Since the state Legislature approved letting citizens vote on a one-penny regional transportation tax next year, the concept has been opposed by members of the Georgia tea party movement.
Tea party officials say they distrust a regional tax and regional system, fearing it might displace local government. They also oppose using the tax to build transit projects that won’t support themselves entirely through the fare box, which in effect means they oppose all transit systems anywhere in the region. But most of all, as tea party coordinator Debbie Dooley acknowledges, the group intends to fight the regional tax “as a matter of principle,” because it is a tax.
“We’re going to do a lot of the same things we did to defeat the trauma care tax,” Dooley said. “We’re going to use social media to get the word out, and we’re going to raise money to run radio ads. We spent no money on the trauma-care tax.”
I understand the role they’re trying to play. It is healthy and necessary to have citizens who are willing to challenge government spending plans. That’s essential if self-government is to work, and to the extent that they perform that function, the tea party and its members are to be commended.
However, it’s one thing to ask tough questions and demand answers about a proposed tax. That’s good citizenship. But it’s something else to oppose a tax regardless of how those questions are answered, and regardless of the circumstances. That is a long-term strategy for failure.
Good citizenship requires that the questions go deeper than “Is it a tax?”, with all taxes rejected “as a matter of principle.” We have to ask: Is it a necessary tax? Will it be used for the purpose claimed? Do we have viable alternatives to the tax? What are the consequences of rejecting the tax?
What are its costs? What are its benefits?
Georgia ranks 49th in the country in per-capita spending on transportation. Look around you: Is Georgia 49th in the country in transportation needs? Have we matched needs with resources?
As civic journalist Maria Saporta recently noted, Georgia also spends a whopping 63 cents per capita on public transit each year, lower than any state in the country other than Idaho, Wyoming and Montana.
Again, look around you. Metro Atlanta is not Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. Those three sprawling Western states, with hundreds of thousands of square miles of sagebrush, prairie and mountains, have a combined population equal to that of Cobb, Gwinnett, DeKalb and Fulton counties.
They literally have twice as many beef cattle as people. They probably put in more miles on the saddle of a horse each year than they do in riding mass transit.
Our situation is not theirs.
If metro Atlanta is to prosper, we have to be willing to invest in our future, just as earlier generations did in building the railroads, the interstates, MARTA and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. And somehow, we have to generate billions of dollars in revenue to make that investment.
It’s not going to come from the federal government. And state “leaders” have made it clear that they lack the guts to increase transportation revenue on their own. Even this baby step of allowing voters to make the decision on their own took years of arm-twisting and begging.
The original tea party colonists opposed taxation without representation, not taxation itself. The regional transportation tax takes it a step further and gives voters the power to tax themselves directly, rather than through elected officials.
So look at what happens if you say yes, and look at what happens if you say no, and decide accordingly.