Talk of the Town - Taxpayer abuse July 22 2000

State Supremes OK taxpayer beating

Even plain-as-day statutory language isn't enough to keep government's grubby mitts out of the people's pockets. That's the lesson of an inexplicable recent decision by the Georgia Supreme Court, which ruled this month that Carroll County could continue to impose a special 1 percent sales tax despite having already collected the $34 million authorized by voters.

In November of 1993, Carroll residents approved a referendum allowing for a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or SPLOST. The measure earmarked the revenue for roadwork and facilities improvements.

The referendum was also specific regarding the amount of money voters would allow government to collect, asking citizens to approve the tax "for the raising of not more than $34 million for a period of time not to exceed" four years for some enumerated purposes and five for others.

You don't have to be a lawyer or an English professor to see that the referendum contains two limiting devices, one based on revenue, another based on time. Either one, once met, should have been sufficient to stop the money flow.

Only in government could such plain language be so misinterpreted. I mean, has anyone on the high court ever bought a new car? Would they consider their auto warranties valid for seven years or 70,000 miles, whichever comes last?

Outrageous but predictable things happen, however, when government finds itself face-to-face with legal limits. In this case, like so many others, the government chose to ignore the limit and go merrily along, collecting an extra $9 million.

What Carroll County didn't count on was someone objecting to its shameful tax overcharge in court.

Lawrence Shadix did exactly that, suing the county in a vain effort to cut off the revenue spigot at $34 million. For Shadix, there was — and is — much more than a penny-a-dollar tax at stake. A livestock farmer and candidate for commission chair, he was on the board when the referendum passed in 1993.

"I considered that ballot a covenant between the Board of Commissioners and the voters," Shadix explains. To win public support for the SPLOST, Shadix and his colleagues vowed to roll back property tax rates and collect no more than $34 million in new revenue. Commissioners did cut the millage rate, but they did not keep their word on collections.

When the tax take eclipsed $34 million in late 1998, Shadix was off the board, having left to run unsuccessfully for commission chair in 1996. Yet, he still considered his credibility on the line. He had promised to take "no more than $34 million" in 1993, and he was livid that the county had, in essence, made a liar of him. "When I get to talking about it," says Shadix, "I get kindly fed up."

A Supreme Court minority understood his outrage. In her dissent, Justice Leah Ward Sears asked the essential question this way: "If the [SPLOST] was intended to exist for five years regardless of how much revenue was raised, then why did the referendum state that the tax was to be imposed 'for the raising of not more than $34 million?'"

A good question, yes, but not the one asked by the big-government crusaders at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Their story was as far off the mark as the decision itself. Under a headline describing the court's action as a "tax bonus" for counties rather than, say, a "tax rip-off " for citizens, the AJC said "the problem" was not taxpayers being taken, but county officials being hemmed in by voter-approved spending plans. Nothing like a little democracy to ruin an elitist's day, I guess.

The paper all but wept for officials facing a similar situation in Cherokee County, where coffers are jammed with road money but the county most wants a jail. "We've got a contractor who wants to break ground" on the jail, Cherokee Chairwoman Emily Lemcke told the AJC, "and we can't let him do it." (Sniff, sniff.)

Given the state Supreme Court's damn-the-facts decision in the Carroll case, Lemcke would be a fool to let mere voters get in the way. She can fire up the bulldozers tomorrow and count on the high court to keep the rabble in its place.

Contact Luke Boggs at lukeboggs@hotmail.com

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