T-SPLOST fails in Middle Georgia, across much of state

jgaines@macon.comJuly 31, 2012 

The proposed 1-percent sales tax to fund road projects went down to defeat in the 11-county Middle Georgia region, as it did in eight of the 12 regional commission districts statewide.

Ten of the 11 counties in the midstate region had reported final results by 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, with almost all results in from the remaining county. With 80,660 votes counted, the transportation special purpose local option sales tax was down 56 percent to 44 percent.

That ratio didn’t vary much throughout the night. It appears that Houston County, where the T-SPLOST lost by nearly three to one, was the decisive factor. It won in Bibb and Baldwin counties, but by fewer than 1,500 votes in each, while Houston voters rejected it by more than 7,000 votes.

Those are the three most populated counties in Middle Georgia. Results elsewhere in the region were mixed -- narrow wins in Jones, Twiggs and Wilkinson, with losses everywhere else.

Opponents waited tensely on the outcome, but got ever-more encouraging news, said Ned Sanders, former Houston County Commission chairman and head of Citizens Against T-SPLOST. He monitored results from the Houston County Board of Elections office, looking also for updates from neighboring Bibb County.

“I’m encouraged by the display of the voters, recognizing what’s good for Houston County in the long run,” Sanders said. “We have taken care of our major needs with our local SPLOST already.”

He expected more of the roughly 75,800 registered voters in Houston County to get to the polls, but he said he was gratified by the outcome anyway.

“We had a turnout here in Houston County of 20.73 percent,” Sanders said. “We’re grateful for what turned out, but I really expected it to be a bit higher. I expected around 24, 25 percent.”

By contrast, Macon Mayor Robert Reichert, who along with Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart lobbied hard for T-SPLOST passage, found the local and regional result a dark spot in an otherwise happy night: Macon-Bibb consolidation passed by a comfortable margin.

“I’m disappointed, because I thought it was a great opportunity for the Middle Georgia region, and I don’t know what we’re going to do to finance the transportation improvements that we all need to make our region grow and prosper,” Reichert said. “I’m so sorry. That’s going to be difficult for us.”

Current Houston Commission Chairman Tommy Stalnaker has also opposed the T-SPLOST, and said the results verified his earlier judgment.

“I had pretty much estimated what half the county was going to do,” he said. “The voters here do not have an appetite for an additional tax.”

Voters across much of the state likewise told the General Assembly they don’t want to pay more, Stalnaker said.

“It’s a sign of the times and the economic conditions,” he said. “People are struggling to make ends meet. Whether it’s a dime or a penny, people are scraping everything together just to survive.”

In 2010, state legislators authorized all 12 regional commissions statewide to hold T-SPLOST votes because revenue from the state gas tax -- the primary source for transportation funds -- was falling.

All 12 regions agreed to hold the vote, in part because if they didn’t vote or if it failed, the amount of matching money local governments have to put up to get state transportation funds will triple, from 10 percent to 30 percent.

If it had been approved, the measure would have increased sales taxes in much of Middle Georgia from 7 percent to 8 percent, starting Jan. 1, 2013.

Backers were counting on the $750 million it was expected to raise over 10 years to fund many of 76 projects on a regional list, pump about $187 million into local governments’ transportation funding and attract another $500 million in federal road money.

In order to pass, the T-SPLOST had to win a simple majority from voters in the region, regardless of how it did in any particular county.

But the nearly 490,000 residents of Middle Georgia are unevenly distributed, and the big three -- Baldwin, Bibb and Houston -- carried outsized clout.

The T-SPLOST’s lukewarm endorsement in Baldwin and Bibb, coupled with the big loss in Houston, overshadowed results in the smaller counties.

Officials in smaller counties particularly favored the T-SPLOST, arguing that the state funding would allow them to finish projects their own small tax bases could never afford on their own. Hart and Reichert portrayed it as vital to the economic health of Bibb as the hub of Middle Georgia.

Altogether the regional project list included $463 million for roads and bridges; $45 million for freight, logistics and aviation; $27 million for safety and traffic operations; $11 million for bicycle and pedestrian projects; $8 million for planning and management; and $7 million for public transit.

Now there is no other revenue source for that work, and it will be two years before T-SPLOST boosters can try to get the issue back on the ballot.

Telegraph writers Mike Stucka and Christina Wright contributed to this report. To contact writer Jim Gaines call 744-4489.

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