Another side of SPLOST for the thinking citizen
Imagine yourself down on your luck, homeless and hungry, when someone comes along who gives you one hundred dollars, but with one little catch: your money comes in the form of a certificate that can be used only for buying shoes. Nothing else. You can’t trade it or bargain with it for anything else: it’s got to go for shoes.
Well, that’s about the situation we put ourselves in when we vote for one of these special purpose local option sales taxes called SPLOST.
Instead of shoes, think about roads, sidewalks and even pedestrian crossings for areas that don’t even have pedestrians, across roads that don’t even have sidewalks, with an abundance of costly signs that identify the same road by multiple and confounding names of deceased politicians.
Instead of shoes for those who need shelter and food, think about our Fayette County schools and their need for money to pay teachers and operate schools. Using SPLOST money for that is not permitted.
SPLOSTs have many flaws, their inflexibility being readily apparent. In fact, when a project covered by a SPLOST proves to be more expensive than expected, unrealistic in light of changed conditions, or unwise, there will be politicians who will argue, by golly, the people voted for this and they’re going to get it no matter what.
In their design, SPLOSTs are the result of bargains and compromises designed to woo different segments of the electorate asked to approve them, spreading projects among all the schools, to use public schools as an example, when in fact some have little need of capital improvements compared with others.
Essentially, SPLOSTs are a way for wimpy politicians to raise taxes without taking the responsibility for doing it.
Taxes should be used for the services that we, as citizens, need collectively. As our needs increase, it is normal taxes might go up. You can explain that to intelligent people and they will understand.
Is there such a shortage of intelligent people that politicians are afraid of doing what’s right? Is there such a shortage of courage among politicians that they are afraid of doing what’s right? Are our politicians unable to speak up and convincingly explain what’s right?
We, as citizens, do not have access to all the detailed information our elected officials do. We are not exposed to the studies and presentations that financial experts, engineers, and others make to our elected officials.
For instance, how would I know how much traffic relief some interstate project might bring? How would I know that the cost estimate for it is realistic? How would I know it is the best alternative, and cost effective? Please don’t ask me, as I have to trust a whole slew of engineers and accountants on that, and not only have I never talked with them, I don’t even know who they are.
Not only do we, as citizens, not have access to the proper information, we also do not have the training and experience to fully understand it, and we don’t have the time to try either. So every SPLOST vote becomes a matter of trust: do we trust the politicians who recommend the SPLOST?
The willingness to tax ourselves for something worthwhile is there. But that has been exploited through the SPLOST process.
Here, in Fayette County, we have seen a road SPLOST project, seemingly based on growth projections that didn’t turn out as expected, defended on the ground that, hey, the people voted for it and they’re stuck with it. A vote of confidence for our elected officials displayed through our SPLOST approval has turned into inflexible dogma.
We’ve seen that with our school board.
The school board’s budget currently looks like a train wreck in progress; we have an excess of school buildings that are expensive to maintain, and difficulty paying our teachers, and yet the school board is currently raking in SPLOST money to buy school buses and redeem (with what must be a substantial penalty) outstanding school bonds that should be considered the equivalent of house mortgages to be repaid gradually as we use the buildings.
I have many times publicly explained for the benefit of the school board, whose members might be expected to read the local newspaper in which they advertise their candidacy, that there is wisdom in structuring payments for buildings so they are made over the expected life of the buildings.
This way, it’s the taxpayers who use the buildings who pay for it, rather than the early pioneers who are otherwise forced to sacrifice needlessly.
By the way, the financing of the current Fayette courthouse and jail was made to fit that “pay as you use” concept, and we’ve had no political trauma over that. (Give Harold Bost and Greg Dunn some credit for that.)
“Pay before you use” is a dumb idea, unfair to current taxpayers. “Pay after you use,” as with improperly funded defined benefit pension plans, is unsound (to say the least).
I am not a political junkie who knows everything that’s going on in the county, but I understand our Fayette school board is trying to extend its current SPLOST for another five years by scheduling another vote in the fall, with the proceeds to go mostly for pre-funding bond repayments and buildings, which we need about as much as a homeless, hungry person needs fancy new shoes.
What we need from our politicians is a firmer backbone, not hiding behind SPLOST votes.
A tax is justified only when it’s affordable and the people get something essential or really worthwhile for it. It’s up to the politicians to study the situation, with the assistance of experts as necessary, to come to the right conclusion without posturing or drama, to properly explain the situation to the people, to vote their conscience using their God-given brain, and bravely face the consequences later.
When John F. Kennedy wrote his book “Profiles in Courage,” featuring historical political figures who had been willing to put their country above their political career, he described the kind of people we should want for public office.
Nobody should ever raise taxes for the fun of it. That includes us, the voters. We should not vote for SPLOSTs except in the most unusual circumstances. We should hardly ever be exposed to SPLOSTs.
Let the politicians do the work we elect them for. Taxes don’t go up in the abstract: usually it’s to pay for something. Let our elected officials do the studying, the explaining and justifying, and finally the voting. That’s what we elect them for.
[A resident of Fayette County, Claude Y. Paquin is a retired lawyer and actuary who first came to the attention of Fayette citizens interested in public education when, on July 27, 2000, at the invitation of the school superintendent, he made a public presentation providing a scholarly explanation of the financing options then available to the school system beyond the SPLOST advocated by Janet Smola and a coterie of her supporters.]