By Arielle Kass, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution #atlanta-ga
Earlier this year, some Gwinnett leaders felt urgency to put a transit referendum on the ballot this fall — only in part because they thought its best chance for passing was during a high-turnout presidential election.
With a special educational sales tax expiring in 2022, and another that funds county infrastructure expiring in 2023, county commissioners worried they’d have multiple tax issues on the same ballot if the transit vote didn’t appear this November.
That will happen anyway.
Both the school tax and the transit referendum will be in front of voters Nov. 3. County commissioners moved forward with the tax increase for expanded transit in late July even after the schools’ sales tax renewal was approved for the ballot in June. The tax votes come during one of the worst economies this side of the Great Depression.
Both measures are for a penny sales tax; the transit one would raise $12.2 billion over 30 years while the education one would collect $985 million over five years.
If approved, the education sales tax will go into effect in July 2022. The transit tax would begin April 21.
Charlotte Nash, chairman of the Gwinnett County commission, said neither the county nor the school system asked the other to postpone their vote. She said both groups wanted as many voters as possible to weigh in on the measures.
The long lead time is typical for the school district said Sloan Roach, a spokesperson for the Gwinnett Schools. The last special purpose local option sales tax for education was approved in November 2015 and took effect in July 2017.
Sean Murphy, chairman of the school tax renewal committee, said he hadn’t given much thought to whether the education tax would be alone on the ballot. With the coronavirus pandemic, he said, the needs of the school system are even greater than they had been in the past.
And Murphy said he thinks residents understand that a well-funded school system will help with the availability of jobs and other opportunities.
“I hope they don’t see the needs of the school system as a choice,” he said of voters.
If it comes down to a decision between two taxes, the education tax is likely to win people’s votes, said Ray Hill, a senior lecturer at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.
Hill said in the current economic climate, voters are less likely to approve a measure that would increase their taxes — especially considering many residents expect tax increases from local governments that need to make up for lost revenue.
“My instincts would tell me it’s probably not a good idea to have transportation on the same ballot as education,” he said. “It’s not really a choice between transportation and education, but it’s going to look like that.”
Hill said some voters in a recession may see expanding Gwinnett’s transit system as a luxury, while they look at education as a necessity. He said the effect of sharing the ballot will likely be marginal, but there may be one.
“It’s going to seem like a very distant and ephemeral benefit right now,” he said of the transit improvements.
Ben Ku, a county commissioner who expressed concern about the overlap earlier this year, said he had hoped to minimize the number of tax questions at once. But both education and transit expansion are important issues, he said.
Ku said Gwinnett residents have one of the lowest sales tax rates in the state, and he hopes voters will look at both proposals “under their own merit.”
But earlier this year, Commissioner Jace Brooks said he thought having multiple tax measures on the ballot at the same time would be a bad idea.
“Something’s going to go down,” Brooks said.
Nash said both measures “address very real needs in our community.”
“I am comfortable with the ability of voters to decide if the value of the investments that will be made in education and transit are worth voting in favor of each referendum,” she said. “And, ultimately, I respect that this decision is the right and responsibility of each voter.”
Gwinnett’s Chamber of Commerce has endorsed both tax issues.
Chamber President Nick Masino said he’s confident the education measure will pass, and thinks the transit tax will as well. His biggest concern, he said, is that voters won’t get to the end of a long ballot.
Fred Dawkins is trying his best to ensure they will. The chairman of the Gwinnett Transit Education Forum, Dawkins said he has a $200,000 budget to help people make informed decisions about transit, including letting them know that it’s on the ballot.
Tejas Kotak, chair of the Sierra Club’s RAIL committee, said educating voters will be important for the transit measure to succeed. In a difficult economic climate, with a transit proposal that will raise taxes and another tax measure on the ballot, letting people know how they will benefit is key, he said.
“Voters are intelligent,” he said. “They know what will be useful for them, useful for their communities.”