Today’s Courier Herald Column:
When politicians want to make news, it’s generally done via Sunday news programs or Monday morning press conferences. It’s a not so subtle way of attempting to control the news flow for the week. Conversely, when they prefer not to make news, press releases are often buried late on a Friday afternoon. Most folks have mentally checked out for the weekend and are less likely to catch the Friday evening news or scan the Saturday paper for political updates.
Thus it appeared somewhat curious on the surface that Governor Deal announced late Friday that he had saved Georgians from an automatic tax increase. The sales tax portion of Georgia’s motor fuels tax was set to increase by eight tenths of one cent per gallon on July 1st based on formula that was approved in the 80’s. Normally, a tax cut is something that politicians choose to trumpet, rather than bury in a Summer Friday news cycle.
The news release states that “gas prices are high by historical standards” though they have been falling in the past month. With the economic recovery still slow, there will not be a tax increase because “the state should not add to that burden at this juncture.”
The announcement allows the Governor to avoid news stories about gas taxes going up around the first of July. Coincidentally, early voting for Georgia’s July 31st primary will begin about that time. On that ballot will be votes across the state for regional T-SPLOSTs to increase sales taxes to pay for transportation.
Suburban Republicans who already feel “taxed enough already” may not need much of a reminder that gas taxes are going up just as they are asked to go to the polls and vote themselves a 16% increase on the amount of sales taxes they pay. Polls already show these voters decidedly against the T-SPLOSTs without the additional agitation of another tax increase. Avoiding the increase – even one as small as eight tenths of one cent per gallon – was the safe move for the Governor.
Safe does not mean the move is not without paradox. 75% of the increase in taxes on motor fuels goes directly to D.O.T. funds. Construction costs on road projects are directly proportional to the costs of motor fuels. The move takes money away from road construction projects just as the campaign for T-SPLOST is hitting its peak, claiming economic calamity if we don’t give more money to transportation.
The Governor now has a stated position that Georgia taxpayers should not have to bear the burden of an eight tenths of one cent per gallon of gasoline purchased, but is currently assisting in the fundraising and campaigning so that Georgians will pay an additional one cent on all retail purchases. It is difficult to construct intellectual consistency between these two positions. It is far easier to construct a political pragmatism around them. Georgians are more likely to support raising their own taxes if they are not reminded almost simultaneously that the taxes they are also paying for the same purpose are also increasing.
MARTA also appears to be upholding its responsibility of making no sudden moves leading up to the vote. A super-majority of Fulton and DeKalb county voters – those who already pay a 1% sales tax for regional transit – will be required to do the heavy lifting in passing the Atlanta region’s T-SPLOST. MARTA had been threatening fare increases and drastic service cuts in this year’s budget.
An $800 Million budget released Monday includes neither fare increases nor service cuts. As such, Fulton and Dekalb taxpayers who will be asked to increase their own taxes to 8% or 9% will not have to ask themselves why they will be paying more to get less.
The T-SPLOSTs votes remain close in polls, with the Atlanta region specifically looking more and more like it is in trouble for the July 31st vote. The news released Friday by the Governor and Monday by MARTA may not help, but that was not the point. Both were designed to not hurt the process. For those with a vested in the passage, it is just good defense.