A little over a week ago voters in Georgia voted by region on various transportation proposals to be accompanied by a one-percentage-point increase in the sales tax. These referenda–known collectively as T-SPLOST, where SPLOST is an acronym for “special purpose local option sales tax” and the T presumably stands for “transportation”–were defeated in 9 of the state’s 12 regions. The results in metro Atlanta were most noteworthy, with the proposal being rejected by a stunning 63% of those voting.
The voters were offered all manner of magical outcomes: No more traffic congestion! Thousands of new jobs! Faster economic growth! And all this for only an extra penny per dollar of spending! But the voters saw through the bullshit clearly. For one thing, the leading cause of traffic congestion is…growth. Promising new growth through better highways is simply ridiculous. For another thing, there’s no such thing as a dedicated general-revenue source like a sales tax, because general revenue is completely fungible. Unless you think that no money is going to be spent on any of the proposed highway projects anyway, then you’ve got to realize that this referendum was as much about spending on schools as it was about highways. Here’s a pretty good rule of thumb: the last budget item cut when revenues fall will be the first item restored when revenues rise. Can you guess what spending category is due for a cut in metro Atlanta in the coming year? If you guessed “schools,” congratulations. But no politician would’ve been dumb enough to ask the voters to raise taxes for the benefit of Atlanta’s schools, which lead the nation only in cheating. So they tied the tax increase to a grab-bag of transportation projects.
Atlanta voters sent a clear enough message . “I just don’t trust that government is going to take the money and do what they say they’re going to do,” said Shirley Tondee, a retired sales representative. Smart lady, that Ms. Tondee.
What did the elected officials who backed T-SPLOST learn from their total defeat? Not much. Said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, “The voters have decided. But tomorrow I’m going to wake up and work just as hard to change their minds.” Or, as ex-senator and ongoing-annoyance Russ Feingold has said in another context, “The game’s not over until we win.”
It seems to me that if you can’t persuade voters in the metro area with the third-worst traffic congestion in the US to raise taxes by a percentage point in order to fund highway projects, then voter distrust of government is deep and pervasive–and well earned. It appears that the rise of the Tea Party in 2010 was not a fleeting phenomenon, which gives me hope for November.