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Posted: February 11, 2011 12:00 a.m.

False defense of the indefensible

The Newton County commissioners’ $57.6 million sales tax proposal raises this interesting question: Why are these officials and the bankers, auto dealers and big land owners behind them so determined to defend the indefensible by skirting the law and trashing the truth?

Ask yourself that question if you are a registered voter.

Remember that the buyer, not the seller, pays the sales tax. Then vote in the tax referendum between now and before the polls close on March 15.

Shrug your shoulders and stay home and your sales taxes stay high for the next six years because those backing the measure are voting "yes" even now.

The levy will rise even higher if the Legislature hikes the state sales tax to cover more territory, as is likely.

If this deeply flawed package is defeated, it can go back to its authors — Commissioners Mort Ewing, J. C. Henderson and Tim Fleming — and other board members, for a major haircut.

The board can then draft a substitute at about half the present price to finance only the "what’s necessary" and save the rest for the "to come" or "not at all."

This proposal deals with only initial project costs. Financing for maintenance and operation must come from other revenue sources and county government’s M/O money is all but gone. Limits on the public school system’s separate taxing authority already have been reached and Superintendent Gary Mathews is scratching to find $9 million for next year’s budget.

Meantime, voters should know that state law prohibits county or city officials from campaigning for or against a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or SPLOST.

Voters then should ask how unnamed "officials" can sidestep the law and appoint a committee headed by Billy Fortson and Denny Dobbs to rustle up votes and pass this one.

SPLOST supporters also should tell us how a tax that would strip dollars out of shoppers’ pockets for six years — or into the wild blue yonder if reimposed — is not a tax but a mere "extension" of one on the books.

Otherwise, that claim stands as a falsehood uttered with malice aforethought.

One, a tax is a tax, is a tax, extension or otherwise.

Two, the proposal calls for a 1 percent tax, not a mere penny, as the pro-SPLOST public relations types describe it.

And, three, this tax may well cover not only the sales reached by the old one but also levies on food and services. The latter will come true if this legislative session adopts the recommendations of the so-called Special Council on Tax Reform and Fairness appointed by Gov. Sonny Perdue.

The council wants state lawmakers to tax food 4 percent, to which the Newton proposal would add another 1 percent.

It also has recommended taxing presently exempted services ranging from home repairs to tax preparation. That would stretch state and local collections of new revenue down to the beauty shop level if the SPLOST were passed.

Backers call the SPLOST "a visitors tax...paid by any person that buys a retail item within our county borders." That’s what Sarah Palin might call a "hopey," since the big shopping centers lie across the Rockdale County line. It turns into a pipe dream if folks driving up from Jasper County for a hamburger are counted on to fund SPLOST.

Bankers, auto dealers and big land owners say a property tax increase is a certain threat if there’s no SPLOST.

A threat it may be for a banker with an overload of subprime foreclosures, an auto dealer with new and used lots filled to the brim and speculators holding big tracts of real estate waiting for land values to rise. Not so for the jobless, the poor and the family that’s already lost its home.

Homeowners here and elsewhere dislike property taxes. Studies indicate this is so because they come once a year in a lump sum, while SPLOST is a little-noticed daily shakedown.

Anthony Flint, a fellow and director of public affairs at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Mass., contends the property tax stands up well when compared with local sales or income taxes, "which vary dramatically with economic activity."

"(T)he property tax is basically sound," argues Flint.

"It works the way it was intended, and its transparency reflects the best of local democracy. We get the bill, we pay the tax, and we see how the revenue is spent in local schools, and in the basic services that local government provides."

Only taxes can pay for the quality schools, good transportation and sound government that desirable corporations rank ahead of tax giveaways when considering whether to bring their businesses and jobs here.

There’s truth in that old saw that says there is no free lunch.

Claude Sitton grew up in Rockdale County and lives in Oxford.


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