Opponents outline issues with TSPLOST

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Traffic moves Friday along State Hwy. 154 in Coweta County, looking west from Willis Road. The project list for the July TSPLOST vote includes widening of  Highway 154 to Hwy. 34/Thomas Crossroads and improvements from Thomas Crossroads to Hwy. 54 in Sharpsburg, at a project cost of $33,720,000.

By SARAH FAY CAMPBELL
sarah@newnan.com
For opponents of the proposed Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, there are several issues with the proposal.
They say there’s the question of its constitutionality and its appropriateness. It’s effect on other transportation funding sources. The pre-existing problems with the Georgia Department of Transportation.
Then there are concerns from individual regions about projects that either are or aren’t on the list.
Opposition to the TSPLOST crosses political boundaries — from tea parties to the Sierra Club and the Georgia NAACP.
State Rep. Billy Horne, R-Sharpsburg, said at a recent town hall meeting he feels the TSPLOST and the law that created it, the Transportation Investment Act of 2010, are unconstitutional.
Horne added that he had been told by several elected officials who served on the “regional transportation roundtables,” which put together the project lists from each region, that legal challenges are certain.
“If by chance any of them do pass, it is very likely that somebody, or some groups, will file suit to have these things overturned,” said Horne at a May 24 town hall meeting hosted by the Senoia Tea Party Patriots.
Jeff Kilgore, a south Georgia accountant who has studied the TSPLOST numbers and is a member of the anti-TSPLOST Transportation Leadership Coalition, agrees.

“The law itself is deeply flawed,” he said. “The people in the General Assembly knew it, the lawyers knew it,” said Kilgore, who is chairman of the anti-TSPLOST committee in the Coastal Georgia region.

One constitutional concern is that the representation on the regional transportation roundtables violates the constitutional principle of one person, one vote, according to Kilgore. The roundtable contained two members from each participating county — even though the counties have widely different populations.

Another concern is that the regional nature of the tax referendum violates the principle of Home Rule.

There’s also the constitutionality of the state treating different regions differently in terms of state funding based on how those regions voted on the TSPLOST.

And if Georgians and their local governments don’t believe the state wants voters to approve the TSPLOST, there’s an extra reminder — a little penalty for not approving the state’s plan to transform our transportation future.

Regions that vote down the TSPLOST will be required to provide a 30 percent “match” for road projects done under the “Local Maintenance Improvement Grant” program. Currently, the required match is 10 percent, and it will remain so for regions that approve the tax.

If any region had failed to reach an agreement on their regional project lists before the October 2011 deadline, the required match would have been 50 percent. Coweta receives about $950,000 a year from LMIG.

Money raised from the TSPLOST stays in the region where it is collected, and must be spent in the region. The DOT can’t take those sales tax dollars and use them for anything else.

However, the DOT can “redirect” other money — mainly federal gas tax funds, which would have been spent on projects if TSPLOST weren’t available. The law says the DOT can’t redirect the funds that have already been “allocated” to another region.

The federal funds would still have to be subject to “congressional balancing,” according to the “frequently asked questions” on the DOT’s website. Go to http://www.dot.state.ga.us/localgovernment/FundingPrograms/transreferendum/Pages/FAQ.aspx for more information.

The proponents of the TSPLOST have said there is no “Plan B” if the TSPLOST fails.

“One of the tools that the other side is using is, ‘what is plan B? What are we going to do [if the tax isn’t approved]?’” said Claire Bartlett of the Transportation Leadership Coalition.

“There is some obvious stuff ... we are calling plan B,” she said. One thing is eliminating congressional balancing.

The TLC is also crafting its own Plan B announcement. “We’re not talking about that yet, but we will,” Bartlett said. “It is going to be statewide. We’re meeting with several legislators from the different regions to talk with them about it,” she said.

Kilgore said the first step in solving Georgia’s transportation funding issues is reforming the DOT.

“I think that if you reform” the Georgia Department of Transportation and “rein in the control and compliance, you’re going to find somewhere between probably $200 million and $400 million that is going out the door through either fraud, waste or abuse,” Kilgore said.

“There is a lot of money that goes through DOT and nobody’s paying attention to it,” he said.

It was when Kilgore became aware of TSPLOST last summer and began to research “why are we even considering a statewide sales tax” that he “found out what a travesty our DOT is, and how poorly run it is,” he said.

“In meeting with my local delegationâ ¦ it became clear that the politicians in Atlanta have given up any thought or attempt at reining in or controlling or reforming the DOT,” he said. “Sonny Perdue tried, and he failed, [former House Speaker] Glen Richardson tried and he failed, and they both suffered irreparable harm to their political capital and their reputation as a result of trying to take over and improve DOT,” he said.

Realizing the depth of DOT’s problems is what made Kilgore and others so passionate about defeating the TSPLOST.

“We realized how insidious the law was,” Kilgore said. “Rather than go to the people and ask the people for more money, why don’t you try to figure out what you’ve got with DOT and what an efficient agency really needs in order for the state to be provided with adequate roads and bridges,” Kilgore said.

“When you’ve done that, then let us know how much money you need,” he said.

It’s no secret the DOT has been troubled in the past several years. When then-Cowetan Gena Abraham (Evans) was named commissioner in 2007, she immediately uncovered problems with finances, record keeping and over commitment of projects.

Abraham set to work trying to untangle the financial situation of the DOT, but her career took a turn when she revealed that she and DOT Board Chairman Mike Evans were dating. He resigned from the board, and they married. Later, there was a controversy about email correspondence with some old boyfriends during her previous tenure as head of the Georgia Building Authority.

Abraham was subsequently fired by the GDOT board less than 15 months after she started. She was replaced by Vance Smith, then chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

Evans and Smith had been the top two candidates in 2007, and Evans was chosen by just one vote. Evans had been then Gov. Sonny Perdue’s choice for the position, while Smith was backed by then House Speaker Glen Richardson.

After Evans’ removal, Perdue installed Todd Long in the new position of GDOT’s director of planning.

Long has been the point person in the TSPLOST project development process, and it was his office that determined some projects submitted by counties in the Three Rivers didn’t meet the regional criteria and therefore were not eligible for TSPLOST funding.

Vance Smith lasted longer than Evans at Georgia DOT, but he resigned in late 2011, after two-and-a-half years.

There are still concerns over the DOT’s handling of the money it already gets.

The 2011 audit, released Dec. 31, found several “material weaknesses” and “significant deficiencies” in financial accounting, and stated that the financial statements presented to the independent auditor were “not prepared in conformity with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America.”

Kilgore and many others, including U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, think another key piece of the puzzle is to seek repatriation of the federal gas tax.

When it comes to the federal gasoline tax, Georgia is a donor state. From 2005-2009, Georgia received back just 89 percent of the 18.4 cent gas tax paid within the state, according to Graves. The federal gas tax goes into the Highway Trust Fund.

“The Highway Trust Fund is broke,” said Kilgore. “The federal government has been borrowing money form the general fund to put money in the highway trust fund. Just send the money to the states!” Kilgore said.



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