Georgia SPLOST
Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST)

That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen

Local governments tout the benefits of SPLOST projects. What are seen are the benefits that those projects provide. What is not seen are the benefits that the money spent on that project might have provided had it been spent differently. Frederic Bastiat pointed this out 160 years ago in his essay That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen from 1850. Click here to read his famous essay.

What does one penny mean?

SPLOST initiatives are often sold to the public on the basis that it is just one penny, but those pennies add up. The typical family will pay several hundred dollars of tax over the course of a SPLOST. The accompanying table shows how much tax will be paid over the course of a SPLOST based upon monthly household spending. We provide this table to help voters make better informed decisions.
If you spend per monthYou will pay this much over
1 Year2 Years5 Years
$1,000$120$240$600
$1,200$144$288$720
$1,400$168$336$840
$1,600$192$384$960
$1,800$216$432$1,080
$2,000$240$480$1,200
$2,200$264$528$1,320
$2,400$288$576$1,440
$2,600$312$624$1,560
$2,800$336$672$1,680
$3,000$360$722$1,800
$3,500$420$820$2,100
$4,000$480$960$2,400

Important Dates

DateCountyDescription
November 2, 2010BibbSPLOST referendums held during the General Election
Cherokee
Clarke
Dougherty
September 17, 2010AllAdvanced voting begins for the General Election.
Our mission is to provide voters with information about SPLOST referenda in their county and to change state law to maximize voter and taxpayer control over the selection of SPLOST projects. Consistent with this mission and our below stated beliefs we strive to provide the voters with information about and analysis of the individual projects included in SPLOST referenda in their county. In our analysis some of the things that we look at are:
  • Cost effectiveness
  • Number of people served
  • Past performance
  • Mandates
  • Other alternatives
While, as a result of our analysis, we do take positions on individual projects and SPLOST referendums as a whole we also present to the reader the information that we used to make those judgements so that they can decide for themself whether or not to support the SPLOST project and referendum as a whole.



We believe that a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) can provide an excellent means of financing projects that have broad community support. It allows the citizens to authorize and fund specific projects without giving their elected officials a blanck checkbook. Another appealing feature of a SPLOST is that once the project(s) are paid for it goes away and the taxpayers are not left with a permanent tax. This is the idea and we agree with that idea.

In practice the SPLOSTs combine many projects into one referendum. Often many of the projects do not enjoy broad community support but are included in the list as a favor to certain special interests. The voters often have to vote for five or ten projects that they oppose inorder to pass the two or three that they strongly support. Another probelem with current practice is that SPLOST referendums are often held concurrent with elections with low expected voter turnout and the special interests promoting the SPLOST can have a greater effect on the referendum.

State laws can be changed or passed to correct these deficiencies in SPLOST practice. In the mean time voters can reject these bad practices by voting agains SPLOST referendums that combine many projects into one referendum or that are held consurrent with special or low turnout elections.
  • SPLOST referendums should be held concurrent with general elections when there is the largest voter turnout.
  • SPLOST projects should be individually voted upon and approved or rejected by the voters in the general election.
  • SPLOST projects should be specific enough that the voter can know what they are approving or rejecting.
  • SPLOST projects that materially change whether in cost or scope should be brought back before the voters for approval.
  • SPLOST programs should be limited in duration to no more than six years to ensure that the people that approved the projects as voters are still around to pay for it as taxpayers.

LEGISLATIVE AND JUDICIAL ASPECTS OF GEORGIA’S SPLOST LAW

LOCAL OPTION SALES TAXES

In addition to the 4% sales tax collected by the State of Georgia, three other sales taxes may be collected at the county level. The first of these is the Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) dating from 1978, the revenue from which is allocated between a county and the municipalities located therein. This was followed in 1985 by the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST), designed to assist counties in fulfilling their obligations as legal extensions of the State. Finally, the Educational Local Option Sales Tax (ELOST), operating as a variation of SPLOST, extended this method of funding to county and independent school districts in 1997, though control of the levy resides with the county government.

LEGAL AUTHORIZATION OF SPLOST LEVIES

SPLOST levies are authorized under the “special districts” provision of the Constitution of the State of Georgia (see Article IX, Section II, Paragraph VI). The SPLOST legislation itself is found in the Official Code of Georgia Annotated (see Title 48, Chapter 8, Article 3, Part 1, commonly referred to as section 48-8-110 et seq.). As indicated above, Georgia’s original SPLOST law dates from 1985. Over the last quarter of a century, though, that legislation has been amended any number of times. Rather than take readers through the myriad changes and additions that have been made to the law, the pertinent aspects of the legislation are summarized below.

EXTENT AND CONTROL OF SPLOST LEVIES

At first, the SPLOST law pertained only to projects undertaken by county governments in their capacities as legal extensions of the State, such as the construction of courthouses and jails. “Qualified” municipalities followed, becoming eligible to receive funding through SPLOST levies in 2004. A municipality is considered to be qualified if it offers any three of the twelve services specified in the law, such as fire protection and solid waste management, either directly or by contract. It is important to note that SPLOST levies are enacted countywide by county governments; they cannot be levied by school districts, which lack the authority to levy taxes, or municipalities. Unlike Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) levies, SPLOST levies are not joint county-municipal levies. Insofar as a SPLOST is concerned, it is only counties that can constitute “special districts” in a legal sense. Also, contrary to the state sales tax, SPLOST levies are applicable to food and beverage purchases.

SPLOST RESOLUTIONS

In order to implement a SPLOST levy, state law requires approval of a resolution establishing the levy via a countywide referendum. The levy can only be for specified capital improvement projects and must include a defined end date. By law, maintenance and operations expenses cannot be paid through SPLOST funding, nor can any other county or municipal facilities or services. The resolution must include a list of the county and municipal projects for which the levy is to be used, the estimated cost of each project, and (normally) the time period of the levy stated in either calendar years or calendar quarters. If the resolution calls for the issuance of general obligation debt in the form of bonds, it must also include the principal amount of the debt, the purpose for which the debt is being issued, the identity of the local government issuing the debt, the maximum interest rate or rates applicable to the debt, and the amount of principal to be paid during each year over the life of the debt.

SPLOST AND GENERAL OBLIGATION DEBT

Counties and qualified municipalities may use SPLOST revenues to retire existing general obligation debt. They may also issue general obligation debt in conjunction with SPLOST levies if that debt is used for the purposes of those capital projects specified in the SPLOST resolution. However, if general obligation debt is issued in this manner, a separate ballot resolution permitting such debt must also be approved via a countywide referendum.

DURATION OF SPLOST LEVIES

The duration of a specific SPLOST levy can vary according to a number of factors. The original iteration of the law, applicable to county governments only, limited collection of SPLOST taxes to a period of four years. Later, that duration was extended to five years.

When municipal governments became eligible for SPLOST funding, two other possibilities emerged. The duration of the levy would be five years under the three conditions that the county and its qualified municipalities did not enter into an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) concerning the allocation of the revenue generated by the levy, a “Level One” project was included, defined as a project intended to benefit the county acting in its capacity as a legal extension of the State of Georgia, and the estimated costs of all Level One projects was less than 24 months of anticipated revenues; the duration of the levy would be six years if the estimated costs of all Level One projects was equal or more than 24 months of anticipated revenues.

Consolidated city-county governments form yet another special case. If general obligation debt is to be issued in conjunction with the imposition of the tax, consolidated city-county governments need only to specify the maximum dollar amount to be raised by the SPLOST levy. No maximum duration for the levy, either in terms of calendar years or calendar quarters, need be specified.

ALLOCATION OF SPLOST REVENUES

Just as is the case with state sales tax levies, the Georgia Department of Revenue collects SPLOST levies. The Department of Revenue retains 1% of the revenue collected to defray its expenses. The remainder of the revenue collected is allocated among a county and its qualified municipalities according to either of two methods; by an intergovernmental agreement reached by the county and those municipalities or, absent such an intergovernmental agreement, by a population-based formula.

LEGAL INTERPRETATIONS OF THE SPLOST LAW

The Georgia Attorney General’s office issued an unofficial opinion in 1990 (U90-18) that said the list of projects that appears on a SPLOST resolution need not give the voters a high level of specificity, as the statute governing SPLOST resolution does not require it . According to the unofficial opinion, “There is no necessity that the description of the purpose or purposes for the tax be in exacting detail. Rather . . . the description and the purposes must be only so specific as to place the electorate on fair notice of the projects to which the tax will be devoted.” Merely noting the types of projects to be funded, assuming that they are in accord with the types of projects specified by state Code, is sufficient.

In September 1992, the Georgia Supreme Court decided the landmark case Dickey et al v. Storey et al. The Court ruled that the Floyd County Board of Commissioners erred by deviating from the specific list of projects included in the SPLOST resolution and by abandoning projects before their completions. According to the official opinion, “Construing these Code sections, we hold that the Board is not authorized to use proceeds from the SPLOST tax for a purpose entirely different from that contained in the SPLOST budget and account reports. We further hold that the Board is bound by the SPLOST budget and account reports to complete all projects listed therein unless circumstances arise which dictate that projects which initially seemed feasible are no longer so. In this regard the governing authority has discretion to make adjustments in the plans for these projects, but may not abandon the projects altogether.” The definition of “feasible” is conspicuous by its absence in the state law governing SPLOST and therefore remains open to interpretation. Even so, the Court’s decision clearly requires some condition outside the control of the county or municipality to render a project infeasible.

The Georgia Attorney General’s office issued an official opinion in March 1997 (97-7) concerning the ELOST variation of SPLOST. At issue was the definition of “capital outlay projects for educational purposes.” The Attorney General opined that expenditures for things such as school buses and equipment that have an extended useful life, and not just school buildings, did indeed qualify for ELSOT funding. According to the official opinion, “Therefore the term ‘capital outlay projects’ as used in the educational sales tax purpose amendment should be read as well to refer to major, permanent, or long-lived improvements or betterments, such as would be properly chargeable to a capital asset account and as distinguished from current expenditures and ordinary maintenance expenses.” Even so, such expenditures could only be paid through ELOST revenues directly and not through the issuance of general obligation debt.

Later that same year, in October 1997, the Attorney General’s office issued another official opinion (97-30) concerning ELOST. According to the official opinion, “. . . a referendum is required before a school board may borrow money for a term longer than twelve calendar months even if the borrowing is to be repaid from expected STEP collections. It is also my opinion, however, that a school may, without such referendum, engage in certain short-term borrowing for less than twelve calendar months, against the expectation of receipt of STEP collections, subject to certain constitutional and statutory constraints.” It appears that STEP is an acronym for “special purpose local option sales tax for educational purposes,” a precursor to the current ELOST terminology.

In May 2001, the Attorney General’s office issued a third official opinion dealing with ELOST and by extension SPLOST (2001-3). According to the official opinion, “Under the ‘interest follows principal’ rule, interest earned on public funds is an incident of principal and becomes a part of the account fund. . . Consequently, interest earned on educational taxes and on special county taxes becomes part of the tax proceeds in the account fund, which fund is required to be used exclusively for the purposes or purposes specified in the resolution or ordinance calling for the imposition of the respective tax.” Thus, any interest earned on ELOST or SPLOS tax revenues is considered to be the same as the revenue generated by the tax itself and may not be used for other, unrelated purposes.

Finally, the Attorney General’s office issued another official opinion (2007-5) in October 2007 concerning the interest earned on SPLOST revenue. According to the official opinion, “I have previously opined that the statuary restrictions . . . require that all accrued interest on the separately maintained SPLOST account also be used exclusively for the approved projects and likewise kept in the separate account maintained for SPLOST revenues. . . The plain language of the statute as well as prior construction of statutory language regarding the use of SPLOST funds requires that the SPLOST funds be kept in an account separate from other count funds and withdrawn only for the payment of expenses incurred with regard to the projects approved in the resolution or ordinance calling for the imposition for the tax.

In addition to the Dickey v. Storey decision noted above, other Georgia Supreme Court case law has bearing on the implementation of ELOST and SPLOST. For example, see Haugen v. Henry County (2004), a decision that says an “excess” of SPLOST funds cannot be declared until all projects identified in the SPLOST resolution have been completed, and Johnston v. Thompson (2006), a decision that that says counties cannot use SPLOST levies intended to fund school system-wide technology to fund the purchase of laptop computers for students.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Though care has been taken to be accurate, the information provided above is neither comprehensive nor exhaustive. Those readers desiring further information concerning the various qualifications, requirements, and technicalities of SPLOST levies are referred to publications from the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (2008) and the Georgia Municipal Association (2004).

UNDER CONSTRUCTION

SPLOST started out as a good concept with good intentions. The idea was that voters could vote to tax themselves for special projects and then have the tax go away once the project was paid for. Over the years SPLOSTs have morphed into a kind of permanent tax where as soon as an old SPLOST has expired a new SPLOST replaces it. To ensure that the tax is continued the SPLOST referendums are often held during special elections or during primaries where there is lower voter turnout and special interests can be marshalled to turn out and ensure that the referendum is passed.

SPLOST projects have evolved from readily identifiable projects to nebulous projects with subprojects to be defined at a later date by the governing authorities. When voters vote on these nebulous projects they really can't know what they are voting for or against.

The evolution of SPLOST practice means that the governing laws need to be tweaked to return the SPLOST back to its original concept. The following changes are needed to return control back to the voters and taxpayers.

IReferendums only held during General Elections where the office of Governor or President is on the ballot.Holding referendums during the general election ensures that the greatest number of voters vote on the referendum.
IIMultiple votes. One for the overall SPLOST including a dollar cap. This vote must list the total amount to be collected and the approximate time required to collect that amount. This amount may not be more than what can be collected in 6 years. The additional votes is for the individual projects. To be approved the overall SPLOST and the individual projects must each receive more than 50% of the vote.Requiring a vote on the overall size of the SPLOST allows the voter to decide whether or not they are willing to be taxed for the duration required to collect the full amount of the proposed SPLOST. Requiring a majority vote for each of the projects ensures that the projects have widespread support within the community.
IIIVoters may not approve more than 6 years worth of projects in any election. The overall SPLOST vote must list a maximum amount to be collected.Restricting the number of years that an individual SPLOST my run prevents one set of voters from burdening another set of taxpayers years down the road. A secondary benefit is that the needs and priorities of the voters at the time of the referendum may not be the needs and priorities of the taxpayers years later.
IVThe vote for the individual project must list the project and the projected cost which is the maximum that can be spent on that project without an additional vote.
VIn the event that the total cost of the individual projects receiving majority votes is greater than the amount presented in the overall SPLOST then the projects shall be approved beginning with the project receiving the most votes and proceeding until the total amount of the overall SPLOST is reached.
VIIf an approved project is later determined to cost more than the amount presented to voters in the referendum then the new cost estimate must be presented to voters in a new SPLOST election. Voters will have option of adding new SPLOST dollars, scaling back the project to fit the original cost estimate, or returning already collected SPLOST dollars to SPLOST pool for use with other voter approved SPLOST projects. Adding new SPLOST dollars to the project shuld require a majority vote of the voters. In the event that a majority of voters do not vote to add new SPLOST money to the project then of the remaining options the one receiving the most votes will determine result.Requiring projects to be voted upon again if the cost exceeds the cost in the amount in the referendum helps to prevent gaming of the system whereby a lowball estimate is made to get voter approval and then once the project is approved the true cost of the project comes out.
VIIProjects must identify specific items and may not specify sub projects to be determined at a later date.Requiring project to identify specific items rather than a spending category for the governing authority to decide how to spend at a later date prevents SPLOSTs from being used as a substitute for the general fund. It also protects the voters by preventing the governing authority from saying one thing in the time leading up to the referendum and then using the money for something else once the SPLOST is approved.
VIIIEliminate the requirement for revenue sharing between the county and its cities and municipalities.Forced revenue sharing between the County and its cities and municipalities leads to spending on the part of the cities and municipalities simply because the money is there rather than having to justify the spending to the voters.
UNDER CONSTRUCTION
Our goal is to be a source of information on SPLOST referendums in every county in Georgia. Please volunteer to help us compile information on your county's SPLOST. Contact us at
and we will get in touch with you. This project is a volunteer effort. Please include a daytime and evening phone number in your email so that we may more easily contact you.

Yard signs are available. See the list on the right for locations or contact us at

CountyLocationPrice
ClarkeClarke County Republican Party HeadquartersFree to Clarke County Residents, Donations appreciated
445 N. Milledge Ave, Athens

Contribute Time

We need volunteers to help us collect information on SPLOST initiatives around the state and to organize and present that information including arguments for and against each of the projects in each SPLOST referundum. In addition we need volunteers in each of the counties to collect, organize and present information on past SPLOST initiatives in their county. We need help with:

  • Content - We need people to collect, organize, analyze, and write about the projects of the SPLOST initiatives around the state. These people shouls be local to each community with a SPLOST.
  • Fact Checking - We need people to check the work of those that gathered and organized the content to ensure that it is fairly represented.
  • Editing - We need people to edit the content of the various writers, making sure that it is in a consistent voice and style.
  • Graphics - We need someone to help make the site look better, help design materials such as yard signs, bumber stickers, and t-shirts.
If you would like to help us please email us at

and we will get in touch with you. This project is a volunteer effort. Please include a daytime and evening phone number in your email so that we may more easily contact you.

Spread the Word

Tell your friends and neighbors about this site. If you know people that would be willing to help us collect information concerning other SPLOST initiatives around the state please encourage them to get involved.

Contribute Money $$$

Like any other person or group we can always use more money but that is not what we are about. We will, in time, have a method for you to contribute money. In the mean time please help us spread the word of this website and help us find volunteers to report on SPLOST initiatives in their counties.