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Posted: March 19, 2011 1:49 p.m.

Why SPLOST passed and what that means

The 2011 SPLOST election on Tuesday turned out just about how officials thought it would, with a narrow victory.

With "yes" votes accounting for 54 percent of the total, the vote was nearly 10 percent closer than the 2005 SPLOST election, but several officials attributed that to the current economic strain on families, not increased dissatisfaction with government.

"I don't think you could have come up with a list that 100 percent of people in the county would have supported. I don't think you could have come up with a list 100 percent of the board would have supported initially," County Commissioner Mort Ewing said. "We got five "yes" votes (on the commission) in the end on the language of the resolution."

Newton was one of 18 Georgia counties to pass a SPLOST this month, and despite all the debate locally about lower taxes, all 18 passed.

"People may not always trust government, whether that's the county or school board, and they may not want to pay more in property taxes, but with a SPLOST it's more clear what it will pay," said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor. "It will pay for a project they like, and the county and school board can't divert funds elsewhere."

SPLOST is set for six years, but the sales tax debate isn't going anywhere as every county in Georgia is preparing project lists for a first-ever transportation SPLOST, which could come up for a vote in 2012. That would push the sales tax rate in most counties to 8 percent.

"There was very wide support for the SPLOST votes we saw. Newton was at 54 percent (support), but the trend across the state showed very good pass rates," said Beth Brown, communications director for the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia. "It really depends on local views. It's hard to say there was a trend, because the issues and votes are local."

Cobb and Newton counties experienced the most opposition and closest votes, despite the differences between the two.

David Shock, political science professor at Kennesaw State University, said Cobb has always had significant opposition and close votes and has voted down SPLOSTs in the past. Cobb County has organized opposition and support groups, while Newton only had individual detractors.

In both counties, there was some controversy over some of the projects that may have been considered non-essential.

While some in Newton County wanted more money devoted to debt service or transportation, SPLOST voters in Cobb County simply felt that their SPLOST would collect too much money, given the county's 688,000-person population. Some Cobb residents want to see the law revised to allow counties to pass .25 percent, .5 percent and .75 percent sales tax rates for SPLOST. The legislature has not expressed support for this, Shock said.

Although some opponents argued for lower taxes, Shock said he didn't think that the economy played a huge role this year.

"I don't think economic visions had that big affect. I've studied elections and most SPLOSTs pass overwhelmingly, but SPLOSTs that have true organized opposition are closer than other SPLOSTs," Shock said.
In addition, turnout is always lower for March special elections than for spring primaries or November General Elections.

"The people most affected by downturn probably didn't vote," Shock said.

Commissioner Ewing was the architect of the county's final SPLOST list, and although he took criticism for his list, he said that's what's required of a leader.

"To be a leader you have to take risk. I have never known a good leader that did not take risk. Anytime you take the lead on a project you are taking a risk that you are going to upset somebody. Somebody is going to be mad or lash out. That's the risk you have to take as a leader," Ewing said. "The other thing is to be a good leader you can't be concerned about yourself; you have to be concerned about others... You can't worry if it (will) help or hurt you personally."

The official vote count was 2,168 in favor, 1,851 opposed, for a total turnout of 7.28 percent. The 2011 SPLOST passed by nearly 10 percent less than the 2005 SPLOST.

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