On July 31, 2012 there will be a statewide vote on whether to adopt yet another 1¢ sales tax (bringing us to 8%! ) This new tax is known as the “TSPLOST” (Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax – authorized by the 2010 “Transportation Investment Act”). This SPLOST tax is unique from all prior SPLOST initiatives in that it represents the first step toward loss of local sovereignty. The TSPLOST breaks Georgia up into 12 “economic development” regions. It is the aggregate vote within each region that determines whether the tax is implemented. This multi-county vote aggregation is unique in the history of Georgia as it violates the central tenant of “home rule” written into the Georgia constitution. This means simply that even if one county is 100% opposed, if all the other counties in a region (see map of region here) are for it, then the tax will be imposed in all counties for the next 10 years (even in the ones that did not approve it). This is a disturbing precedent toward slowly shifting political power away from the local level and towards a more centralized authority. We see the same trend today with the states versus the central authority of the federal government. The parallels are uncanny. Just as the states send money for education or highways to the federal government only to have it redistributed back to the states in a non-proportionate manner we will see counties sending TSPLOT money to the state only to have the state send back less to some counties and more to others (see this file for details). Now some might argue that unequal distribution of tax receipts is endemic to any taxing scheme in a region, whether it be city, county, or state. That is quite true. However using the fact that our current tax system is unfair is a poor justification to continue using that same system at a new level.
Those in favor of this new tax rely on the same old hackneyed Keynesian fallacy that somehow public works projects magically pump up an economy… by forcing the taxpayer to spend money on roads and bridges and bike paths (dubiously justified) when they would have otherwise spent it on other goods or services. Road construction companies will be doing quite well (an additional $19 billion over the next 10 years) to the detriment of all other businesses that will see a decline in sales of $19 billion. At best it is a zero sum game, the only difference being that with the tax we are saying we think the government is more properly suited to know how to spend our money and without the tax we are saying we should decide how to spend our money.
Ok, so by now you’re asking, “Ok, Mr. Smarty pants, how should we fund transportation infrastructure?” – Well, I’m glad you asked! Transportation more than any other government monopolized “service” is a user based service for which assessing a service use fee is easily implemented and justifiable (if you use it, then pay for it). There are a number of ways to do this and I’ll list them in increasing order of their effectiveness in terms of fairly assigning cost to usage: gasoline tax, annual odometer tax, general highway tolls, “tiered” highway tolls (i.e. pay more to drive in less congested lanes), fully private roads (where the desire for profit drives new PRIVATELY FINANCED road construction). Any of these options would be better than a general sales tax because those who are on limited or fixed incomes and who do not drive much are being forced to subsidize large businesses and freight carriers who disproportionately utilize the “public” roadways. Taxing activity directly related to road usage at least makes an attempt to fairly assign cost to those that are using them. It is a step in the right direction and it is the step we must take lest we continue sliding down the slippery slope of nebulous centralized taxation for anything that seems like it might be “good.” Vote for local control and fiscal responsibility and vote NO on TSPLOST.