T-SPLOST in trouble along coast
By GORDON JACKSON
The Brunswick News
If predictions by state officials are accurate, the Transportation Investment Act referendum may be in trouble in the 10-county coastal region that includes Brunswick.
Many elected officials on both sides of the aisle are predicting voters will reject the July 31 referendum, which asks for a 1-percent sales tax for transportation-related projects.
State Sen. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, says he will vote for the tax, but that doesn't mean his support will convince enough voters to approve the referendum.
"I don't have a warm, fuzzy feeling," he said of the measure also known as the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or T-SPLOST. "It's a matter of people being fed up. I think it's going to be a missed opportunity."
State Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah, says he will vote against the referendum and believes he is not alone. "I don't think it will pass in the region," he said. "It's a regressive tax."
State Sen. William Ligon, R-Waverly, says he is opposed to the tax and believes the vote is in trouble in the coastal region of Glynn, McIntosh, Camden, Chatham, Effingham, Bulloch, Bryan, Liberty, Long and Screven.
"I suspect it's going to fail in the coastal district and other parts of the state," Ligon said. "I believe the state will have to come back and work on a (new) plan."
The proposed tax is a baffling issue to gauge for elected officials throughout the state because support or opposition to controversial issues can usually be predicted by political party affiliation. That's not the case with T-SPLOST, where elected officials from both parties are urging voters to vote for or against the referendum.
"It's the strangest thing I've ever seen," said state Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah.
Stephens says he supports the tax because the list of projects was created by local citizens. "I like the regional concept," he said. "Roads don't stop at county lines."
But he also believes the referendum is in trouble. "The polls have it split down the middle," he said. "Everything we see, it's not doing good in Coastal Georgia."
State Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine, is a vocal opponent of the proposed tax who also believes the conditions are right for it to fail.
"I do not expect this to pass," he said. "I am hearing that it could be close in the coastal region, but there is such an anti-tax mentality among the electorate. This anti-tax mind-set in combination with a slow economic recovery is the perfect storm for this referendum to fail."
State Rep. Alex Atwood, R-St. Simons Island, says he has already cast his vote against the referendum because of a campaign promise he made two years ago when he vowed never to vote in favor of a tax on food and medicine. "I think it will fail, but that's just a guess," he said.
Supporters warn that regions rejecting the tax will be unable to compete for new jobs if the transportation system can't accommodate growth. But elected officials do not predict rejecting the tax will cause irreparable harm to the region.
"Even if it fails, we have two years to correct this," Jackson said of the next time voters could be presented with another referendum.
Despite some dire forecasts, Jackson says rejecting the tax "won't be gloom and doom."
"We already have a transportation tax. We're still building roads and bridges in the coastal area," he said. "Don't be afraid."
Carter says voters can't have it both ways if they want the federal government to fix its problems. "All of us, at some point, have demanded the federal government get its house in order," he said. "We can't rely on the federal government (for transportation funding). I happen to like local control."
Ligon says he expects the T-SPLOST to fail in the region because people are telling him too many of the proposed projects are unnecessary. They also don't like the idea of paying a new tax.
Supporters say there is no alternative, or "Plan B," if the referendum is voted down. But if it fails in several regions, state legislators will have to come up with a new plan to fund transportation projects.
Stephens says elected officials had other alternatives they could have taken. He called the T-SPLOST referendum "the cowardly way out."
"We could have done this at the legislative level," he said. "There has got to be a mechanism for everyone to be treated fairly."
Jackson agrees that there are other ways to generate revenue for road projects.
"We can increase the gas tax legislatively, just with a vote," he said. "But everyone's afraid to man up and do what's right for the state."
State Rep. Bob Bryant, D-Garden City, is one of the few elected state officials in the region who believes the tax will pass. "I'm sort of in between, but I think we will pull it in," he said.
In the Savannah area, Bryant said anyone caught in traffic on Interstate 16 will probably vote in favor of the tax.
But the big selling point is the tourists visiting Savannah and the motorists traveling through the region who will contribute a significant percentage of the revenue collected from the tax, Bryant said.
But fellow Savannah Democrat Rep. Mickey Stephens says he can't support the tax and believes the vote will be close. If the referendum fails to pass, he doesn't expect roads to crumble, bridges to collapse and employers to refuse to open businesses in the region.
"It's not going to happen," he said. "We'll find a way to make do."
If it fails in too many regions, state legislators will be forced to find another solution to transportation issues.
"I suspect if this referendum is voted down, the legislature will be forced to go back to the drawing board and find another solution to Atlanta's traffic problems," Spencer said. "That is what this tax is all about to begin with."
Atwood says if the coastal region is the only one in the state to reject the tax, "we would be kind of lost."
"We'll deal with it," he said. "I have confidence the General Assembly will roll up their sleeves and go back to work. We're going to do OK. We'll get through this economic malaise."