If it hasn’t happened in some places already, it won’t be long before state legislators start making the rounds of county commission meetings within their respective districts. At those sessions, they’ll be asking what they can do during the legislative session convening in January to help out those local governments.
This year, when county government officials see their state legislators, they might want to ask for some changes in the state law governing the 1 percent special-purpose, local-option sales tax (SPLOST). And if they don’t hear any calls for change, state legislators might want to consider seeking some changes on their own.
First, a bit of background: Since 1985, state law has allowed counties to use SPLOST proceeds to fund capital improvement projects — roads and other infrastructure, building construction and equipment purchases. Assessment of a SPLOST must be approved by voters in a referendum listing all of the projects slated for funding with the special levy.
And therein lies the first problem with the SPLOST. Under current state law, voters can’t pick and choose among the listed projects, but must vote on the list as an all-or-none proposition. As a result, voters who might be perfectly willing to approve a SPLOST to fund new fire stations also are compelled to approve projects such as, for example, an arts center that might have relatively narrow appeal and that a county commission might have put on the project list to appease a particularly vocal group of voters.
There are a couple of ways the state might address this issue. The legislature could change the SPLOST law to limit the levy to the funding of basic infrastructure projects that directly address public health, safety and welfare. Alternatively, the legislature could change the law so that voters could pick and choose from among the projects listed in a referendum. Voters could cast “yes” or “no” votes for each of the projects on the list, with only those projects that reach a predetermined percentage of the vote getting SPLOST dollars.
A second problem with the SPLOST is being played out today in Athens-Clarke County. Even as the county commission is working to find a site for a planned $2.3 million SPLOST-funded tennis center, there are people in the community wondering whether that is a wise outlay of public dollars. Currently, state law requires that all projects approved in a SPLOST referendum be constructed. That’s certainly a reasonable requirement, although it doesn’t contemplate the possibility that, over the multiyear life of a SPLOST program, a community’s needs and desires might change.
Changing the SPLOST law to allow for that possibility might mean requiring that a local government formally assess its entire SPLOST program at least a year before collections are projected to cease. The law could provide that if that assessment showed community support for a project (or projects) had waned since the referendum, the county commission could — after exhaustive and rigorous public hearings — either vote itself to abandon the problematic project or hold a referendum on the proposed abandonment. Any unspent SPLOST dollars would remain in a sales tax account and be applied to a future round of SPLOST projects.
Finally, there’s the admittedly somewhat arcane issue, noted in a Sunday Banner-Herald commentary by a county resident, of whether counties should be allowed to pursue SPLOST-funded projects that materially change previous SPLOST-funded projects. The commentary noted that, depending on where it is finally located, the proposed tennis complex could bring changes to either of two parks that were funded in whole or in part by SPLOST dollars.
This is another case in which it would make sense for voters to be allowed to vote on individual SPLOST projects, but it also might make sense for the state SPLOST law to be changed to ensure that SPLOST projects, once approved and constructed, remain substantially unchanged.
Clearly, there is room for change in the state’s SPLOST law. And in an election year — particularly one like 2010, in which voters are paying particular attention to their pocketbooks — legislators should recognize that such an initiative might pay off at the ballot box.