Today’s Courier Herald Column:
This past summer, voters across Georgia went to the polls to answer the question if they would like to see an additional one percent sales tax on their purchases to fund transportation projects within their regions. Much of the state turned out with a resounding answer of “no”.
Extra penny sales taxes, known officially as Special Purpose Local Option Sales Taxes (SPLOSTs), have become a common fixture of local government finance over the past couple of decades. Politicians are reluctant to vote to raise taxes but are quite happy to allow voters to decide if additional projects and initiatives are worth paying a bit more.
Many taxpayers, however, have recognized that these “special” – meant to read as temporary – taxes are not special at all. Rather, in many counties, they are taxes that are renewed every five years to fund projects that are no longer unique needs, but a wish list dreamed up with a goal to spend the amount of tax revenue that is projected to be raised under the tax.
Resistance to renewal of these taxes is growing, especially in light of a population that has significant portions banding together under the banner of being “Taxed Enough Already”. Opponents point to the ongoing maintenance and staffing needs of many of these projects that increase the burden of the city or county’s general budgets long after the “special” taxes are gone. A recent SPLOST renewal in my home county of Cobb featured new facilities that would require staffing and maintenance, even as existing county facilities were being closed as budget cuts required the elimination of operating funds to operate them.
As the public grows weary of government spending at the level with which it is allowed to tax, a bill to reform how SPLOSTs are levied has been introduced in the Georgia House of Representatives this session. House Bill 153 proposes to allow SPLOSTs to be less than 1% as is currently required by Georgia law, so long as the taxes are levied in .05% increments and that the total of all SPLOSTs effective at any one time do not exceed the 1% SPLOST that is the maximum currently allowed by law.
The effect of this law would allow counties to build project lists based on current need and specific desire, and then levy a tax to raise the amount of money needed just for those priority projects. This would help taxpayers feel they are getting the projects that are most desired, while counties would feel better about having the option to place another initiative before voters should new priorities arise during the five year time horizon of most SPLOSTs.
As the country deals with fiscal issues at the national level, it is time we turn the bigger conversation about how government operates to one of determining the priorities we have as a people and taxing for that amount. This concept needs to be brought home to SPLOSTs, and HB 153 is a good start.
Instead of looking at the revenues that can be raised with a 1% additional tax and then producing a wish list with a matching price tag, governments need to begin to organize initiatives most desired by their residents, and then levy only the amount of tax needed for those that are justifiable priorities, not nice to have luxuries.
All politics is said to be local, and the politics of the day is about balancing budgets and fiscal responsibility. Georgia should take the lead in restoring these principles to local government initiatives, by allowing the flexibility to tax less for special local projects, but extend that flexibility to have more than one initiative ongoing at any time.
It’s past time we return government spending to a process based on priorities and not existing revenue. HB 153 can be a small part of this process.