-St. Simons Island, a lawyer, the bill would have established counties as independent regional taxing authorities with the ability to cooperate with other counties in regional transportation projects.

Tax revenue raised under the unsuccessful bill would have stay local and counties would not have been penalized - as they will be under the current measure - for choosing not to assess the tax, Ligon said. The bill would have been a constitutional amendment.

A solution for funding transportation projects is needed, Ligon said.

"While many people do have concerns about (the tax), we must remain cognizant of the transportation needs in Georgia," Ligon said. "Without a good transportation system, such as our highways, railways and ports, our economy, could be subject to further stagnation."

Ligon does not plan to take legal action against the ballot measure, but said he expects the legislation will be challenged in court.

"It could be a county where the county voted against it and voters passed it in the region," Ligon said.

Glynn County Commission Chairman Richard Strickland said he is confident state lawmakers took precautions against creating unconstitutional legislation.

"I would think that the legislators who put the Transportation Investment Act together gave it a lot of thought and they thought it was the best option that they had at the time," he said. "And if there's court challenges, so be it. They'll be resolved."

Representative of both the Georgia Department of Transportation and the office of Attorney General Sam Olens said Wednesday they could not comment on the constitutionality of the Transportation Investment Act.

* The Glynn County Airport Commission says passage of a transportation sales tax will aid its operations, 2A

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