Savannah, Turnout, and TSPLOST

I’ve been consistently surprised by the winning margins for special purpose local option sales taxes around the state.

Here in Chatham County, another ESPLOST round was approved in 2011 by 67 percent of voters — apparently the tax won every single precinct. Sure, that was the continuation of an existing tax and not a new one. Sure, the local public school system has marshaled broad community support for its efforts. Sure, an ESPLOST has a built-in bipartisan constituency: parents.

Still, I wasn’t prepared for an overwhelming win like that.

Clearly, that vote bodes well for the upcoming coastal region TSPLOST. It looks like voters generally are becoming more comfortable with the idea of increased consumption taxes, and it looks like many voters see the economic development potential in increased infrastructure spending.

But there are plenty of reasons to think that the tax will be defeated here in the coastal region, which includes Chatham, Screven, Bulloch, Effingham, Bryan, Liberty, Long, McIntosh, Glynn, and Camden counties.

One of the great ironies of the TSPLOST (it’s really called the Tranportation Investment Act) is that it was created by a Republican-dominated state government but its success will rely heavily on Democratic voters. And that likely means that voters in Chatham County, which has 40 percent of the region’s population and which gave Obama 57 percent of the vote in 2008, will have to approve TSPLOST decisively. Liberty was the only other county in the region that Obama won.

But will Chatham County Democrats turn out in sufficient numbers?

The TSPLOST project list includes some transit money and the removal of the I-16 flyover on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, but otherwise the list seems more aimed at relieving suburban congestion than enhancing urban living. In other words, there aren’t a lot of obvious benefits for Savannah’s Democrat-dominated older neighborhoods. I think it’s pretty clear that the flyover removal makes sense on every level, but that project has also been held up by TSPLOST opponents as the most obviously wasteful one.

There seems little else on the July 31 ballot that will drive Democratic turnout in Chatham County. None of the Chatham Democrats currently in the Georgia House or Senate is being challenged. Al Scott is the only Democrat running to replace the term-limited-out Pete Liakakis as Chatham County Commission Chairman.

Even the competitive races aren’t very compelling. There’s a competitive Democratic primary in only one of eight Chatham County Commission districts. There are a couple of Democrats in the primary hoping for a chance to get beaten by Jack Kingston in November. And there are two Democratic candidates for sheriff, but either of them will be a huge underdog in the fall against Republican incumbent Al St. Lawrence.

Incumbent District Attorney Larry Chisholm, who has come under considerable fire (more on that in a future post), is being challenged in the Democratic primary by Zena McClain. That could become a flashpoint, but I don’t really see that one driving a large turnout either.

Click here for the full list of candidates in the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Bryan, and Effingham counties).

Meanwhile, three Republicans (Walter Crawford, Eddie DeLoach, and Billy Hair) are running for Chatham County Commission Chairman, two sitting Republican commissioners are facing primary challengers, and there’s a challenger in one primary for a Republican-held House seat. Republicans will simply have more reason to vote than Democrats will. A quick look at surrounding counties suggests similar dynamics.

Will the inevitable push from government officials and business organizations get enough Democrats to the polls? Will that push convince enough moderates and conservatives that the project list is worth the additional tax burden? Will a sufficient number of voters see such need for specific projects that they’re willing to vote yes even if they disapprove of much of the project list?

At this point, considering the demographics of the 10-county region, my guess is no. But, as I said up top, I’ve been consistently surprised by SPLOST votes.



  1. greencracker says:

    What happens when a project goes over budget? I think the law says the tax will raise X and no more than X; and that the exact project list will be built. If the first project goes over budget, what happens to the others?

    • Rambler1414 says:

      The legislation did not answer this.

      My assumption has always been that if the Project X (located in County Y) budget is $30 Million, they go out to bid and the lowest construction bid is $35 Million, there are several options

      1. County Y reduces project scope to get under $30 Million
      2. County Y adds local dollars to fill in the gap
      3. County Y decides not to build Project X and the $30 Million is therefore re-distributed to all local governments in the region under the 15% rules.

    • Bill Dawers says:

      Well there will definitely be projects go over budget and there will almost certainly be some regions that overestimate their potential revenue from the tax collection.

      I can’t speak to other regions, but I assume they’re doing something similar in the budgeting to what’s being done on the coast: many of the projects are not being fully funded by the TSPLOST and will also rely on other state, federal, or even local money. The same thing has been done with the SPLOST votes here generally. It’s a way to get more projects on the list to try to maximize votes.

      • bgsmallz says:

        My understanding is that in an effort to avoid some of the mistakes made in other jurisdictions (like Denver, for example) on not budgeting enough, they required a cushion of X% after final budget price was determined…I can’t find the source, but I think the % for transit was ‘super’ high to the point that some folks were concerned they were overstating the amount of transit funding actually in the list in the Atlanta region.

        By the way…I think this is so perfect. It’s the discussion across the state in a nutshell…it makes perfect sense, so of course it’s a rally cry for the opponents:

        “I think it’s pretty clear that the flyover removal makes sense on every level, but that project has also been held up by TSPLOST opponents as the most obviously wasteful one.”

          • Bill Dawers says:

            Here’s the same passage from the Coastal Region document:

            “The Final Investment List totals $1,027,038,848 (75% number of 2011 adjusted) of TIA funds in current year dollars. The Roundtable recognizes, however, that the adopted estimate for the TIA is at least $1,206,257,978 (75% of actual collections), when adjusted from current year to year of expenditure, and could be as high as the inflation adjusted revenue estimate. As projects are constructed, project estimates will be adjusted for economic inflation.”

            I suppose it’s also possible that some of the discretionary funds (25 percent of the total) could be used as additional funding in case of cost overruns on projects already on regional list.


            • peter tondee says:

              It’s a shame that this boondoggle seeks to punish regions for a “NO” vote by reducing the Local Maintenance and Improvement Grant money from 30% to 10%….

  2. drjay says:

    “And there are two Democratic candidates for sheriff, but either of them will be a huge underdog in the fall against Republican incumbent Al St. Lawrence.”

    i actually think that this race is going to be about the most closely contested spot on the ballot in november. it was 51-49 affair in 08…

    • Bill Dawers says:

      I might very well be overstating it, but I think Obama’s presence at the top of the ticket and the bad year for Republicans generally in 2008 gave at least a 3 to 5 point boost for every partisan down-ballot race. That would start St. Lawrence in mid-50s for this year. I think it’s going to be really, really tough for anyone to bite into that natural advantage.

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