By Maria Saporta
So much is on hold as the Atlanta region looks forward to the vote on the passage of the one penny regional transportation sales tax.
As currently envisioned, the transportation sales tax will be on the July 31, 2012 ballot — and community leaders are working as hard as they can to help make sure it will pass.
But one popular concept — a fractional sales tax that would be dedicated funding for counties to invest in the arts, economic development and quality of life initiatives — is being tabled until after the transportation sales tax vote.
Joe Bankoff, president of the Woodruff Arts Center who recently announced that he is retiring at the end of May, has been working with other arts leaders on a fractional sales tax bill that has come close to passage in the state legislature during the past two sessions. The bill has been championed by the Metro Atlanta Arts & Culture Coalition.
It is one of those bills that has had strong bi-partisan support in the legislature as well as among county leaders.
It would be the first time Georgia would permit splitting up a sales tax penny that could be used for a variety of efforts such as arts and cultural organizations, green space acquisition and infrastructure improvements.
Counties would have the flexibility to decide how the funds would be spent and how much they would want to raise. For example, a county could seek voter approval for only half a penny rather than a full penny. The only stipulation would be that a percentage of the tax would go to the arts.
“I will continue to work on the fractional sales tax,” Bankoff said about his post-retirement plans. “This is something we need to do for the community and for the whole state. We are going to keep working on this because we think the issue is about jobs.”
Bankoff said the priority in 2012 will be in getting the regional transportation sales passed and that efforts to pass a fractional sales tax will skip a year.
“We have got to figure out a way to work on our transportation challenges,” Bankoff said. “We are going to try to get the T-Splost (transportation sales tax) done.”
For much of the past four years, the focus has been on a transportation funding bill. Finally, in the 2011 session, the legislature passed the regional transportation sales tax bill that would allow regions all across the state to develop a transportation wish list and take that list to voters.
For whatever reason, the sales tax has become the preferred way for Georgia to raise new revenues. By letting voters decide whether to tax themselves, legislators take the path of least resistance so they don’t have to vote on a tax increase.
In November, metro Atlantans once again voted in favor of a one penny educational sales tax for public schools.
This coming March, the City of Atlanta will ask voters to extend the water-sewer penny sales tax to invest in the city’s infrastructure (it has passed twice before, helping raise billions to upgrade the city’s sewer system).
All of these measures could push the City of Atlanta’s sales tax rate up to a level that is higher than many other competing cities.
Each initiative — transportation, the arts, sewers, education, etc. — has merit. But it would make sense to figure out other ways than just the sales tax for us to pay for our needs.
For example, couldn’t we increase the gas tax to help pay for our transportation needs? Couldn’t we ask voters for another round of quality of life bonds that could go towards sidewalk improvements, parks, etc.
And if we do ask voters to approve the sales tax for water and sewer, couldn’t we make sure that a significant portion be used for environmentally-friendly solutions — such as a the Historic Fourth Ward Park — where we can acquire green space and create parks that would help improve our water quality and solve our storm water problems?
The beauty of the fractional sales tax is that it can be split up and pay for a variety of initiatives that are critical to our future. And each county can tailor it to meet its individual needs.
Meanwhile, we’ll have to wait for at least a year or two before we’ll have an opportunity to vote on a fractional sales tax for arts and economic development.
Let’s hope that by that time voters will not have become so weary of sales taxes that they would reject a sales tax that could improve their quality of life.